What is "energy"? Where does it come from? And how do we pay for it? When you learn the answers to these questions, you can also learn how to live more efficiently in your home. In this article, we'll discuss how to be smart about how you use energy, how to know when to turn electrical power on and off, and how to use natural gas, propane, and fuel oil in the most effective way.
Basic Concepts of Energy Efficiency
You can make a lot of progress toward improving the energy efficiency in your home by simply plugging the many places through which air can get in or get out. Plugging your home is called "air sealing," and it is one of the most important first steps to take when weatherizing your house to increase its energy efficiency.
Increasing the amount of insulation in various places in your home should be a high priority. Insulation, in its many forms, helps stop the transfer of heat from one place to another. A good example of this is the insulation in your attic. A thick layer of insulation helps stop heat flow from the house to the attic during the winter. In the summer, that same insulation helps stop heat transfer from the hot attic to the rooms below.
But while better air sealing and insulation in your home can do a lot to reduce your utility bill, that's not where the story on energy efficiency starts and ends. There are many other ways to conserve, some of which require only simple changes of habit or lifestyle.
Electricity powers lights, appliances, and electronic devices in your home. It also runs air conditioners, heats water, cooks food, dries laundry, and in some cases is used for space heating. Natural gas, propane, and oil are mostly burned to provide space heating and hot water; and secondary uses for these gases include cooking, clothes drying, and fireplace fuel.
Electricity: Electricity enters a home through a service-entry cable either above or below ground. From there it passes through a main electrical service panel containing fuses or breakers and is distributed throughout the house through wires, receptacles, and switches. Electricity is billed to the consumer by the kilowatt-hour (kWH). Each kWH costs approximately 8 to 15 cents, depending on where you live and your utility company's fees.
One kilowatt-hour equals 1,000 watts of electricity used for an hour. To understand how kilowatts are calculated, picture a 100-watt lightbulb. Burning that bulb for one hour uses 100 watts of electricity. If it burns for 10 hours, that equals one kilowatt (100 watts 3 10 hours = 1,000 watts, or one kilowatt). And burning that one bulb for those 10 hours costs between 8 and 15 cents.
Natural gas: Natural gas is delivered to homes through a network of underground pipes. After natural gas passes through a meter outside of a house, the gas is piped to where it is needed inside -- to a furnace or boiler, water heater, or gas fireplace -- through a series of smaller metal pipes. Natural gas is billed to the consumer by the cubic foot of gas used.
Propane: Propane, or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is transported by truck from a utility or gas company to a storage tank on a homeowner's property outside the home. From there it enters the house through a pipe and is distributed via a system similar to that used for natural gas. Propane is billed by the gallon.
Oil: Fuel oil is also transported by truck, is pumped into a storage tank either inside or outside the house, and is piped to the appliances where it is needed. Fuel oil is billed by the gallon as well.
So that's how energy arrives at your house and how it is billed. What happens after that -- how you use these energy supplies -- has everything to do with how large your utility bill is at the end of the month. Every time you turn on a light or a TV, use hot water, or switch on the air conditioner or furnace, you consume energy.
Watch the Thermostat
Dialing down: In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appeared on national television for the first of what were later dubbed "energy speeches." The country was going through an oil crisis, and Carter advised us to "dial down" our thermostats. His line of reasoning was that, by reducing the temperature in our homes, we could conserve heating fuel.
President Carter's words of nearly 30 years ago still ring true today: The best way to conserve energy is to not use so much of it. And one of the best ways of reducing the use of heating fuel in the home is to simply turn down the thermostat.
Because space heating constitutes the largest energy expenditure in many homes, even a little conservation of heating fuel goes a long way toward achieving a lower utility bill. Dialing down the thermostat one degree during the winter can result in about 1 to 3 percent less fuel use, and a similar reduction in your heating bill.
A furnace or boiler has to maintain a differential in temperature between the inside of the house and the outdoors in order for the house to feel comfortable. On cold days that difference can be as much as 50 to 60 degrees (say, 20 outside and 70 inside). Any time the differential can be reduced, even by a degree or two, the heating system comes on less often, less fuel is burned, and savings result. The downside of turning down a thermostat, of course, is that the house is cooler. But Carter had a solution for that -- simply slip on a sweater. That makes sense, too. Instead of turning up the heat to increase the overall warmth in the huge volume of space inside the house, you can simply increase your personal insulation to help retain body heat.
Though dialing down might seem a hardship at first, after a while your body will adjust to the "new normal" house temperature and wearing sweaters and socks inside will become a part of everyday life.
Dialing up: The concept of dialing down can be reversed for energy savings during the warm months. "Dialing up" is an effective method of reducing the cost of cooling a house with room or central air-conditioning.
The same principles apply: The less the temperature differential the air-conditioning system has to maintain between the inside and outside, the less often the compressor comes on, the less electricity is consumed, and the lower the utility bill.
Instead of setting the thermostat to the point that the air-conditioning system makes the house cold, try dialing it up a few degrees and adjusting your clothing to deal with the slightly warmer temperature. Chances are you'll never notice the difference. And, as is the case with heating, dialing the thermostat up when you're away from the house results in lower energy consumption.
Close Empty Rooms
If there are rooms in your house that aren't being used, shutting the doors to those rooms results in an overall reduction in the amount of area that the heating and air-conditioning systems have to heat and cool. When a child moves away from home to go to college, or when parts of the basement aren't being used, isolating those areas from the rest of the house means less demand in terms of heating and cooling, and a lower energy bill. The less space you need to supply with conditioned air, the less often the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems will need to operate.
Stay Under the Covers
Many people prefer to "sleep cold," and they don't mind turning down the thermostat into the low 60s or mid-50s at night. Some even like to turn off the heat entirely in the bedroom and sleep with a window open. Those who are comfortable dialing back this dramatically are able to reduce their heating fuel consumption substantially at night, as the heating system does not have to maintain a large temperature differential between the inside and outside.
For those not so inclined, there are means available to stay warm under the covers, even while dialing back the thermostat. Down or synthetic-filled comforters provide insulation with little weight. And electric blankets generate warmth at a small cost in electrical energy.
The winter months can bring with them high heating bills, even for those who like to keep their homes on the cool side. In the summer, air conditioning can make those energy bills skyrocket. In the next section, we'll take a look at how to keep heating costs down in all seasons.
Conserving Energy in All Seasons
Home energy management and control changes with the seasons. There are different steps you can take as the temperature fluxuates in order to keep your energy bills down and your home comfortable.
If you're willing to be active in managing your home's energy resources, there are many opportunities not only to conserve heat and air-conditioning but also to reduce the burden on your heat and air-conditioning systems.
Though it's 93 million miles away from Earth, our sun puts out some pretty potent energy. It is smart house management to take advantage of that free heat whenever possible. In the winter, opening up shades and drapes on south-facing windows allows sunlight inside the house where it can warm floors, furniture, and furnishings. This is called passive solar heating, and on a sunny day in a well-insulated house it can reduce the number of times your heating system has to activate. One bonus is that during the winter the sun is lower on the horizon, so sunlight penetrates deeper into the house than it does when almost directly overhead in the summer. Therefore, even though the winter sun's rays are less intense, they can still create heat because they cover more surface area in your house.
At night in winter, heavy or insulating shades and drapes drawn over the windows will keep heat inside, acting as both a radiant heat barrier for heat leaving the home and also as insulation over the cold window glazing.
Taking advantage of the sun during the winter can also help lower electricity bills. Though sunlight streaming in through windows is only a heating benefit on the east, south, and west sides of the house, opening shades on the north side of the house in the daytime reduces the need for electrical lighting.
During the summer you'll want to do the direct opposite -- close shades and drapes in order to keep the warming rays of sunlight out of the house, reducing the load on the cooling system.
Though it's a simple energy-saving step, the concept of turning off lights when leaving a room seems to elude many people who subsequently complain about their utility bills. The fact is, if a light is off, it uses no electricity. So only turn on lights that are necessary for use. It's that easy to save energy.
One urban myth says that turning on a light uses far more energy than it consumes while it is operating. Not so. It is true that when an incandescent or fluorescent lightbulb is first switched on, it requires a brief surge of electricity. But that surge is so short that it doesn't make any practical difference. With fluorescents, the electricity consumed during start-up is equivalent to only a few seconds' worth of running the light. So keep bulbs that aren't being used turned off.
The use of central or room air-conditioning (and the high electrical costs associated with each) can be reduced by deploying a time-honored strategy -- getting the air around you to move. A simple desktop or standing fan that sweeps the room every few seconds makes the air seem cooler by several degrees.
Ceiling fans are a great boon in this regard since they gently move all of the air in a room at once. Ceiling fans can draw up and distribute the cooler air that lies along the floor throughout the entire room.
Whole House Fans
Boon or bane?: Many homes in the United States have "whole house" fans. These large fans, usually mounted in a top-floor ceiling, are turned on during the summer by homeowners who wish to avoid turning on room air units or a central air-conditioning system -- or as an alternative to air conditioning altogether.
The idea behind using a whole house fan is to bring in cooler outside air through open windows while at the same time pushing warmer air through the attic and roof vents. Because of the size of most whole house fans, they are usually effective at accomplishing these tasks. The air movement removes heated air from the attic, which can reduce the heat in the rooms below, and if the incoming air is cooler, then the system does have a cooling effect on the house. Whole house fans can also quickly vent undesirable odors when necessary.
Many people have discovered, however, that air from outside the house often brings with it things they don't want inside, such as humidity, pollen, and dirt. That limits the use of whole house fans at certain times and in some geographical areas, such as states that experience high humidity in the summer.
Saving energy or wasting it?: Many conventional whole house fan installations lack adequate provision for sealing and insulating the opening in the winter. It is often possible to stand in the attic and see light coming upward through the loose-fitting metal louvers under a whole house fan. Those openings allow great amounts of heated air to escape the house and enter an attic in the winter, resulting in energy waste and higher heating bills. Heat from the attic can also be conducted downward through the opening and the louvers during the warm summer months.
Although a whole house fan can save some energy during the summer by prolonging the periods when a room or central air-conditioning system doesn't run, it can waste energy in the winter by allowing warm air to flow upward through the louvers. Draping a length of fiberglass batt insulation over the fan in the winter -- a common practice undertaken to address this issue -- is completely ineffective as either an air-sealing or an insulating measure.
Remediation of whole house fans: Several types of commercially available covers are designed to address the issue of air leaking through whole house fan installations. Some mount on top of the fan in the attic; others are simple covers that attach from the house side of the installation and cut down on air leakage. It is also relatively easy to build a lightweight removable cover of fiberglass insulation board or rigid foam board. Sealing these covers is challenging, however, and that is critical to prevent air infiltration.
An alternative to the large conventional whole house fans are the relatively new smaller fans that have spring-loaded, insulated covers that snap tightly into place when the fan is not being used. While they do not move as much air as the larger models, they are effective if used over a longer period of time.
All in all, while many homeowners like and use whole house fans, they do have some serious drawbacks. It is not unusual to find an abandoned fan in the attic with a patched ceiling below. If you already have a whole house fan in place in your home and intend to put it to use, be sure that the opening is sealed and insulated properly during winter. That opening represents one of the largest and potentially leakiest holes in your entire house. Energy that escapes through those leaks will increase your utility bill substantially.
If you're thinking of installing a whole house fan, at least give the smaller-size units a once-over before you make any final decisions. They use less power, seal and insulate better, are quieter, and the hole they require in the ceiling is smaller than that of a conventional unit.
One room in your house uses a great deal of energy and can put out a lot of heat -- your kitchen. In the next section we'll review tips on how to conserve energy while cooking dinner.
Conserving Energy in the Kitchen
In the winter, firing up a gas or electric oven or range contributes to the heat needed to keep the house warm. So, in addition to the smells of cooking food, you also receive the benefit of the extra heat from the oven and range top's burners or heating elements.
That heat is unwelcome in the summer. And if the home has air-conditioning, those systems are called upon to remove the heat and dump it outside the house. Therefore, during summertime, conventional cooking practices are doubly inefficient. First you generate heat you don't need or want, and then the A/C has to come on to remove it from the house.
For optimum energy efficiency, it makes sense in any season to use cooking appliances appropriate to the volume and type of food being cooked. Baking a few potatoes can be accomplished quickly and at much less energy cost in a microwave oven than they would require using a conventional oven. Countertop toaster ovens and broilers can prepare a wide variety of foods, and they don't produce the amount of heat or consume nearly the energy that a full-size range does.
When possible, cook foods together in the oven that require similar temperatures. And use lids on pots on the range top not only to prevent heat from escaping the top of the pot but also to reduce cooking time. An oven or rangetop burner can often be shut off before the food is completely cooked, and the food can be allowed to "coast" until it's ready, using the heat built up inside the pot or pan. If this prevents the oven's burner from firing up one last time, that's energy saved. Below are additional guidelines to help you conserve energy in the kitchen.
Ventilation is important in a kitchen to remove cooking odors, humidity, heat, and combustion by-products from gas ranges and ovens. Most kitchens are outfitted with a hood or microwave over the range that comes with filters to strain grease and other pollutants out of the air. Some range hoods, however, do not vent directly to the outside of the house. So although they may filter some cooking grease and oil out of the air, they are ineffective in terms of removing heat, humidity, and combustion pollutants from the kitchen environment. An upgrade to a true outside-venting range hood can help remove cooking heat from the house, reducing the need for air-conditioning in the summer.
Prepare Big Batches of Food
In busy families it makes sense from a logistical and time-management point of view to make large batches of frequently eaten foods, like soups and spaghetti sauce, to be frozen for later use. Volume food processing like this also pays energy dividends. It takes much less energy to turn on the range once to cook a big pot of something rather than to turn it on multiple times to cook smaller portions.
Refrigerators consume a relatively large portion of the household energy budget, but there are several simple things you can do to get the most bang for your refrigeration buck.
Just as combining driving trips in your car reduces the amount of gasoline your car guzzles, it makes sense to open the refrigerator door once to remove all the food you need at any one time. Opening the door repeatedly pulls cool air from within and causes the compressor to come on, making your electric meter spin. Anticipate what you're going to remove from the refrigerator, open it, remove what you need, and then quickly close it again.
It's also a good idea to allow warm foods to cool to room temperature before moving them to the refrigerator. That way energy won't be required to do work that can take place naturally. In the winter, leaving warm foods to cool outside of the refrigerator (if this can be safely accomplished from a food-safety standpoint) contributes a small amount of heat to the house.
Check Condensation Control Switch
Many people don't realize it, but most newer refrigerators incorporate small heating elements in their fronts. Why does a refrigerator need a heater? To prevent condensation in the area where the doors contact the front of the cabinet.
The narrow space between the upper freezer and lower refrigerator on conventional top-freezer refrigerators, and along the sides of those areas, are difficult to insulate adequately. As the compressor and refrigerant cool the interior of the fridge, some of the cold leaks out onto the steel cabinet enclosure. On a humid day, moisture in the air condenses on those cool surfaces just as it would on a cold beverage glass in the summer. When this happens repeatedly, mildew and mold can begin to form on the surface of the refrigerator in these areas, as well as on the vinyl door gaskets.
The solution to this problem is to insert tiny heating elements in the front of the refrigerator, just large enough to slightly warm those front surfaces to the point that condensation no longer forms. While the heaters don't draw a large amount of electricity, they're on constantly. That's fine in the summer when the feature is needed. But in the winter the heaters are not required in the generally drier indoor air, so that electricity is going to waste.
Refrigerators equipped with these condensation-prevention heaters contain a small control box, usually on the back wall. Alongside a switch in the control box might be a label that says "Prevents Condensation/Saves Energy -- On/Off." During the winter, simply moving that switch from the On to the Off position will shut down the heaters, thus saving electricity.
Don't Be Lazy When Washing Dishes
By hand: Washing dishes by hand is never high on anyone's list of favorite activities. Techniques for doing this mundane task, however, can save energy. Domestic water heating makes up nearly a quarter of the typical family's utility bill, but intelligent use of hot water while dishwashing can reduce that by a significant amount.
A surprising number of people attack the task of dishwashing by first opening the hot water faucet to its "full Niagara" position and then running dirty dishes in and out of the stream to first wash and then rinse. In the process of cleaning up after a meal they waste gallons of water -- and also the energy that heated that water.
A better way to wash dishes by hand is to close up the drain and run a couple of inches of hot water in the bottom of a sink, along with some liquid dish detergent. Then turn off the faucet. Wash glasses, cups, and silverware in this soap-concentrated water, and rinse off the soap over the same sink filled with water. The hot water used for rinsing runs into the sink, filling it up further for the larger items to come. And the soap used to wash these first items is retained as well.
Next stack plates in the soapy water and start washing them. Remove them as each is washed, and stack them in the bottom of the adjacent sink. When a good pile has accumulated, run water over the stack and remove and rinse each plate in turn. The water running from the plates as they are removed helps do a preliminary rinse on the next plate below, allowing it to do "double duty" on its way down the drain.
When everything has been washed, don't drain the wash water out of the sink yet. There are several gallons of hot water left in there -- water you paid to heat. Allowing it to cool off gradually adds some heat to the kitchen, which forestalls the furnace or boiler from coming on. In the summer you'll want to drain the hot water as quickly as possible in order to avoid adding its heat to the air-conditioning load.
: Newer dishwashers on the market are more energy efficient than earlier models, and they use less water for each load. But there are still some tricks for using them that can further decrease their water and energy use.
Newer dishwashers are equipped with sensors that determine how long the wash cycle runs in order to get dishes clean. The sensors detect food particles in the wash water. As long as the sensors "see" food particles in the wash water, the wash cycle will continue. Knowing that, the inclination is to rinse each dish nearly clean before putting it into the dishwasher. Bad idea.
Rinsing dishes under running water wastes water that you paid to heat. The dishwasher is going to use water to go through a cycle anyway, so let it do its job and clean the dishes the way it was designed. Rinsing the dishes before putting them into the dishwasher essentially consumes enough water to wash them twice. In addition, rinsing the dishes actually fools the internal sensors into believing that the wash cycle is nearly complete before it has had time to work. With few food particles to sense, the cycle goes almost immediately to rinse. The result can be dirty dishes once you open the door.
Modern dishwashers give you the option of using heat and a fan to dry the dishes. That heat is provided by an electrical coil in the bottom of the unit. Resistance heating coils like this require electricity, so shutting that feature off if you don't require instant drying will result in electrical energy savings.
The kitchen isn't the only room in your house that uses quantities of hot water. We'll learn about energy conservation in the bathroom and laundry room in the next section.
Conserving Energy in the Bathroom and Laundry
Here are some methods to reduce energy consumption in the laundry room and the bathroom by decreasing hot water use and minimizing the operation of appliances.
Use Cold-Water Detergent
Though it might be difficult to make the connection at first, in recent years lowly laundry detergent has become an impact player in the field of energy conservation. Cold-water detergents clean nearly every type of clothing as well as conventional detergents, and because water does not need to be heated in order to make them work, energy savings can be realized on laundry day. Because most clothes can be washed in cold water (and doing so also helps prevent dye color from bleeding), it's a good idea to take advantage of this advance in detergent technology.
In areas where the water entering the home during the winter is quite cold, liquid detergent works better than a powder, as most powders do not dissolve as well in cold water as they do in warm.
Fill Up the Machine
It is important too, for both water and energy savings, to do full loads of laundry whenever possible. Running a washing machine to do one large load as opposed to several smaller ones uses less electricity to power the machine's motor, and overall water consumption will be lower as well. So letting laundry stack up a bit is not a sign of laziness; it's saving energy.
Hang 'em High
Clothes dryers tumble clothing inside a heated drum to remove moisture soaked up during the washing process. The heat is produced by electricity, or natural or propane gas. But you can avoid using any energy at all (well, except some of your own) to dry clothes by using the sun and wind to do the job. Clotheslines and folding dryers are inexpensive, and it takes only a few minutes to hang a load of wash. The sun sanitizes the clothing, and everything smells fresh.
An alternative to hanging clothing outside in the winter is to set up a place inside for drying, usually in the basement. If your house is dry during the winter, the evaporating water from the drying clothes adds welcome moisture to the air. In homes that already have adequate humidity, however, excess moisture can bring on problems like condensation on walls and ceilings, and subsequent mildew and mold growth.
Another point in favor of hanging clothing to dry has to do with how using a dryer ages and deteriorates clothing. High heat breaks down material fibers and causes them to fracture and loosen -- that is, after all, what dryer lint consists of; broken-off fibers. The tumbling action of clothing rubbing against other clothing is also abrasive, further deteriorating the material. So, outside line drying pays off not only in terms of energy efficiency but also in clothing longevity.
Check Your Routine
Saving energy in a household can involve some simple habit changing. Here's an example. Say you're a person who always washes your face before brushing your teeth. Your bathroom is on the upper floor of a two-story house, and it takes a while for the hot water to make its way up the two floors and finally into the faucet at the sink. To save a bit of energy and water, try brushing your teeth first before you wash your face. You're going to use cold water to brush your teeth anyway, so why not use that first portion of cold water at the hot water tap to do the job?
Then, because you've opened the hot water tap and started the hot water up the pipe, your wait for the hot water will be shorter, and you'll waste less water while waiting. This is a simple trick that, admittedly, does not amount to very much on its own. But multiply it by 365 days a year, and you'll save quite a bit of hot water.
Take Shorter Showers, Smaller Baths
One of the mantras of energy conservation is doing more with less. This also means not using so much in the first place. In the U.S. Navy, sailors take what is referred to as a "Navy shower" in order to conserve fresh water on-board ship. You stand in the shower, get yourself wet, shut off the shower, soap up, and then turn the shower back on to rinse off. Some modern showerheads come with a simple shut-off valve located near the nozzle that allows you to turn off the flow of water and turn it back on again without affecting the temperature setting. Doing this a few times makes you realize how wasteful a 20-minute shower really is; you can get just as clean and use a lot less water in the shower.
Ditto in regard to the bath. Filling a bathtub an inch or two lower is unlikely to make any difference from a hygiene standpoint, and the water and energy saved add up.
Also, consider taking a shower instead of a bath in the first place. A shower, if it's kept to a reasonable length, usually requires less water than a bath.
Leave Water in the Tub
When you're finished in the bath, consider leaving the water in the tub for a few hours. Similar to the case with a sink full of dishwashing water, you paid to heat that water, and allowing it to cool off inside the house adds some heat to the bathroom. Additionally, in a dry house during the winter, the bathwater will add some needed humidity to the air. Of course, you'll want to do the opposite during the summer; the sooner you can get the bathwater to run out of the tub the better. That way it won't add its heat to the air where the air-conditioning will have to remove it.
Buy Early and Save
The price of propane gas and fuel oil fluctuates over the course of the year. If you use either of these heating fuels, purchasing them in the summer often means you'll pay less per gallon than you would if you waited until fall to fill up the tank. Though it can be difficult to contemplate locking up several hundred dollars in fuel that you won't use for months, doing so can result in some big savings that you'll appreciate when the cold weather begins.
Conserving energy in your home doesn't end with using less water and turning down the thermostat. In the next section, we'll take a look at preventing wasteful energy use by adjusting windows and water heaters.
Conserving Energy Around the House
Here's a no-cost, minimal-labor tip that reduces air infiltration into and out of your house during both summer and winter. It also helps provide better security for your family. Lock your windows!
That's right. Just a simple trip around the inside of your house to be sure all the window locks are engaged can save energy. The reason? Most windows, both casement and double-hung types, are made with compressible weather stripping that helps seal out air infiltration along the edges and between the upper and lower sash. The locks on casement windows draw the sash closer to the frame (in the case of double-hung windows, they're closer together in the middle), and that compresses the weather stripping, creating a more airtight seal.
Windows are designed to provide light and ventilation. They should also seal well in order to prevent air and water leakage. If your windows aren't locked when they're not open, you're not using one of the features that contribute to their energy performance. Here are more ideas on how to conserve energy around the house.
Watch Water Heater Temperature Settings
The cost of heating water for your home may amount to as much as 15 to 20 percent of your entire utility bill. Setting your water heater's temperature in the 130-degree range instead of a higher one requires less energy to heat and to hold the water. Every 10 degrees you dial down the thermostat can knock 3 to 5 percent off your water-heating bill. In addition, a lower hot water temperature reduces the chance of scalding.
By setting your water heater to 130 degrees, you should produce 120-degree water at the tap, which is low enough to prevent injury but still hot enough to produce a satisfyingly warm shower or bath. There is always some heat loss in the piping between the water heater and the fixtures where the water is used, so that's why the water heater's temperature should be in the 130-degree range, which is also sufficiently hot to prevent bacteria from growing inside the water heater's tank.
Gas and oil water heaters can be adjusted easily by turning the dial thermostat on the front of the control box. There may be degree markings on the dial, but many have simple arrows that point the direction to "hot" and "not-so-hot" settings. You might have to experiment by gradually turning down the dial over the course of several days in order to arrive at a setting that feels comfortable to you and your family.
Adjusting the temperature setting on an electric water heater is slightly more complicated and may require removing coverings over the heating elements. Small screws attached to the elements can usually be turned to the temperature of your choice. Most have painted or engraved temperature reading marks on the screw housing. Both heating elements must be dialed to the same degree reading or one might never activate. Check your owner's manual before you adjust an electric water heater to ensure you're following the proper procedure for your particular model. Be sure to shut off the power before you remove any protective cover plates.
It may require a day or so for the water in any type of heater to stabilize to the new temperature setting after an adjustment has been made to the thermostatic control. Test the water temperature by running a tap until the water is hot, then fill a glass with the water. Put a thermometer in the glass, and take a reading.
There are other good reasons to dial down your water heater's thermostat. Higher water heater temperatures can contribute to early failure of the tank. Because chemical reactions are speeded up in hotter environments, rusting of the steel tank is accelerated under high temperature conditions. Plus, sediment (hard-water minerals) precipitates out of hard water more rapidly in hotter conditions. It collects at the tank's bottom and reduces the energy efficiency of the water heater. For energy savings, safety, and equipment longevity, dialing back your water heater thermostat to 130 degrees or so (about 120 at the tap) makes sense.
Dial Down the Thermostat At Night
While the concept of dialing down your house temperature a few degrees during your home's occupied hours is helpful in terms of energy conservation, it's at night and when you're away from the house that you can turn down the thermostat even more, thus significantly reducing your energy bill.
The question often arises, "How long does the thermostat have to be at a low setting in order to save enough energy to make up for what it takes to get the house back up to temperature when you dial the heat back up?"
Experts at the Department of Energy have determined that the amount of energy saved as the temperature falls in a house after the thermostat is dialed down is approximately equal to that used to get the house up to temperature again. The actual energy savings in a dialed-down session occur during the time when the heat is operating at its lowest setting. At that point the heating system does not have to work as hard to maintain a large indoor temperature differential compared to the outdoors.
In other words, the amount of energy saved by turning down the thermostat makes up for the energy used in turning it back up. Meanwhile, any hours spent with a smaller temperature difference between indoors and outdoors results in the system not having to come on as often; that's where the savings lie. And the lower you dial, the more savings you can realize.
HVAC experts estimate that for every degree the thermostat is dialed down, you can save 1-3 percent on your heating or cooling utility bill. And when you count up the many hours you're either in bed or the home is not occupied, there is considerable potential for savings.
Digital Thermostats: In recent years the marketplace has seen an influx of sophisticated, programmable digital thermostats that assist periodic dialing down, or temperature "setback." For an investment of $40 to $100, these thermostats can be programmed to automatically dial down the heat at a certain time at night or when you're away from the house and to turn it up again before you awake in the morning or arrive home. The automated features of a digital thermostat ensure that you will never have to dial back the heat at night manually, and you can wake up to a house that is up to its normal temperature in the morning.
Digital thermostats are also more accurate than the older-style mercury switch units; they can differentiate room temperature down to a fraction of a degree. This precision results in more exact control of the HVAC system, eliminating large temperature swings, and thus delivers better comfort -- as well as energy savings -- from the setback function. The programming features can also help in the summer when setting the thermostat to allow the temperature to rise in the house while you're away (in order to avoid having the A/C come on as often) saves energy.
Basic digital thermostats might allow you to program time and setback temperatures using two schedules -- one for the five-day work week and another for the weekend. Higher-end models pack more options and sophisticated features, such as the ability to program different setback and wake-up settings separately for every day of the week. This can be helpful if you need to rise at different times on different days. And all digital thermostats can be over-ridden at any time to accommodate a specific need, such as a house full of people you'd like to keep cool during a summer party.
If you're thinking of investing in a digital thermostat, be aware that there are several types to fit different configurations of HVAC systems. The thermostat must fit the system in order to work properly. You'll have to know how many wires run to your old thermostat in order to match it with the new digital model.
As a side note, if an old thermostat you're replacing has a mercury switch (look for a small glass vial inside that holds a silvery liquid), it must be handled carefully to avoid breakage and be disposed of properly. Mercury is a toxin and an environmental hazard! If the manufacturer of the thermostat you purchase doesn't directly engage in a recycling program, take it to your nearest hazardous material recycling center.
Manual thermostats: If you're not technologically inclined, or if your schedule is variable and you don't go to bed and get up at predictable times, there is another "digital" thermostat adjustment device available to you that works reasonably well. And it doesn't cost a thing! In fact, it involves using the digits on your hands.
Even an unsophisticated manual-type thermostat can be made to operate like a programmable one if you remember to set the temperature back every night and dial it up again in the morning. The one drawback is that your house will be cool when you wake up.
For many people, setting a manual thermostat up or down as they leave and enter the house, or go to bed and wake up, becomes a habit that is easy to remember. For others, the automated setback features offered by a digital thermostat make that option more convenient. Digital or manual, the main point is that any time you turn down the thermostat in your house (or turn it up in the summer), you save energy.
A fireplace can give the comfort of a crackling blaze in the heart of winter, but you'd be surprised to learn how much heat escapes and how much energy is wasted when you have a fireplace in your home. Check the next section for tips on making your fireplace help, not hurt, your energy bill.
If there were a large hole in your living room ceiling leading directly to the outside of the house, you'd probably notice it and seal it to prevent air from shooting up there. In many homes there is such a hole, but it's hidden inside the fireplace. That hole is the fireplace flue pipe.
Wood-burning fireplaces usually have a damper installed in the upper part of the firebox. The damper is designed to be shut when the fireplace is not in use and can be easily opened when it is. It's common to forget to close the damper after a fire goes out, however, and that leaves a big hole through which heated or cooled air can escape the house.
Even when a fireplace damper is closed, the sealing is often not very effective. Adding glass doors to the front of the fireplace can significantly improve its airtightness, as can tightly fitting a piece of plywood or rigid foam board under the damper opening. Sealing a fireplace flue in this manner can also reduce or eliminate soot odors that are prone to travel into the house during windy or stormy days. Of course, the blocking material must be removed before a fire is started.
One caution, though: Fireplaces with installed gas logs are required to have the damper open at all times. That's either because a pilot light is constantly burning under the logs or because the homeowner might forget to open the damper when he or she turns on the fire. Because gas-log fires produce copious amounts of carbon monoxide, they have to vent outside in a fail-safe manner. That's why there is, or should be, a keep-open device attached to the damper in gas-log fireplaces. Unfortunately, that open damper means house air is running up the flue or cold air might be traveling down.
Another cautionary note: A wood-burning fire must be completely out and the ashes cold before the damper can be shut or other sealing is put into place. The hazard is carbon-monoxide poisoning. A smoldering fire, even though it might not be visible through a layer of ashes, still produces combustion gases. Those gases contain carbon monoxide. Therefore, while it's great to save energy by closing off the damper inside a fireplace, be sure to do so in a safe manner. Do not close a fireplace damper until the fire is completely out.
Shut Off the Pilot
Gas-log fireplaces are equipped with either a standing pilot light (one that is lit all the time) or with electronic ignition. The electronic-ignition models are much more energy efficient because they burn only when they are turned on.
Standing pilots, on the other hand, burn constantly, wasting a lot of gas when they aren't needed. It is not unusual to find one blazing away in a fireplace during the heat of summer when the probability of someone starting a fire is very remote. If you have a gas-log fireplace with a standing pilot light, consider learning how to shut it off -- at least during the summer months. You can start it again in the fall when the weather turns cold and you're more likely to want a fire. Instructions on how to shut off and relight gas-log pilot lights are printed inside the front panel of most installations or are available from the installer or manufacturer.
Space heaters don't have to be electric. Gas and wood fireplaces and stoves can also be used in this way. "Ventless" gas fireplaces and kerosene space heaters should be used with caution, as both produce combustion byproducts that are released into the air. These heaters are not designed to be a home's primary heat source. Read and follow all directions concerning setup and use of ventless fuel-burning space heaters.
In the next section, learn about several different ways you can save energy around the house by such means as using halogen lightbulbs and lowering the thermostat on your refrigerator and freezer.
Electricity consumed for lighting typically constitutes just under 10 percent of the household energy budget. One way to reduce that number is to replace frequently used incandescent lights with compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. These long-lasting bulbs use about one third of the power required to produce the same amount of light that is produced by a standard incandescent bulb.
CFLs offer other advantages, too. Standard incandescents give off a substantial amount of heat. Just ask someone who has tried to unscrew a blown bulb with bare fingers after it has failed. That heat, while perhaps welcome in the winter, adds to the cooling load during the summer. And a hot bulb is a mark of inefficiency. Any electricity used to produce heat is not going toward the production of illumination. On the other hand, CFLs run cool; they don't contribute to heating load and can be used safely in any fixture that can handle an incandescent -- except those controlled by a dimmer switch.
Older versions of CFLs had a few problems, such as unattractively colored light, noise, flickering, and slow startup. Those issues have largely been resolved in the bulbs currently on the market. The light color is similar to that produced by an incandescent bulb, and electronic ballasts produce flicker-free and noiseless light. Moreover, the new bulbs start right up when switched on -- though they may require a few minutes to achieve full brightness. New CFL bulb shapes mean you can put a CFL anywhere an incandescent can go; the bulb shapes have become more compact and "standard-size" over the years.
The price of CFLs has fallen in recent years as well, from double digits to under three dollars each when purchased in multi-packs or on sale. That's still more than incandescents, but with a projected bulb life of as much as 10,000 hours compared to an incandescent's 800 to 1,000.
So in the long run they're a bargain. Plus they save a lot of electricity along the way. An 11-watt model can replicate the light produced by a 60-watt incandescent. That's a savings of 49 watts per hour of operation! Multiply that by the number of lights in your home and their hours of operation, and you'll quickly realize that CFLs are not only the light of the future but also of today.
Another way to cut down on the amount of energy consumed for lighting tasks is to increase the use of daylight for illumination. Skylights used to be the only pathway through which natural light could enter rooms near the center of a house. But new products on the market, "light tubes," "sun tubes," or "tubular skylights," have proven to offer many of the benefits skylights bring to the table, and at lower cost.
Light tubes consist of a flexible metal tube that connects a light-gathering dome on top of the house and a light-emitting dome inside the house. Daylight hits the exterior dome and is beamed inside the shiny tube. It bounces around there and comes out through the ceiling-mounted dome. On bright days a light tube can produce more light than a 100-watt bulb.
Because of their modest size and flexibility, light tubes can be installed between standard framing members, requiring no cutting (and thus no re-supporting) of those members. The dome that mounts on the roof is supplied with flashing that integrates with the existing roofing, and the interior dome mounts in a simple hole cut into the ceiling. Because light tubes are not as large as most skylights, the heat loss at night is less by comparison.
Although light tubes work only during daylight hours (and not as well on cloudy days), some brands offer optional light fixtures inside so the dome can be used at any time of the day or night. Still, these products offer an interesting and energy-efficient option for continuous daylight illumination of areas of the home that might otherwise remain dark.
Motion sensors, either built into a light fixture or retrofitted as an add-on to a bulb socket, are usually associated with outdoor applications. And they work well for that purpose. Before motion-sensing lights were invented, homeowners wishing for greater security outside their homes were forced into leaving on outdoor lights all night to illuminate garages, barns, and back doors. That burned up a lot of electricity. Now motion detectors can provide you with illumination when you need it and allow for energy-saving darkness when you don't.
Outdoor lights that come on suddenly due to an activation of the motion sensor can also surprise and thus deter thieves. When someone is caught in the beam of a suddenly illuminated landscape, he or she doesn't know whether the light came on because of a motion sensor or because someone has flicked on a floodlight switch.
Motion-sensing lights can also alert a homeowner that an intruder is passing through a yard. It might only be a neighbor's cat, but sometimes the backyard light suddenly coming on can reveal unexpected occurrences. Virtually any exterior lighting fixture can be upgraded to motion-sensor light status with a simple adapter.
Another benefit to installing motion-sensing lights outside your home is the safety they can provide in lighting your way as you walk to and from your garage. The lights allow you to become aware of any potentially dangerous circumstances and also to illuminate walkways and sidewalks so you can avoid obstructions.
Motion-sensing lights are increasingly making their way inside the home as well. They're handy for places like the landing area at a back door, where you might often enter with your hands full. Closets and pantries are also good candidates for motion-sensor light adapters. You're usually bringing something into or removing something from those areas, so trying to switch on or switch off an overhead light can be challenging. And since the light is only on when you're in those specific areas, the bulb doesn't burn for any longer than necessary -- and that saves electricity.
Low-Voltage Exterior Lighting
If you'd like your outdoor landscape to be illuminated at night for safety or for aesthetic reasons, there are ways to do it that don't require much electrical power. One product that is popular for such applications is low-voltage lighting.
While low-voltage lights won't illuminate the entire side of a house or reach to the deepest stretches of a lot like a line-voltage system (120 volts) can, they can guide the way up front steps or along a walkway, or they can accent a landscape feature without making the electric meter spin too rapidly. Another benefit is that, because they are dimmer than line-voltage systems, they don't contribute to light pollution, and neighbors are unlikely to complain that the downward-facing lights keep them awake at night.
Many low-voltage outdoor lighting systems operate at 12 volts, which makes the installation safe for use when children or pets are around. There is no shock hazard should a wire get cut accidentally. Because the lights can be easily moved around the yard, you can change the display to suit the season, adding or subtracting lights as needed. For even better energy performance, putting the system on a timer turns off the lights when they aren't likely to be needed and on when they are.
Solar-powered landscape lights, which cost nothing to operate, are also available. Installation involves pushing the support stake into the ground. Each light is equipped with a small solar panel on top and a rechargeable battery and bulb inside. The panel charges the battery during the day, and the light stays on all night. Some solar landscape lighting is equipped with bright and high-efficiency LED (light emitting diode) lights for lower energy consumption, durability, and longer-lasting performance.
Every little step you take helps you to save energy and lower your utility bills. In the next section, we'll have even more tips to help you conserve energy in your home.
Additional Tips for Conserving Electricity
You probably don't even realize it, but an energy thief is inside your home at this very moment. This thief is silent and unseen, and he's picking your pocket. His name is "standby power."
Standby power is the name given to the electricity used to power electrical appliances and devices even when they are turned off. But how can this be? Isn't an appliance "off" when you switch it off? Not necessarily.
Many electronic devices consume electricity 24 hours a day just to stay warmed up for whenever you decide to use them. "Instant on" TV sets are one example. Whether you watch TV seven hours a day or not at all, the TV is always partially on, staying ready to flicker to life the moment you turn on its switch.
Other devices that consume power constantly are those that have external or internal clocks: microwave ovens, computers, VCRs, DVD players, and cable TV and satellite TV boxes. Energy experts estimate that approximately 5 percent of residential electrical power consumption in the United States is used for standby power. That's a lot of power plants running overtime just to keep our electronics warm and ready to go.
Some of the most prevalent standby power devices are the large plug-in transformers that are used to step down power to cordless phones and answering machines.
How much do these various devices consume? Not much; just a few watts, maybe 3 to 5 each. But multiply that number over a 24-hour day, times the 6 to 10 devices in a typical home, and the scope of the savings could be greater than it may seem.
Switch Off Equipment Not in Use
For many years manufacturers had no incentive to increase the energy efficiency of electronic devices that use standby power. After all, they weren't paying anyone's electric bill. But recently, since more efficient devices have appeared on the market, any electronic equipment you purchase new will likely yield an energy improvement over something that has a few years on it.
A good solution to deal with standby power losses in existing equipment is to plug several of the devices into a power strip that has an on/off switch. Power strips are inexpensive and available at home centers and office supply stores. An entire cluster of items can then be shut off -- really shut off -- just by flicking one switch. This works well in areas like home entertainment centers, where a TV, VCR, DVD player, and cable box might already be plugged into one electrical receptacle.
However, if you want to leave some of the devices on -- for instance a VCR, to record while you're away, this scheme won't work. And it isn't worth doing on devices that have a clock feature that you depend on to tell time. But if you think it through and separate out devices that can be switched off entirely without consequence, you might be surprised by the number you can put together on one power strip.
Generally speaking, it's a good idea from an energy-efficiency standpoint to unplug anything electronic that you're not using at that moment. Lamps and toasters aren't electronic and don't draw standby power when they're switched off, but battery chargers, TVs, VCRs, DVD players, computers, and stereo systems do. Why pay for this leaking power if you're not using the item?
Check Settings for Appliances
It is surprising how involved we can get with tweaking and adjusting some things in our lives, yet remain utterly oblivious to others. We may spend hours picking out paint for a dining room, yet be unaware that our refrigerators are running too hot or too cold. That can cost money we don't need to spend and consume electricity that does not need to be wasted.
Refrigerator and freezer temperatures can be set using an accurate thermometer and the easy-to-find controls inside the refrigerator compartment. Set the refrigerator to 36 to 38 degrees, and the freezer to 0 to +5. Anything lower than that is wasted. Food won't last any longer if it is kept at a lower temperature, and some items, like lettuce and other vegetables, can even freeze and be destroyed by lower temperatures in the refrigerator compartment, wasting both food and energy.
If you run a dehumidifier in your home, be aware that most are controlled by a humidistat. A humidistat is to humidity what a thermostat is to temperature. In other words, as the humidity in the area where the dehumidifier is running drops to a certain setpoint, the machine will shut itself off until the humidity rises past that set-point again.
Turning the humidistat to its lowest setting causes the dehumidifier to run constantly, which is wasteful. And because dehumidifiers use quite a bit of electricity, running one as infrequently as possible will benefit your utility bill's bottom line. Finding a humidity level you can live with -- and then setting the humidistat to that level -- will result in the unit running intermittently, which saves energy compared to one that runs continuously.
Maximize Personal Comfort
The adjustment to a cooler house in the winter and a warmer one in the summer can be aided by the use of devices designed to increase personal comfort.
Turning down the house heat and creating your own warmth zone in bed by sleeping under a comforter or an electric blanket saves energy. Small space heaters serve the same purpose in a room setting. If you know you're going to be in one area of the house for a period of time, dialing down the central heating system's thermostat and turning on a space heater in the area where you're located can reduce overall energy consumption during that period. This works well for home offices or entertainment rooms designed for TV or movie watching.
Alternately, in the summer, installing a small room air conditioner in order to cool small areas can reduce your energy bill substantially. Dial up the thermostat in the rest of the house to keep the central air-conditioning system from running so often. The power consumed by a small room air unit is much less than that used by the larger system. This strategy can also be used at night in one or two bedrooms -- provided you can sleep with the noise created by a room air conditioner.
Combining the many simple steps we've outlined can make a dramatic difference in your energy bills. It just takes a small commitment on your part to conserve energy and put a stop to wasteful energy use in your home.
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