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Cut Your Energy Bills You can save $1,500 with these four strategies

Cut Your Energy Bills
You can save $1,500 with these four strategies

Most homes, including yours, waste energy. That inefficiency is costing you plenty, but it doesn’t have to.

Even if you’ve already switched to compact fluorescent bulbs and retired the refrigerator in the basement, there’s more you can do. Some of the simplest projects, such as adding insulation and sealing cracks and ductwork, can yield the biggest savings. And thanks to new federal tax credits, it will take less time for those projects to pay for themselves.

Yet in a recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,014 Americans, only 12 percent had added or upgraded their home’s insulation in the last three years. Just a paltry 5 percent had insulated their heating and cooling ductwork.

Conflicting and confusing claims can make it hard to know where the real savings are. So we’ve examined the claims across four key categories—heating and cooling, water, recycling, and electricity—and ordered them by potential money and energy savings based on national rates for electricity, gas, and water. We’ve also mined our survey data to figure out what consumers are doing and where there’s room for improvement. The result is a road map for taking your home’s energy efficiency to the next level.

Heating and cooling
Annual savings $550

Approximately 40 percent of residential energy bills are for heating and cooling. That’s also where you can reap the greatest savings. In the winter, warm air inside your home rises and escapes into the attic through holes and gaps. It’s replaced by colder exterior air that’s pulled in through cracks and gaps in the lower levels. That leads to drafty, uncomfortable rooms and high energy bills, even in newer homes. “There’s a huge gap between what’s in the building code and what’s needed for optimal energy efficiency,” says Frank O’Brien-Bernini, chief sustainability officer for Owens Corning, an insulation manufacturer.

Eliminate leaks. Use a combination of caulk, foam board, expandable sealant, and weather stripping to fill gaps. Attics in particular are often full of holes from recessed lights, electrical wiring, chimney chases, and more. Look for dirty insulation, which is a sign of air leaks. In the basement, check for gaps around ductwork and plumbing pipes. And don’t forget about window and door frames, as well as electrical outlets and switches.
Cracked caulking and staining around those openings are indications of air leaks. One trick of the trade:
Turn on all of the exhaust fans in the home and then use an incense stick or smoke pen to spot leaks. Or try that without the fans on a windy day.

Check insulation levels. If your attic has less than 11 inches of fiberglass or rock wool or 8 inches of cellulose, you would probably benefit by adding more. Also check for missing insulation, over the attic hatch, for example. Compressed insulation loses its effectiveness, so don’t store things on top of it. You may also need to add insulation in the basement or crawl space. Go to www.energysavers.gov and search for “ZIP code insulation program” to find specific recommendations for your area.

Correct ductwork. It’s the last step, and the one that’s the most overlooked. Spending $500 to seal leaky or poorly insulated ducts that run through crawl spaces, attics, or other unconditioned areas can save you about $400 per year, according to the Energy Efficient Rehab Advisor, an online calculator available at www.rehabadvisor.pathnet.org. Remediation is dirty work that requires the right materials. Leave it to a qualified heating and cooling pro.

A buttoned-up house won’t leak energy, but you should still have your heating and cooling equipment inspected annually, and change furnace and A/C filters monthly. A programmable thermostat is also worth every penny. By automatically lowering your heating-system thermostat 5 to 10 degrees at night and during the day if no one is home, the device will shave up to 20 percent off of your heating costs. It can also save on cooling costs. In our survey, roughly six in ten respondents with a programmable model have seen savings. But you need to stick to those settings to save.

Easy, low-cost solutions. Lock double- hung windows to prevent air from escaping. Open curtains on south-facing windows on cold days to let in the sun.

Water consumption
Dollar savings $400

If you’re not already aware of your household’s water use, you will be soon. Almost four in five states anticipate water shortages by 2013, which could lead to steeper rates and penalties for excessive use. When it comes to showering and washing dishes and clothes, you’re also paying to heat the water.

Stop drips. It’s the fastest way to conserve, saving the average household about $70 a year. Next, upgrade to water-efficient fixtures. Low-flow showerheads can save as much as $265 per year on water bills. “A $30 showerhead can save more money than $3,000 worth of solar panels,” says Charlie Szoradi, of Green and Save, a company based in Devon, Pa., that analyzes the payback of energy-efficiency projects. Switching to a low-flow toilet, which uses 1.28 gallons per flush compared with the 3.5 to 5 gallons of a 15-year-old or older model, can save $90. Also check for utility rebates.

Watch the water heater. Lower the temperature to 120° F and insulate your hot-water pipes. If your unit is more than a decade old, do your research now. That way you’ll get a new unit that has a long warranty and is sized appropriately, not whatever’s on the truck of the only plumber who calls you back when your old heater breaks.

Easy, low-cost solutions. Insulate your water heater. Don’t prerinse dishes before loading them into the dishwasher. Add an aerator to faucets.

Recycling
Dollar savings $250

Though recycling saves the least money, it generated some of the highest results in our survey. Two-thirds of people said they recycle paper and plastic, and over half recycle metal and glass—proof that being green isn’t just about saving green.

Rewards and penalties initiated. RecycleBank, which is now used by a million people across 20 states, lets you put all of your recyclables in one container instead of separating them by type. Then it weighs the container and issues rewards or points redeemable at local retailers. The average household gets $250 worth. “Pay As You Throw” programs, in 7,100 communities nationwide according to Skumatz Economic Research Associates of Superior, Colo., treat trash like a utility: Homeowners are charged for the garbage they throw out. And if you’re not redeeming bottle deposits, you’re not alone. Millions of dollars are unclaimed every year.

Nontraditional recycling is low. Our survey revealed less widespread recycling rates for items such as batteries (32 percent), printer cartridges (30 percent), small electronics (17 percent), CFLs (16 percent), and large electronics (12 percent). Some of the most common reasons for throwing items away instead of recycling them were that people didn’t think the item could be recycled or they didn’t have enough information to do so. But just about everything that comes into the home can be recycled.

The Web site Earth911.com lists more than 100,000 recycling locations, which can be searched by material and ZIP code. If you come up empty there, contact your department of solid-waste management.

A large percentage of respondents told us they donated or otherwise gave away certain household items, including furniture (29 percent), small appliances (28 percent), and major appliances (21 percent). If you go that route, first check with the Better Business Bureau (www.give.org) or Charity Navigator to make sure you’re giving to a worthy cause.

Easy, low-cost solutions. Start a compost bin for organic food scraps or ask whether the local farmers market will take them. Trade household items on sites such as freecycle.org. Invest in a reusable water container to cut down on your household’s use of plastic water bottles. Take spent CFLs to a Home Depot for recycling.

Electricity Use
Annual savings $300

Between lights, electronics, and appliances, electricity accounts for almost 40 percent of the average home’s energy use. But there are ways to cut back in each category without sacrificing.

By changing 10 bulbs and replacing three major appliances with energy-efficient models, you can save hundreds per year. As our survey found, many American are already taking advantage of those savings. Almost two-thirds have replaced an incandescent light bulb with a CFL. As for appliances, 34 percent of respondents told us they’ve upgraded to an energy-efficient model. It doesn’t make sense to pitch a perfectly good appliance or electronic item, but if you’re in the market for a new one, the type you choose can make a difference. For example, side-by-side refrigerators use more energy than top- or bottom-mounts, top-loading washers use more electricity and water than front-loaders, and plasma TVs use more electricity than LCD sets.

Easy, low-cost solutions. Plug electronics into power strips with built-in sensors that automatically shut off devices that aren’t in use. Set your computer to hibernate. Use LED holiday string lights. Turn off lights when you leave a room.

Copyright 2009 by Consumers Union of U.S., Inc., Yonkers, NY 10703-1057, a nonprofit organization. Reprinted with permission from the October 2009 issue of Consumer Reports® for educational purposes only. No commercial use or reproduction permitted. www.ConsumerReports.org, http://www.consumerreports.org/.

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