Dan has been a licensed journey-level electrician for some 17 years. He has extensive experience in most areas of the electrical trade.
General Considerations for Energy Savings
Ways to save electricity at home—what a great topic in today's economic downturn, and something a great many people suddenly find themselves interested in. A few years ago my wife and I decided that we would stay in our current home indefinitely and I began a campaign to increase the energy efficiency of our home; herein lie the fruits of my research and actions. Not all these ideas will apply to everyone, certainly, but hopefully, you can find some tips you can use. Although the tips here are for a totally electric home (we have no gas, propane, or oil), most of these suggestions will work equally well for gas or oil furnaces or other gas appliances.
Our home was built in 1972 and is totally electric, with an "energy-efficient" placard near the front door. When it was built, it probably was considered the state of the art in energy savings, but times have changed and such savings are even more important and even easier to attain. New products have come about, new concepts such as Energy Star ratings have been developed, and the idea of energy savings and green buildings have caught on throughout the building industry.
Energy savings can be broken down into several categories:
- high-energy-use activities or equipment
- free or nearly free actions you might take
- smaller savings with smaller up-front costs
I will address the categories separately as I go through the appliances and functions in your house:
- Heating and cooling
- Large appliances
- The many little things that use electricity
1. Heating and Air Conditioning
Probably the largest single energy use in your home is for heating and air conditioning. My own home was built with radiant ceiling heat; while I appreciated the comfort, it was relatively expensive to operate, and I have added a heat pump for primary heat and cooling, keeping the ceiling heat only for emergencies.
Replacement of heating or air conditioning systems requires a high initial cost and expected results should be carefully evaluated. However, if a new system is in the works for you, be sure to check the SEER (energy efficiency ratings) and do some research as to what is recommended for your area. Consider how long you will be using the system. If you expect to move in a couple of years, replacing the system is probably not worth it, although it will certainly affect resale value.
Consider a new thermostat for your HVAC system. I recently purchased and installed a digital programmable thermostat for better control of my heat pump and am very pleased with it.
By far the quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to save money is the proper use of the thermostat: keeping the settings reasonable. While I realize that the term "reasonable" is subjective, turning the thermostat down (68–70 degrees) in winter and up (76–80 degrees) in summer can produce a lot of savings at no cost at all.
Open some doors and windows if the outdoor temperature happens to be more comfortable than the indoor one, open some doors and windows—you will be amazed at how much you can save with a few moments of effort. Adding a humidifier or dehumidifier can make a great deal of difference to your comfort in humid or dry climates and can protect your home and furniture from damage due to radical changes in humidity.
Check each door and window for air infiltration and caulk and weatherstrip accordingly. If necessary, consider purchasing new windows. In a recent remodel, I replaced 11 very poor-quality windows in an add-on room of my home with four high-quality ones; that room has gone from nearly uninhabitable in hot or cold weather to one we use constantly. Another option to stop window leakage is to purchase and install plastic over them; while not pretty, it certainly helps.
Check your attic for good insulation and ventilation. You should have 18" of insulation plus some type of ventilation. I have worked in an attic so hot that pipes had to be handled with leather gloves and then only for a few seconds at a time, and such heat will inevitably percolate down into your living space no matter how much insulation you have. My home has a powered exhaust fan that I check periodically for operation—it makes a world of difference in attic temperatures. Keep heating and air conditioning filters clean.
2. Home Appliances
The next largest users of energy in your home, with a large potential for energy savings, are the appliances: from your hot water heater, to dishwashers, to electric griddles.
Number one is probably the hot water tank that supplies most of your hot water; heating water is expensive whether it be gas or electric. An insulating blanket around the hot water tank is a must, because the heat that leaks out must not only be replaced in the tank but then must also be removed from your home when using the air conditioner. Keep that energy where you want it—inside the tank, not outside.
As with your HVAC system, it is probably not reasonable to replace your water heater with a new, more efficient one unless you need a replacement for some other reason; the cost is too high and the rate of return (ROR) is too low. If you do need a replacement, be sure to consider one with an Energy Star rating. Even though tankless hot water heaters eliminate the inevitable loss of heat from a large tank of hot water, I would not recommend them. Installation cost is very high and again the ROR is too low for most considerations.
Next on the list is laundry equipment. Wash in warm or cold water whenever possible; modern soaps are quite good at cleaning in cold water. If you haven't tried it, give it a go and see if works for you. Dryer vents need to be kept clean and unobstructed; many have such sharp bends in the flexible duct behind the dryer that they are nearly worthless and create a fire hazard as lint collects in them. Make sure the outdoor vent is not plugged with dirt, grass clippings, or even bird nests. Wash, and particularly, dry only full loads, and never use the dryer as a wrinkle remover. The clothes dryer has got to be the most expensive wrinkle remover in the world, in both investment and energy costs.
As with hot water heaters, it is probably not worthwhile to purchase a new washer or dryer unless a replacement is needed, but if you do buy one make sure it is an Energy Star machine. Also, put strong thought into a front-load washer: while considerably more expensive, they typically handle larger loads, save considerable water, and spin much faster, resulting in clothes that are that much closer to being dry when they are added to the dryer, providing one of the better ways to save electricity or gas.
Cooking equipment has a huge potential for energy savings. I often cook breakfast on an electric griddle; while the energy usage is probably higher than a single range burner, a grill or griddle is much larger and usually eliminates the use of the second burner. As much as possible I use a microwave oven; it is quicker and the energy savings are considerable compared to a range and especially an oven. Summertime will often find me outdoors on the barbecue; I enjoy it and it keeps the kitchen cool without using nearly as much air conditioning.
Coffee makers can use 1000 watts or more; that translates to perhaps 10 cents an hour or $30 a month if left on 10 hours a day (electric costs vary widely—yours will be different and likely higher).
Refrigerators and freezers should be kept full and the doors closed as much as possible. I have caught children standing in front of an open freezer door just for the coolness; don't let that happen!
Dishwashers should only be used when full, and yes I realize that with one- or two-person households it can take a while to collect that many dirty dishes. Rinse dishes if needed before adding them to the dishwasher. Dirty filters on the dishwasher decrease their efficiency as well as their cleaning ability; make sure that these filters are kept clean.
3. The Little Things That Count
And finally, there are many little ways you can save electricity, reduce your energy consumption, and increase energy savings.
Light bulbs come to mind—a quick count of my home shows 59 light bulbs of one kind or another. Of these, 49 are CFL or fluorescent bulbs and the other ten are specialty lamps in ceiling fans, track lighting and such. CFL bulbs have come into their own; the cost is far below what it used to be and quality is far superior. The do take a bit of getting used to, but time will take care of that for most people. A little arithmetic shows that if I ran all my lights I would save over 3000 watts of power, or over $100 a month, by changing from incandescent to CFL for the 49 lamps I use; obviously no one has that many lights on 12 hours a day, but it demonstrates possible savings. It's worth a little mental adjusting to slowly convert all possible light bulbs to CFL (or the new LED bulbs as their cost has decreased significantly since they were introduced). Turn off lights when not in use; it all helps. Newer CFL lamps can be dimmable, although expensive, but the ROR on dimmable CFL bulbs is very low as the CFL lamps use very little energy anyway. All of my non-CFL lamps have dimmers on them.
Keep exterior doors closed in hot or cold weather! I can't emphasize this enough. I have had visitors keep the door open in winter until the house got down to about 63 degrees, then raise the thermostat to 80 degrees, and when the house did warm to what they had set, proceed to turn on the air conditioner—in the dead of winter! Don't fool with the thermostat: if the furnace (or air conditioner) is already running it is doing all it can, and raising the thermostat will only result in a house that's too warm once the furnace catches up. I have set my programmable thermostat for different temperatures, night and day, according to the day of the week and time of day it is, and very seldom touch it.
I have installed storm doors on my exterior doors with movable "glass" panels that allow me to open the main door for fresh air in the spring and fall while keeping air infiltration through the main door to a minimum when they are closed. They are attractive and useful; you might consider the same.
Dress appropriately for the weather. Don't wear summer clothing in the winter, as it only causes you to want the house to be warmer than it needs to be. The reverse is, of course, true in the summer. Small lifestyle changes like this can make a big difference in your energy savings, so make use of them.
Keep draperies closed unless you actually want light or heat coming through those windows. Consider buying heavier, rubber-backed draperies if you don't already have them.
Check your home for potential energy thieves. Extension cords should be as short as possible, with no kinks in them, and of a reasonable size for their load. A smashed, kinked, or undersized extension cord is not only an energy thief but a major cause of home fires, as that extra energy being used by the cord itself comes out as heat.
Another energy thief, phantom power (power used by electronic items that are shut off), should be kept to a minimum. Turn off that unused computer—don't let it simply go into sleep mode. Consider unplugging TV sets and DVD players when you're out of the house; I've plugged mine into a switchable outlet and can turn them off that way. Switched outlet strips are available. Remember that anything that can be turned on with a remote control is not really off; it must remain on at some level to watch for the remote signal. Look for things that are on or running when they shouldn't be.
When electric control items fail unnoticed, they can waste electricity big time. I use a private well for water and recently found that the controller had failed in the "on" position; I probably cost myself $30 a month for the period it was locked "on"! A few years ago I discovered that the main circuit breaker for the house had degraded over the years and was leaking current internally—replacing it saved almost $50 a month and stopped the nuisance tripping of that breaker. Odd or unusual items such as that main circuit breaker can only be found or repaired by a professional (I am an electrician) but keeping a close eye on gas or electric bills can alert the homeowner that there is something wrong and perhaps provide another way to save electricity or gas.
If you leave for vacation or such, turn off the hot water, and set the thermostat to perhaps 60 or 90 degrees, depending on the time of year. My new thermostat allows me to set it to return to normal temperatures at a preset time of my choosing so that my home is a comfortable temperature upon my return. I also turn off the well pump, preventing flooding should a pipe burst or the water heater fail (don't laugh—it happened early one morning when the drain on the water tank broke completely off). Unplug all electronics such as the TV, microwave, etc., as this is not only a good way to save electricity but a safety precaution against damage from nearby lightning strikes or power surges.
The End Results
I have tried to track my energy usage over the past few years, but it has been very difficult. While I know what I used (the electric bill shows that), conditions have changed radically at our home. We went from a two-person household to three, back to two, up to seven, and finally back to two people. I made no effort to compensate usage for outside temperatures, simply to compare June to June and December to December.
I have made numerous changes over the last three years; I have repaired defective equipment, but most changes were simply to save energy. Outside of the new heat pump and some new windows, all of my efforts have been on the cheap side; $10 here and maybe $100 there, with the $10 end being much more prevalent.
My June electric bill showed the lowest usage I have seen in my 14 years in the home for any month and was about 33% less than other June bills in the past. If that percentage holds over the summer and winter months (and I really expect it to grow as heating and air conditioning take a higher rank in my usage) I can expect to have energy savings of around several hundred dollars per year without considering savings from the heat pump. I also get a much more livable and enjoyable home environment with more consistent heating and air conditioning. It has been more than worth it.
My bills from July to October showed a 20% decrease from previous years. Obviously, outdoor temperatures play a great part in any energy usage increase or decrease.
As the heating season began here in Idaho the savings have gone up; my November bill was down nearly 50% from the year before. My efforts to save electricity are paying off in a big way. Although they all add up, I believe that the fancy thermostat I installed is one of the most effective changes I've made—it simply controls my heat pump far more efficiently.
Looking back, it's been a little over a year since I began looking hard at energy savings. I have had only one month with higher usage than the previous year, and it was a tiny increase, probably due to lower wintertime temperatures outdoors. Every other month has seen a decrease. My efforts have resulted in a typical savings of over $100 per month in my energy bill. The process has been well worth the effort; at this rate, even the very large expenditure for a new heating and cooling system (needed in any case) will be paid for in only a few years.
© 2010 Dan Harmon
Rishikc on August 21, 2020:
This is a really great article. Thanks for sharing this information. Yes, it is very difficult to calculate energy usage on a daily basis, especially when we are on vacation. So, after some research, we came across about power saver device that is “OHM Assistant”. It helps to monitor real-time power consumption from anywhere on the smartphone through an app.
John-Rose from USA on October 28, 2012:
Wilderness, Love the hub. I love any Hub that helps me bring the electric bill down. I have four kids and the bills keep getting higher and higher. I never even considered turning off my hot water heater when we go on vacations. Thanks ~ John
Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on September 27, 2010:
When LED's come down in price enough that's exactly what I'll do. At least in some of the fans we have - the main one in the living room won't accept them as it has little halogen bulbs instead. Led's will become a great way to save electricity when the price comes down.
lindsays5624 on September 27, 2010:
I great set of ideas for saving energy in the home. I would suggest to change those CFL's in the fan to LED's though. They look better and save even more electricity. But make sure they are bright enough!!!