Here’s the good news: The biggest energy hog in your house is not your plasma screen. And it’s probably not your home theater system—unless you’re pumping out watts by the thousands. There are ways to save energy on those suckers, but why not concentrate your high-tech energy-efficiency efforts on the appliances and devices that the pull the most juice from both the utilities and your wallet?
And no, you don’t have to get all cuddly with pink insulation. Though in some cases, it wouldn’t hurt.
Here’s a rundown on the worst energy culprits in your house and the cool ways you can tame them to save you some money.
According to the Department of Energy, heating your home accounts for about 31 percent of your energy costs. Now that could be heating with oil, gas or electricity. But in any case, you can get your costs under better control, depending on how much you want to invest.
Easy fix: Turn your thermostat down. For every degree you turn it down, you save about 1 percent on your utility bills. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up.
Get serious: Invest a few hundred in a smart or programmable thermostat—and program it! They’re not hard to set, and you can schedule it for different temperatures at different times, so a room can use less heat at night while you’re toasty in bed.
Get really serious: If you’re heating with oil or gas, look for a modulating and sealed combustion boiler. A modulated boiler fires at different settings so it can burn lower on a hot day instead of firing at the same high level as the coldest day of the year, which is how many boilers are set. These boilers are much more efficient than the standard builder specials that lurk in many homes.
Go nuts: Look into heating with an alternative form of energy, like geothermal. It uses the constant heat in the ground then boosts it via a heat exchanger to warm your tootsies. Geothermal systems work great with radiant floor heating systems, but they can be costly—think five figures and above—and are best installed in while a home is being constructed.
We just knew this would be next, didn’t we? Cooling can account for 12 percent to of your energy bill, on average—and this will certainly be higher in sunnier climes. There are great ways to control your cooling costs, too.
Easy fix: Use fans, not air conditioners. Fans draw much less electricity than A/C units. But remember, they don’t cool a room. They just cool the people near them, so don’t leave them on when a room is vacant. That is so un-cool. If you have skylights, open them to exhaust rising hot air. A ceiling fan beneath a skylight can be reversed to draw warm air up and out, forming a thermal chimney that helps keep your house cool. Still gotta have that A/C? If you raise your thermostat by only two degrees and use your ceiling fan, you can your lower cooling costs by up to 14 percent, according to the EPA.
Get serious: Invest in an Energy Star-labeled air conditioner. An Energy Star label signifies that the product is more energy-efficient than most others on the market. Even an Energy Star A/C uses more electricity than a fan, however. But if you have to stay cooler, this is the way to go. And if you have an older air conditioner that’s Energy Star-rated, look to upgrade. Energy Star products get more efficient as years past, so an older Energy Star-certified unit is not as efficient as those available today.
Get really serious: Buy a programmable thermostat (see #1) or a home control system that hooks up to a heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system, so you are able to control the temperature settings in various zones of your house via a touchscreen, or even remotely. A home control system will cost you in the thousands, but if you can pre-cool your digs before coming home or reset the thermostats from your phone as you’re leaving for vacation, it could be worth it.
Go nuts: Invest in both a home control system and motorized window treatments, and tie them to temperature and light sensors so the shades or curtains will close when a room gets too hot. These systems are high-end and expensive, but they can be automated to help you save on your cooling costs (as well as heating and lighting costs). Look for more motorized shading systems to be integrated with lighting control, so that the shades will open automatically to allow natural light in and reduce your lighting costs.
It’s the big Number 3, especially if you have a house with teens who love long, hot showers. Domestic hot water is likely responsible for big part of your energy bill—no matter how you’re heating it: oil, gas, or electricity. Is there a way to curb the amount of energy you’re using to heat water? Absolutely.
Easy Fix: Set the temp of your hot water heater to 120 degrees for the best comfort and efficiency. You can also save energy by washing clothes in cold water and using a dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand.
Get serious: Invest in Energy Star appliances such as water heaters, dishwashers, and clothes washers.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates