Man caulking a window

Low-Cost Tips For Reducing Energy Use at Home

To help us celebrate Earth Day, our friends at Consumers’ Checkbook offer some low-cost ways you can reduce energy use at home, because using less energy not only saves money, it helps the planet.

Cost-conscious parents have long attempted to advise their children about the connection between saving energy and saving money.

For example:

"Why is this light on?"

"Close the door. We're not paying to heat the whole neighborhood."

"You're cold? Put on a sweater."

Sound familiar?

Not only does wasting energy cost you money, it also has environmental costs. In fact, about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is from home energy use.

Sure, there are big-ticket items that could drastically reduce your energy use at home, but your parents were onto something with some of that conventional wisdom. Making simple repairs or improvements and changing wasteful habits can yield enormous energy savings for most households without a big up-front investment. So, before spending thousands of dollars on new windows, a furnace or a solar energy system, consider the following basic, low-cost fixes for common sources of waste.

First, a note about how we came up with our numbers. Most of our estimates of typical energy use and cost savings are for a sample Puget Sound area home: A two-story, 2,200-square-foot house plus unfinished basement, built in 1980,  with typical appliances, windows and heating and cooling systems. We based our calculations using the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Home Energy Saver Pro tool. Because every building is unique, and even small differences in features of various residences can significantly change how much energy each uses, our estimates won't apply exactly to your home. 

Sample Home Annual Energy Use:

  • Heating and cooling: $1,734 (69%)
  • Hot water: $253 (10%)
  • Large appliances: $262 (10%)
  • Tech and small appliances: $150 (6%)
  • Lighting: $120 (5%)
  • Total: $2,519

Because heating costs are, by far, the biggest source of home-energy expenses, our advice focuses mainly on cutting that consumption, but we offer other energy-saving tips, too.

Check For Leaks

  • Cost: $25-$1,500+, depending on scope of work and what you can do yourself.
  • Energy savings: $87-$347 per year.

Assess how your home passively wastes energy by looking for areas in outside walls, windows and doors that allow heated or cooled indoor air to escape.

Most homes have holes, cracks and gaps that let cold air in and warm air out in the winter — and do the reverse in the summer. One small leak might not seem like much, but the cumulative effect of several can add up to the equivalent of leaving open a small window. Finding and plugging leaks costs very little money yet yields significant savings.

Use caulk to seal any cracks or gaps measuring less than a 1/4-inch wide and use polyurethane foam sealant for larger ones.

To minimize leakage around doors and windows, install weatherstripping. Open-cell foams are inexpensive and relatively inefficient but easy to apply and suitable for low-traffic areas. Vinyl is more expensive and lasts longer. Metals last for years and provide a decorative element for older homes. Also, add sweeps to the bottoms of all exterior doors to seal gaps there.

Prevent drafts around outlets and light switches located inside exterior walls by adding insulating receptacle gaskets, which cost less than $5 each.

If you have window air conditioning units, remove them during the winter, or insulate them from the outside with an air conditioner cover ($20-$60). During summer, install units so they fit tightly within windows.

Combined, these measures can save 5% to 20% of your heating and cooling costs.

 

Deal With Ductwork

  • Cost: $30-$90 (it's an easy do-it-yourself job).
  • Energy savings: $85-$254 per year.

According to Energy Star, about 20% or the air that moves through heating ducts is lost through leaks. Check for holes or gaps in exposed ductwork in any unfinished attic, crawlspace and basement, and seal them with mastic tape or HVAC foil tape. Also seal gaps where ductwork connects to registers.

Insulate Poorly Located Pipes and Ducts

  • Cost: Less than $20 for materials to insulate pipes; $100-$400 to hire someone to insulate ductwork.
  • Energy savings: $10-$254 per year.

If you have a crawlspace or unheated basement, check whether any furnace ductwork or pipes that supply hot water run through it. Wrap pipes in foam insulating sleeves; ask HVAC contractors for advice on the best way to insulate ductwork.

If your ducts run through an uninsulated area, you'll likely save 5% to 15% of heating and cooling costs.

Fix Fireplace Flues

  • Cost: Plugs cost less than $50.
  • Energy savings: $8-$52 per year.

Chimneys are designed to pull smoke upward and out of homes. If the temperature outside is different than inside your house, this draft continues, pulling out air that you paid to heat or cool, and wasting 1% to 3% of your heating or cooling bills.

When you're not using a fireplace, make sure to tightly close its flue damper. Still, even closed flues are notoriously leaky. Seal yours completely with a chimney plug — basically a balloon that inflates to fill up the space between the firebox and the damper.

Dial Down the Thermostat

  • Cost: Free.
  • Energy savings: $277 per year.

This is an obvious strategy, and many of us refuse to leave our cozy-comfort zones, but you'll realize big-time savings if you can handle a change in climate. If you — or your cohabitants — can't bring yourselves to drop the temperature, at least use a programmable thermostat.

For our sample home, setting the thermostat at 68 degrees instead of 70 degrees during the winter, and 75 degrees instead of 73 degrees during summer saved 16% per year on heating and cooling costs.

Lose Inefficient Lighting

  • Cost: Nearly free, now that energy-efficient light bulbs sell for about the same prices as less-efficient incandescent models that remain on the market.
  • Energy savings: $42 per year.

Using efficient LED or CFL lights instead of incandescents will save an average U.S. household about 35% on lighting costs each year.

For most uses, you'll want bulb-shaped, A-type LEDs, but sometimes they don't cast light evenly in all directions, so look for omnidirectional bulbs for lamps or shaded light fixtures. Recessed light fixtures, also known as can lights, are best fitted with cone-shaped reflector bulbs that only cast light down.

Turn Out the Lights

  • Cost: Free, or $15-$25 for each occupancy sensor.
  • Energy savings: $6-$24 per year.

The basic solution to this energy-use problem is to turn out the lights when you are the last person to leave the room. If you just can't get into the habit, you can take a more modern approach. Install motion-detecting switches that automatically turn off lights when no one is in the room — or if you sit still for too long. Occupancy sensors reduce the amount of arm flapping you have to do to keep the lights on when you need them: They turn on lights when someone enters and then off again when they leave.

Pull Some Plugs

  • Cost: Free; or use smart power strips, which cost less than $25 each.
  • Energy savings: $15-$45 per year.

Most plugged-in devices consume electricity even when not in use. Our sample home's TVs, computers, chargers and other assorted tech and small appliances cost $150 per year to power. So, yank the cord to those electronics you rarely, if ever, use anymore. Check the settings for other tech to see if they have low-power standby options.

Another option is to buy smart power strips, which automatically cut off electricity to devices plugged into them if they haven't been used in a while, or allow you to do so remotely via Wi-Fi connection to your smartphone or computer.

Get Rid of Extra Fridges and Freezers

  • Cost: Free; some communities and utilities offer recycling incentives and/or free pickup.
  • Energy savings: $46 per year.

Many of us have extra refrigerators or freezers sitting in garages or basements to handle overflow items. While it's great to buy in bulk without having to play Tetris to fit everything into a single appliance, extra storage comes at a steep price — especially if your fridge or freezer annex is an old model: Ten-year-old fridges cost about $45 a year to run; 25-year-old models about $60 a year; and your parents' indestructible 40-year-old one can drain away more than $130 a year.

Make Your Water Heater Chill Out

  • Cost: Free.
  • Energy savings: $8-$13 per year.

Lowering your water heater's thermostat from 140 degrees to 120 degrees will cut its energy use by 3% to 5%. Although 120 degrees is hot enough to prevent bacterial growth, if someone in your household has a suppressed immune system or respiratory disease, keep it set at 140 to play it safe.

Keep Your Water Heater Cozy

  • Cost: $25-$40.
  • Energy savings: $25 per year.

Wrap your water heater in a fiberglass insulating blanket to save about 10% of its energy use. Skip doing this if your model was made in the last 10 years or so, as it likely was built with foam insulation; wrapping it won't provide much additional benefit. Not sure if you need additional insulation? If the outside of your heater feels warm to the touch, a fiberglass insulating blanket will benefit you.

 

Treat Your Windows Right

  • Cost: Free if you already have window treatments; $100-$400 per window for professionally installed blinds (be sure to shop around for the best price).
  • Energy savings: $8-$52 per year.

When it's warm outside, close curtains and blinds to reduce heat from the sun. When it's cold, open curtains on sun-facing windows for free warmth — but keep curtains closed to block drafts from windows that don't get rays. Thermal shades provide the most benefit.

Make sure curtains don't block HVAC vents.

 

Wash Clothes in Cold Water

  • Cost: Free.
  • Energy savings: $20-$30 per year.

According to Energy Star, as much as 90% of the energy used to wash clothes comes from heating water. In Consumer Reports' tests, cold water sufficiently cleans most loads.

Reduce Drying Times

  • Cost: Free.
  • Energy savings: $14 per year.

Use trial-and-error to figure out how long your model takes to dry loads so you don't run it longer than necessary. Don't do small loads, but don't overstuff it, either. If your dryer has a cool-down setting, enabling it will use remaining heat in the drum at the end of the cycle to finish drying clothes while expending very little energy. Before drying, use the highest spin setting on your washer to remove as much moisture as possible. By cutting drying times, you can likely save 20% of your appliance's energy usage.

Option B: Go old school and buy drying racks or an outdoor clothesline for free evaporation.

Do Dishes Wisely

  • Cost: Free.
  • Energy savings: $25-$35 per year.

Consumer Reports' tests indicate most newer dishwashers clean well if you skip a pre-rinse or scrub. Dishwashers also use less water than handwashing, which means your water heater uses less gas or electricity. Just scrape off leftovers and load it up.

After your dishwasher finishes a load, open its door. The remaining heat inside will speed evaporation, rather than consuming electricity to generate heat to do that job.

Fix Leaky Faucets

  • Cost: Free.
  • Energy savings: $25 per year.

Although you don't pay for it via monthly electric and gas bills, it takes a lot of energy to treat water and pump it to your home. The EPA estimates that running your faucet for five minutes uses about as much energy as keeping a 60-watt lightbulb burning for 14 hours. And if you paid to heat wasted water, you're buying more gas or electricity than necessary.

In addition to eliminating obvious and hidden leaks, other ideas include installing low-flow faucets or harvesting rain to use when you water your landscaping.

About Consumers' Checkbook

Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook and Checkbook.org are a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate and help consumers. Checkbook also evaluates local service providers — home improvement contractors, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, stores and more. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the companies it evaluates. BECU members can try Consumers' Checkbook for 30 days for free and can get 50% off their annual subscription.

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