Eco-hacking: Small, simple changes to save energy and make your home more eco-friendly.
Eco-hacking means making small, simple tweaks that can put a big dent in your home’s energy and water use. Some eco-hacks use modern smart technology, while others depend on older, simpler solutions. The best approach for you could be high-tech, low-tech, or a mix of the two.
Many eco-hacks involve the use of smart home technology. They involve connecting devices such as appliances to the Internet and tinkering with their functions to make them more efficient. In many cases, older, low-tech approaches can do just as much, or more, to make your home greener.
Simple devices for controlling your home’s systems have been around for decades. Examples include programmable thermostats and timers for lights or sprinklers. But smart home technology takes this idea to the next level. It plugs your devices into the Internet, making it easier than ever to monitor and fine-tune energy and water use. Try these tricks to eco-hack your home with smart tech.
Smart thermostats, such as Nest or Ecobee, let you control your home’s heating and cooling systems from anywhere. This helps you save energy by running heat and air conditioning only when you need them.
A smart thermostat can work like an old-fashioned programmable thermostat, adjusting your home’s temperature up or down at set times. But you can also change the temperature remotely from your phone or by voice commands through a smart speaker. Some smart thermostats can even tell when you’re headed home based on your phone’s location and adjust the temperature accordingly.
Smart thermostats only work with central heating and air conditioning. If you rely on window A/C units for cooling, a smart thermostat can’t control them. However, you can buy smart air conditioners that you can control directly via phone or voice commands. If you forget to shut the unit off when you leave for work, you can turn it off remotely from your workplace. And before heading home, you can turn it back on and have the place cool when you get there.
Another way to minimize heating and A/C use is to control how much heat your home absorbs from the sun. In summer, you can cover windows to block out light during the hottest part of the day. And in winter, you can expose them to let the sun warm up the room.
Smart window shades, blinds, and shutters do this job automatically. They open and close according to a preset schedule or based on voice and phone commands. This makes it easy to admit light when you want it and block it when you don’t.
Did you know about one-fifth of your home’s energy use comes from water heating? You can minimize that amount with a smart water heater. Some smart water heaters operate on a fixed schedule, like a programmable thermostat. Others track your hot water use and adapt automatically. Either way, you have hot water when you need it and don’t waste energy heating it at other times.
You don’t have to replace your entire water heater to get these benefits. Add-on devices such as the Aquanta attach to your water tank and let you control it remotely. They can turn it on and off, tell you how much hot water is left, and alert you if there’s a leak.
One of the most annoying energy-wasters in any home is vampire power use. Some electronic gadgets and appliances continue to suck energy even when they’re not turned on. You can switch them off at the source with a power strip, but that only works if you remember to do it.
Smart plugs, also called smart outlets, can slay your energy vampires. These devices connect a standard wall outlet to your home’s wi-fi network, making it programmable. You can control it with your phone or put it on a timer, switching it on and off on a schedule. Some smart plugs can also monitor your devices’ energy use over time.
As any eco-savvy person knows, LED light bulbs are more efficient than incandescent or CFL bulbs. But smart bulbs, such as Wyze or Philips WiZ, make it even easier to save energy. You can control them remotely with phone or voice commands, easily switching off any lights that aren’t in use. They can also operate on a timer. And some smart bulbs have extra, fun features, such as changing their brightness or color on command.
The simplest smart sprinklers water your plants at set times or when you give them the order via phone or voice. More sophisticated ones use weather data from the Internet to adjust the watering schedule. When it’s hot and dry, they give plants more water. When rain is in the forecast, they water less or not at all.
A smart speaker such as the Echo or Nest Audio can integrate all your smart home technology. With a single voice command like “Alexa, it’s bedtime,” you can adjust the lights, heating, and window shades all at once. Besides saving you energy, smart speakers can do just-for-fun stuff like playing your favorite tunes on command.
Eco-hacking your home doesn’t have to be about using the latest Internet-connected smart devices. Old-school “dumb” devices can often do as much or more to make your home greener. In fact, sometimes you can save energy by using less technology and switching to old-fashioned tools for heating, cooling, and other tasks.
To save energy, you need to know where you’re using it. The best way to learn this is through a home energy audit. Professional home auditors review your utility bills and inspect your home, room by room. Based on this, they figure out where you’re using the most energy and suggest ways to save.
This service typically costs a few hundred dollars. However, it can save you much more than that in energy bills. Some states offer free energy audits, and some utilities provide them at a discount to their customers. You can also conduct a DIY home energy audit for free.
On a chilly day, why heat up the whole house just to warm yourself? You can stay toasty without turning up the thermostat by using a candle heater. Its ceramic material captures and distributes the heat from a candle to warm you more effectively than an open flame.
You can find beautifully decorated ceramic candle stoves on sites like Etsy. But it’s also easy to build your own with a few terracotta flowerpots and a few bucks' worth of hardware.
Just a few generations ago, most homes didn’t have gas or electric clothes dryers. Instead, most people used solar clothes dryers—otherwise known as clotheslines. And there’s nothing to stop you from doing the same today.
There are many kinds of clotheslines and drying racks to choose from. Most cost $100 or less, and many can work both outdoors and indoors. All you need is a small amount of space to dry your laundry for free. (Check out more tips on how to save energy and money on your laundry.)
Believe it or not, you can also use solar heat for cooking. Solar cookers, also called solar ovens, concentrate and focus sunlight to bring food up to cooking temperature. Cooking this way saves energy and also avoids heating up your kitchen in summertime.
Prices for commercial solar ovens range from $40 to $160. There are also plans available online for a variety of DIY solar cookers. Designs range from a simple foil-lined box to an elaborate, glass-topped metal drum.
Smart bulbs aren’t the only way to save on lighting. You can also use a simple timer to turn lights off automatically at bedtime. It’s also useful for turning lights on while you’re on vacation, making your home less of a target for burglars.
Another simple tool to hack your lighting is a motion sensor. It switches the lights on whenever someone enters a room and turns them off when the room is empty. You can buy light bulbs with built-in motion sensors or add one to a lamp separately.
Some home eco-hacks are fairly easy and cheap to do. Others cost more upfront but can offer big benefits. One example is replacing your water heater with a tankless model.
Traditional tank water heaters store hot water until it’s needed. That means they use energy keeping it warm. By contrast, tankless systems supply hot water only on demand, heating it instantly. According to the Department of Energy, tankless water heaters range from 8% to 34% more efficient than tanks.
Tankless water heaters aren’t cheap. Including installation, they can cost anywhere from $1,800 to $3,000. It’s unlikely you’ll save enough on hot water to make up for that entire cost. However, if you need to replace your water heater anyway, it’s worth considering a tankless model. It’ll still cost more upfront than a new tank heater, but the savings could be worth it. Also, some utilities offer rebates for making this energy-efficient upgrade.
Most eco-hacks are fairly small changes that don’t have a huge impact on your carbon footprint. However, there’s one change that can make a truly tremendous difference: converting your home to solar power. There are multiple ways to do this, so if one method doesn’t work, you have alternatives.
The most obvious way to go solar is to put solar panels on your roof. Doing this can entirely erase your electric bill, but the up-front cost is high. Even with federal solar tax credits, a typical system costs between $11,000 and $15,000. And, of course, you need a well-lit roof to put the panels on.
If you can’t install rooftop panels, you can still support solar power and get similar savings benefits by joining a nearby community solar project. You subscribe to a share of the power produced by a solar farm in your area, and while you don't get that power directly into your home (it's being distributed to the overall grid)—you do receive credits from your utility company that lower your electricity bill every month! It's much easier and cheaper than instaling solar panels on your roof, or for people who can't install their own panels.
The biggest downside of community solar is that it’s not available everywhere yet due to many states not yet having adopted community solar legislation. To see if there’s a project near you, Perch can help! Enter your ZIP code here.
Depending on where you live, there may be a third way to get clean, renewable energy at home. In states with deregulated energy markets, you can choose to buy your electricity directly from a third-party supplier. That gives you the option to choose power that comes from 100% renewable sources, such as solar.
However, comparing energy suppliers can be tricky. It’s not always easy to tell what your options are and how they compare in cost and renewable energy use. Here, again, Perch can help. If you live in our service area, just enter your ZIP code and preferences to be matched with a power provider.
As you can see, eco-hacking isn’t necessarily about using the newest technology—or the oldest. It’s about using the best solutions for your needs. To have the biggest impact on your environmental footprint, don’t limit yourself to one approach or the other. Instead, choose the mix of smart home and simple home ideas that’s right for you.