Now that many of us are home 24/7 staring at our walls, we might also be staring at our utility bills. It’s a good moment to make changes and save dollars – especially before the air conditioning and sprinklers get turned on. We talked to the Budget Mom, aka financial counselor and blogger Kumiko Love, and Glenn Rush, visual design manager for build.com, about energy conservation, energy efficiency and all the ways that we can save.
“This is a weird situation that we find ourselves in,” Love says, but it’s also “our chance to inspect our homes and what we have in our homes and make those decisions based on what we find.”
And a note about energy conservation vs. energy efficiency: Many of us might think that to save money, we need to spend money on more efficient systems and appliances; however, Love, who once challenged herself to spend only $50 a month on her apartment’s utility bills, recommends making the small changes first. Experiment, see if there are changes in your bill, and tweak as necessary.
Turn down the water heater
Your water heater accounts for 14% to 18% of your home’s energy costs, according to the Energy Department. Reduce the 140-degree default setting to 120 degrees to save as much as $61 per year, Love suggests. This move also can reduce mineral buildup in your pipes. Do take note, though, on whether your dishwasher has a heat booster. If not, the dishes might not get as clean with the water heater turned down. If anyone in the household has a suppressed immune system or chronic respiratory disease, 140 degrees might be safer, reports the Energy Department.
Use your dryer efficiently
Appliances such as washers, dryers and refrigerators make up about 9% of your energy bill, according to Consumer Reports. Make sure you’re not drying loads that are too big or too small; this will increase drying time. If your dryer has a cool-down feature, using the remaining heat to finish drying the load, use it. Some people have had luck with wool dryer balls as a tool to cut down drying time, too.
Even better, Rush suggests, “Take your clothes out of the washer and put them right on the line on the ‘solar dryer.’ ”
Check your windows
The best solution for drafty old windows is to replace them, but if that’s not an option, addressing drafts and using the right window treatments can help.
Take caulk to any gaps of less than one-quarter of an inch on windows as long as you’re only caulking the nonmovable parts such as around the frame and trim. The Energy Department estimates the cost of the caulk will be offset in a year by utility savings.
Make sure window treatments are ideal for the kind of light the window gets. Filtering curtains will allow light in, for example, so you can warm up a house in winter, while blackout curtains can keep a house cooler, blocking out the summer afternoon heat. These draperies can reduce heat gains by 33%, according to the Energy Department.
Other options include insulated cellular shades, which can reduce heat loss by 40% or more, and blinds, which work better at keeping summer sun out than reducing winter heat loss.
Use your ceiling fans
While air conditioning costs about 36 cents an hour, Love says, a ceiling fan costs only about a penny an hour. Fans don’t necessarily reduce the temperature of a room, but they can make you feel cooler, and they can reduce humidity. Turn down the AC (an ideal target is 78 degrees, Love says), and be sure to run the fan only when it’s actively cooling you off.
Upgrade your thermostat
While you’re thinking about AC, Rush recommends installing a programmable thermostat. “People think that if you set your AC at a more moderate temperature rather than running it at a comfortable temperature, you sacrifice personal comfort for money savings,” he explains. “It works,” but it’s better to be “programmatic,” he says. He’s partial to a Nest smart thermostat that connects with other products you might need such as security cameras and smoke alarms.
The Energy Department reports that setting any thermostats lower by 7 to 10 degrees for eight hours a day can save as much as 10% on heating and cooling a year; a programmable thermostat makes scheduling those changes easy. Some models connect to apps that can help you monitor energy usage before you get that utility bill, too.
Try a portable air conditioner
Rush recommends portable air conditioners. “These small, convenient AC units can either supplement or replace your existing system,” Rush says. “They cool one room at a time to save money on cooling the whole house.” Love says they work especially well if you’re in an apartment and can’t replace an old, inefficient air-conditioning system.
Switch out lightbulbs
What? You haven’t switched out for LEDs yet? LEDs consume the least amount of power and have the longest life span – as long as 25 years. If you’re still using incandescents, switching to LEDs can save up to $600 a year, according to the Energy Department. Use timers or motion controls for rooms you rarely use so the lights turn off automatically when you leave. Dimmer switches also are a good way to minimize the amount of energy a light uses, Rush says.
Turn off unused appliances
Unplugging appliances when they’re not in use can help save energy, but it’s also a lot of work. Instead, Rush says, “Consider leveraging power strips with on-off buttons to quickly control energy sucks.” These sucks, phantom loads, can save as much as $100 a year with a power strip when you turn it off when not in use, according to the Energy Department.
If your appliances are 7 to 10 years old, it might be time to see if they need replacing. The biggest bang for your buck will be found in refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and air conditioners. “Chores done by old appliances can now be done using much less water, less energy and even less cleaning detergent,” Rush says. Look for Energy Star stickers when shopping, and see whether your local utilities offer rebates. “A lot of people think, ‘I still have an appliance that works, and I don’t need to replace it,’ ” Love says. “But if your stove was built in the ’80s, it doesn’t have the (energy-saving) technology that it does today.”
Stick to your budget
It’s never worth going into debt to save money on utility bills. “The worst thing … is going out and spending a ton of money to save money on your utility bills,” Love says. “Do what you can do realistically in the budget you do have. If replacing lightbulbs is a goal, set up a small savings and save up for that. Do the things we can do for free first, and then do the higher-end things over a period of time.”
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