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Wouldn’t it be nice to open your mailbox and never see another bill in it? It’s wishful thinking I guess. But when you’re going over your expenses, some things seem easier to reduce than others. We can choose to cut down on cable TV, shop smarter for groceries, or get take-out food a few times less per month. Our utility bills don’t seem as flexible. But here I’ll show that it’s really an accumulation of several realistic changes we can all make that can significantly lower energy costs.
You’ll see a lot of electrical and home energy products rated with an “Energy Star” rating. Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Energy Star program evaluates household products and appliances and will only place the Energy Star seal on them if they pass rigorous efficiency tests. Energy Star also extends into home construction, meaning that a new home can also earn an Energy Star seal.
According to Energy Star, the average American household spends around $2,060 per year on utility costs. They estimated the breakdown in these six areas by the percentage of your total cost:
- Heating: 29%
- Electronics: 21%
- Cooling: 13%
- Water heating: 13%
- Appliances: 12%
- Lighting: 12%
Our home’s energy costs were higher than Energy Star’s estimate, and yours may be higher or lower, but the usage percentages in your home should be close to these. Here, we’ll list each area, and discuss where we can lower our monthly bill. Remember, saving significantly on your energy costs happen when you make several changes, and the combined result is what saves money.
In some cases, we may have to spend a little to save a lot, but there are plenty of low cost or no cost adjustments that will make a real difference for us.
Changing the air filter in your furnace regularly is a no-brainer because:
- It has a huge effect on the efficiency of your heating and cooling (and therefore your bills).
- They’re cheap. And for something so cheap, why leave an old filter in there when it’s making your expensive furnace work harder. Spending a small amount saves a larger amount on energy costs and repairs.
Changing my furnace filter was always something I’d forget to do. It’s recommended to change your filter once a month or at least once per quarter. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve gone up to a year before I remembered to change ours!
But I found one company that will ship them to you on whatever schedule you want.The company, Cleaner Filters will ship them right to your door. Since these are cheap and so important to change regularly, I set it up to ship to me every other month. I’ve had about 3 shipped so far, and the ones I pull out are pretty filthy.
If you’re considering ordering them, it’s easy to check the filter size. It should be visible just by looking at your furnace. Ours is 20x20x1.
If you need to think to figure out the last time you changed your air filter then it’s definitely time to change it.
Another thing that can be a huge help to lower your heating (and cooling) bills is to install a programmable thermostat. Adjusting the inside temperature just a few degrees when you’re not home will have a big impact over time.
We installed the Nest thermostat because it’s not only programmable but it can actually “learn” your schedule and adjust to it.
It has some cool features like remote access, so you can adjust it from your smartphone. It also has an app that generates usage info so you can see over time exactly how much you’re saving. And if you have a smart home system, like the Samsung Smart Things system, you can actually sit on your couch and say something like, “Lower the temperature three degrees”. How cool is that?
There’s usually a rebate offered from your utility company to install programmable thermostats, so the rebate combined with the energy savings would pay for the Nest in less than a year, then it’s money in your pocket.
I used to think saving electricity just involved shutting off lights. I guess I’m not the brightest bulb in the box because I didn’t realize until recently how much our electric bill is affected by things that are turned off but still plugged in. Even if something like a lamp is turned off, it’s still pulling enough electricity, that over the course of a year can make a significant difference in your electric bill. Think of all the plugged-in devices around your house. This is why electronics comes in 2nd right behind heating in your overall costs.
For things like lamps, TV’s, kitchen appliances, game consoles and tools, they’re really only in use a tiny percentage of the time they’re plugged in. So over the course of a year, you’re paying a huge percentage more than if you only plug the appliance in when you need it.
If you want to get an idea of exactly what a particular device costs you to be plugged in constantly, you can use an electricity monitor. To use it, you’d just plug your appliance into the usage monitor, then plug the monitor into a power outlet. This magical little device will immediately tell you exactly what it costs you to run per week, per month or for the entire year.
This meter goes for $17.99 and is one of the best rated available. Knowledge is power when it comes to saving money. And being able to see how much you’ll save is a fantastic motivator to adjust your habits. Your lower energy bill will justify the cost, and once you become familiar with the devices around your own house, it’s a great tool to hand over to a family member. Get them on board too!
So, try unplugging things like lamps, TV’s, kitchen appliances, game consoles, and tools when they’re not in use and you should see about a 10% decrease in your usage. For things like an entertainment center, where you have a TV and three or four components plugged in, try using a power strip so you’ll only need to unplug one thing. Try doing this for a few months and you’ll see a noticeable decrease in your bill.
Remember, it’s the combination of a lot of small adjustments that will make a big dent in your bill.
As a society, we’ve become so accustomed to our indoor temperature maintained between 68 and 72 that we immediately flip on the air or the heat when the temperature varies a few degrees. There are a few things you can do in and around the house that will enable you to delay turning on the air conditioning.
Your home probably heats up on the east side in the morning, and on the west side in the afternoon. Do you have a lot of windows that receive direct heat? Some heat blocking shades or drapes may keep the temperature at a more livable level and enable you to delay turning on the air. You can also consider planting a shade tree outside the hottest corner of your home.
Changing the filter in your furnace every month, or at the minimum, every other month is just as critical for cooling as it is for heating. A dirty filter will slow down airflow and make the system work harder to keep you cool — wasting energy. A clean filter will also prevent dust and dirt from building up in the system — leading to expensive maintenance and/or early system failure.
It’s also advisable to have your air conditioner checked and tuned up before the cooling season. I’ve always had the attitude that “if it’s not broke, why spend money on it?” Then I learned how much a trained tech can do that the average homeowner can’t do.
Here’s what a trained HVAC tech would do to tune up your air conditioning unit:
- Clean evaporator and condenser air conditioning coils.Dirty coils reduce the system’s ability to cool your home and cause the system to run longer, increasing energy costs and reducing the life of the equipment.
- Check your system’s refrigerant level and adjust if necessary. Too much or too little refrigerant will make your system less efficient increasing energy costs and reducing the life of the equipment.
- Clean and adjust blower components to provide proper system airflow for greater comfort levels. Airflow problems can reduce your system’s efficiency by up to 15 percent.
- Tighten all electrical connections and measure voltage and current on motors. Faulty electrical connections can cause unsafe operation of your system and reduce the life of major components.
- Lubricate all moving parts.Parts that lack lubrication cause friction in motors and increases the amount of electricity you use.
- Check and inspect the condensate drain in your central air conditioner, furnace and/or heat pump (when in cooling mode). A plugged drain can cause water damage in the house and affect indoor humidity levels.
- Check controls of the system to ensure proper and safe operation. Check the starting cycle of the equipment to assure the system starts, operates, and shuts off properly.
4. Water Heating
Most people never check their water heater to see what the exact temperature setting is. It’s great to have a steamy shower and wash your dishes in scalding water, but keeping your water heater set at reasonable setting will cut your energy expense and also be plenty hot enough. The average household spends up to $600 a year on water heating so you can really save some money here. Energy.gov recommends lowering the temperature on your water heater to 120°F; for every 10ºF reduction in temperature, you can save from 3%–5% on your water heating costs.
Use cold water for most laundry loads – Your clothes won’t disintegrate if you wash them in cold water. If something’s especially dirty that needs warm or hot water, go for it. But I’ve used cold water almost exclusively and have no complaints. Also, pre-soaking can help dislodge stains.
Use the dishwasher only when needed and at certain times – Dishwashers use plenty of hot water, but there are a few things you can do to minimize the cost to run them. One obviously, is not to use it with only a few things in it. Try to rinse things and run it when you have a full load. Also, certain times of day or night are designated as “peak periods” where you’re charged more for the energy you use. Since a dishwasher cycle can run for an hour or more, using it at non-peak hours – usually at night – can decrease your cost to run it.
Install low-flow fixtures. Federal regulations now require new showerheads and faucets to have low flow rates, but if you have an older fixture it’s worth the small cost of upgrading it to a low-flow fixture. Showerheads and faucets that pre-date 1992 can use more than twice as much water as new ones. Upgrading to a low-flow fixture can save you 25%–60% of the water you use, and you probably won’t even notice the difference in your shower.
Older refrigerators are one of the biggest energy hogs. If yours is more than ten years old, there’s a chance it’s using double or even triple the energy that a new Energy Star rated refrigerator.uses. (You can calculate your savings with this refrigerator retirement savings calculator ) .
The recommended temperature for your refrigerator is 35°-38°F for the fresh food compartment and 0° F for separate freezers for long-term storage.
You can check the refrigerator temperature by placing an appliance thermometer in a glass of water in the center of the refrigerator. Read it after 24 hours. Check the freezer temperature by placing a thermometer between frozen packages. Read it after 24 hours.
Make sure your refrigerator door seals are airtight. You can test these by closing the door over a piece of paper or a dollar bill so it is half in and half out of the refrigerator. If you can pull the paper or bill out easily, the latch may need adjustment, the seal may need replacing, or if that’s not possible you may want to consider buying a new one.
Another thing that drives up a refrigerator’s energy usage is how many times a day it’s kept open. With several people in your house, your refrigerator is probably opened 30-40 times a day. Each time it has to work hard to cool back down. I know I sound like your mother here, but try to minimize the times you need to open the fridge by thinking about what you want before you open it.
Or when you bring groceries home, stack all the cold items next to the fridge before opening it. That way you’ll only need it open for a minute. And maybe once a week or so, clear old stuff out so it’ll be easier to find what you want.
If you’re shopping for a new dishwasher, definitely look for the Energy Star label to find one that uses less water and energy than required by federal standards. They’re required to use 4.25 gallons of water per cycle or less — older dishwashers purchased before 1994 use more than 10 gallons of water per cycle.
And check to see if your dishwasher has an internal heating element – most fairly new ones do – then you should be able to set your water heater temperature down to 120 degrees and still have it operate efficiently.
If your dishwasher has an air-dry setting, that will save you more than if you use the heat dry. If it doesn’t have an air-dry setting, you can always just leave the door slightly open once the cycle finishes.
We’ve all heard this before – that Compact Fluorescent bulbs use so much less energy. I admit I resisted buying these for a while because a two-pack of CFL bulbs is about $8 or $10 compared to about $5 for the old incandescent bulbs. But did you know that 90% of the energy from an old incandescent bulb is given off as heat? That’s just money up in smoke!
I was buying a two-pack of the old incandescent bulbs every few shopping trips because we had a burned-out bulb in a bedroom or hallway every few weeks. The newer CFL bulbs can last up to 12 years!
So even if you’re saving 50% on the old bulbs, if you’re buying them every few weeks, you’re coming out way ahead by spending a little more upfront and then never touching them again for the next twelve years! CFL bulbs use 70-90% less energy than the old incandescent bulbs so you should be able to save $50-$75 in energy costs. And add to that, the reduction in cost for all those bulbs you won’t be buying.
If you’re considering remodeling, or you have an especially dark room, consider adding a skylight. If you’ll be in the house for a few years, you’ll trade the expense of the installation for lower lighting costs and have a nice sun-filled room.
Whole House – Check to see if your state offers rebates to install high-efficiency equipment
If your HVAC appliances – your furnace, water heater and air conditioner are more than 10-12 years old, they’re on borrowed time. And the older the equipment, the less efficient and more expensive they are to run. Sure, nobody wants to shell out money to upgrade something that’s still working. But when they do eventually fail, you’ll be in a jam.
It’ll be either the hottest or the coldest period of the year. And when a repair person tells you that your furnace, your AC unit, or hot water heater is ready for the appliance graveyard, you’ll have to scramble to replace it. You won’t have time to shop around for rebates or discount programs, so you’ll shell out cash and probably won’t get the best deal.
You’ll do yourself a favor by checking with your energy supplier to see if they’re offering rebates or incentives to replace them. It’s a lot less stressful having a plan, knowing that you’re getting the best deal, and knowing that you won’t be suffering when they fail.
Here’s an example of what may be available in your area
Our state of New Jersey is offering a program called Save Green. The purpose of the program is to provide incentives to homeowners to upgrade their HVAC systems – the furnace, water heater and central air conditioner – to high-efficiency units. The point being, that high-efficiency equipment will draw less energy and you’ll save money.
The incentives to upgrade are almost too good to pass up. They offer an immediate $5000-dollar rebate, and a zero percent loan of up to $10,000 dollars, payable over ten years, added to your regular gas bill.
To take part in this incentive, the customer has to agree to replace all three units – the furnace, water heater and air conditioner because their aim is to increase the efficiency of your entire system. Only replacing one or two, and leaving a 15-year old unit to work with them detracts from the overall efficiency.
The way it works:
- You contact the company running the promotion – in our case, NJ Resources – and apply for the program, which takes a few minutes. Then they instruct you to get an estimate from a contractor of your choice who is participating in the program.
- Almost all contractors in the area are aware of the program and participate because it’s money in their pocket.
- The contractor comes out to your house and conducts an energy audit, checks your installed systems and then within a day or two, will provide you with a written estimate. (This is where I noticed a huge difference between two different contractors).
- Once you settle on a contract, you’ll receive the $5000 rebate which you then would hand over to the contractor.
- The remainder of the cost can be paid out of pocket or financed over 10 years at zero percent. To give you an idea of how that would affect your gas bill, $10,000 split into 120 payments would add $83 to your payment. This can be pre-paid.
The first estimate I got was from a company who had a huge presence in the area because of this program. I had seen multiple signs in front yards all over my neighborhood where they were doing current jobs. He came in and spent about 15 minutes checking the layout of the house and he opened the entrances to both attics and shined a flashlight into them. He advised me that the house would benefit from the program, told me I’d receive an estimate and then left.
My neighbor happened to go through this program a year earlier and recommended his contractor highly. His office was 45 minutes away, but I called anyway just to get a second estimate.
The second contractor proceeded to check every single vent, return, checked outside, went into the crawlspace, went in (not just poked a flashlight into) both my attics and then asked me to accompany him in the attic. In the attic, he pointed out several pieces of ductwork that were either sized or routed incorrectly and how he would correct them. He pointed out the inefficient insulation, and also pointed out places in the home that had cavities where cold air existed against bedroom walls. I was expecting 30 minutes at the most, but he was there a full 90 minutes!
So, my lesson was, don’t just go with the first contractor, or hire one because he happens to be doing a lot of jobs in your neighborhood. Get a few estimates.
Now, for the bottom line – my house at the time was about 18 years old, so all three units in my HVAC system were due to be replaced. He gave me three estimates, that ranged from $14,000 to $16,000. Basically, the good, better, best of equipment. The estimate included a new air conditioner, furnace, water heater, programmable thermostat, all labor, some new ductwork, and all new insulation in two attics.
He would also bring in another company that specializes in testing and sealing homes. The process took three days, where the first two were for the installation and testing of all the equipment, and on the third day, the sealing company spent the entire day gluing one-inch foam boards on every square inch of our crawlspace and every attic wall that faced an interior room. They insulated all pipes in vulnerable areas. And they replaced all insulation in two attics as well as several pieces of ductwork.
They should also perform a seal test in your home before doing any work. This will detect any leaks around windows, doors, attics or other vulnerable areas. They should perform the same test when their work is done.
Another reason you may want to look into upgrading your HVAC systems is if you’re considering selling the house within the next several years. If the major appliances have surpassed their useful life when you’re trying to sell, it’ll be a major disadvantage.
If you’d like to find out if there’s a similar program in your state, here’s an interactive map. Just click your state to check the available programs.
Don’t assume that you can’t have much of an impact on your utility bills. By making a number of small changes, you can reduce your utility bills by hundreds of dollars per year. First, evaluate the main components of your HVAC system. If they’re less than ten years old, you’ll probably want to make all the changes you can around the house to ensure they’re working at peak efficiency.
Things like ensuring you have adequate insulation, unplugging electrical devices, installing a smart thermostat and sealing and caulking air leaks. Remember, in this case, spending a little money can save a lot of money, So investing in things like caulk, pipe insulation, and a smart thermostat will more than pay for themselves during the first year.
When it comes to utilities, the accumulation of many small adjustments adds up to hundreds of dollars in savings. So, don’t assume you can’t reduce your energy costs.
Have you had an energy audit for your home, or have you made some changes that worked out well for you?