If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably seen your home energy costs rise over the past two years. That’s hardly surprising, considering that so many people are now working from home. Our lights, heating and cooling systems, electronics, and computers are on all day—sometimes many computers to accommodate both adults and remote-learning kids.
Higher home energy bills are bad news not just for your wallet, but also for the environment. For one thing, most American homes use fossil fuels for heating. And even though renewables are gaining traction, the majority of U.S. electricity generation also comes from fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). As we use more energy at home, we produce more emissions that contribute to smog, acid rain, and global warming.
Fortunately, there are many ways to cut your home energy usage back down to size. With just a few small changes in your daily habits, you can see a big difference in your electric bill—and your environmental footprint.
Energy conservation simply means using less energy. Some conservation steps are big, like the city of Toronto using Lake Ontario instead of air conditioning for summer cooling. Others are small, like a single person turning off the lights in an unused room.
There are two main ways to conserve energy in your daily life. The first is to boost energy efficiency. In other words, use better technology to do the same work with less energy. One example is replacing your water heater with a newer one that uses less fuel.
The other method is to change your own behavior. Cut back on activities that use energy or find ways to do them with less. For instance, you could reduce your hot water use by taking shorter showers, washing clothes in cold water, and fixing leaks. By using less hot water, you save energy even with the same old water heater.
To maximize your energy savings, use both forms of conservation at once. In other words, upgrade your water heater, but also cut your water use. Combining the two strategies adds up to the biggest benefits—for your wallet and our planet.
The biggest energy hog in your home is the HVAC system. According to the EIA, more than half the average home’s energy use goes toward heating and cooling. Thus, this area of your home energy bill offers the biggest potential for savings.
The easiest way to save on heating and cooling is to tweak your thermostat settings. In the wintertime, you can turn the thermostat down at night and when you’re out of the house. In the summer, let your home warm up while you’re away and then cool it down once you’ve returned home. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says adjusting the temperature by 7°F–10°F for eight hours a day can save you up to 10% on home heating and cooling.
To make this even easier, spend $20 to $50 on a programmable thermostat. It adjusts the temperature for you automatically at times you specify. That means you don’t need to remember to turn down the heat at night or when you leave for work. The thermostat does it for you—and turns it back up again before you get up or head home.
Better still, try one of the new smart thermostats. These devices give you even more control, with features like:
Next to heating and cooling, your home’s biggest energy users are appliances like your water heater, washer, dryer, and fridge. However, you can reduce the amount of energy they need by adjusting the way you use them. Try these tips to save energy with all your home appliances.
Water heater: Keep your water heater set at 120°F. That’s hot enough to kill bacteria and not hot enough to scald you. You can turn the water temperature down still lower when you’re away on vacation.
Washing machine: Wait to run the washer until you have a full load. That way you’ll wash fewer loads overall, saving on water and electricity. Also, wash your clothes in cold water with cold-water detergent whenever possible. The government’s ENERGY STAR site reports that water heating accounts for about 90% of a washer’s energy use. Plus, washing in cold could even help clothes last longer.
Dryer: If your dryer has a moisture sensor, use it. Timed settings can waste energy by continuing to run after clothes are dry. To keep your dryer running efficiently, clean the lint filter after every load. To save even more, don’t run your dryer at all in nice weather. Hang clothes outside on a clothesline or rack and let the sun dry them for free. (Check out more tips on how to save energy and money on laundry).
Dishwasher: Use your dishwasher if you have one. In most cases, it uses less water and energy than washing dishes by hand. Run the dishwasher only when it’s full, and don’t bother to pre-rinse—this step wastes energy and may not even get dishes any cleaner! Also, use the “eco mode” setting for lightly soiled dishes, and always use the no-heat setting for drying.
Refrigerator: Don’t set your fridge’s thermostat too low. The DOE recommends keeping the fresh food section at 35°F–38°F and the freezer at 0°F. Leaky refrigerator seals waste cold air, so check yours by closing the door on a slip of paper. If you can pull it out easily, replace the seals. Here’s one tip that works with all appliances: Maintain them properly. Follow the instructions in the manual to keep appliances running at top efficiency.
Did you know many electronic devices use power even when they’re not running? TVs, sound systems, computers, and some kitchen appliances all draw a small amount of current when switched off. This constant, low-level energy drain is called a “phantom” or “vampire” power load.
To slay energy vampires, unplug your devices when they’re not in use. Easier still, connect them to a power strip you can switch off to cut power to the devices. If you choose a “smart” power strip, you don’t even have to turn it off. These tools sense when a device goes into standby mode and cut off power to its outlet automatically.
If you have any old incandescent light bulbs, it’s long past time to upgrade them. New LED bulbs use as little as one-tenth the energy, according to the DOE. They also last up to 25 times longer, so you go through far fewer bulbs. These two facts together make this easy update a big money-saver.
LED bulbs also last longer and use less energy than compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). However, the savings from switching aren’t as dramatic as switching away from incandescent bulbs. If you currently have CFLs, you may as well wait until they burn out before replacing them with LEDs.
In the summer, you can cut down on air conditioning costs by using fans. Electric fans use far less energy than air conditioners and cost much less to run. This table shows how much you can save over the course of a year. (Note: $0.14 per kWh is the average price of electricity in the U.S.)
|Cost per hour at $0.14 per kWh
|Cost per year at nine hours per day, four months per year
Even if you can’t get cool enough with a fan, it can still help cut your AC use. With a fan running, you don’t need to keep the thermostat setting as low. According to the DOE, a ceiling fan allows you to raise the temperature by 4°F and still feel comfortable.
Just remember, fans are for cooling people, not rooms. They work by blowing hot air away from your body. So, when you leave the room, shut off the fan to save electricity.
Believe it or not, a ceiling fan can help you stay warm in winter, too. If you set it to spin clockwise, it moves warm air from near the ceiling back down to floor level. Keep it on low speed so its cooling effect doesn’t cancel out the benefits.
Old appliances are notoriously inefficient. If you have any at home, consider replacing them with new, more efficient appliances. For maximum energy savings, choose models with the ENERGY STAR label, which meet even higher standards for efficiency.
Depending on how inefficient your old appliances are, the energy savings could make up for the cost of replacement. For instance, suppose you have a 30-year-old, 20-cubic-foot top-freezer fridge. According to an ENERGY STAR calculator, replacing it with a new ENERGY STAR fridge would save you $720 over five years. If the new fridge costs $720 or less, it will pay for itself within five years.
Sometimes, what’s outside your home affects your energy use as much as what’s inside. Trees and shrubs can lower your heating and cooling bills by blunting the impact of sun and wind on your home.
In cold areas, you could plant evergreen trees and hedges where they will block the winter wind. In hot areas, plant deciduous trees to shade the south side of the house from the summer sun. They’ll shed their leaves in winter, allowing sunlight to warm up the house.
Another way to protect your home from the elements is to add insulation. When you run your HVAC system, you want to heat and cool the house, not the outdoors. But over time, heat gradually seeps out (or in) through walls, floors, windows, doors, and ceilings. Insulation slows this heat loss (or gain).
According to ENERGY STAR, upgrading your home insulation to recommended levels can cut an average of 15% from your heating and cooling bills. However, this amount varies based on where you live. In general, the colder your climate is, the more value good insulation can provide.
Along with insulation, air sealing helps reduce heat loss and gain. Cracks and leaks around doors and windows allow hot or cold air to escape. Sealing them up keeps the heat in (or out), so your HVAC system doesn’t have to work as hard.
The best way to figure out if your home needs better insulation or air sealing is a home energy audit. You can do this yourself (with our handy DIY energy audit checklist as help!). Alternatively, professional energy assessors will come to your home and use a variety of tools to find spots where your home is losing or gaining heat. They can also evaluate the efficiency of your HVAC and water heating systems. Then they recommend solutions for problem areas.
A professional home energy audit costs an average of $400. However, it could pay for itself in energy savings. Also, some utility companies and local and state energy programs offer audits for free or at a reduced cost. Check to see if any deals like this are available in your area.
A window always lets more heat through than an insulated wall. However, some windows are much more energy efficient than others. With ENERGY STAR-certified windows, you can save an average of 12% on your home energy bills.
Unfortunately, replacing all your windows with energy-efficient models is an expensive project. These windows can cost $325 to $785 each, plus $100 to $250 per window in labor costs for installation.
To offset the cost, see if your utility company offers any rebates for this project. Some companies provide rebates of up to $200 per window. You can also check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) website for energy efficiency programs offered by your state government.
New HVAC systems are much more efficient than older ones. According to the DOE, older furnaces only turn around 59% of the fuel they burn to usable heat. The most efficient modern furnaces can convert as much as 98.5% of fuel to heat.
HomeAdvisor indicates that the cost to replace a furnace ranges from around $2,800 to $6,750. However, it could be worth the cost if the energy savings are big enough. The Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) Savings Calculator can help you figure out the potential savings from upgrading your furnace.
If you really want to maximize your energy savings, go with the ultimate home eco-hack and consider a home solar setup. By installing solar panels on your roof, you can produce electricity from sunlight—for free.
Solar panels aren’t for everyone. They have high up-front costs, and you can’t even install them unless you own your home. You also need a roof that’s large enough and captures a sufficient amount of sunlight every day. The calculator at Project Sunroof can help you figure out the costs and benefits of installing solar where you live.
Your rooftop isn’t the only way to go solar. There are many new and innovative tech products that can help you put the power of the sun to work on a smaller scale inside your home. Examples include:
Additionally, community solar is a program designed to make the financial benefits of solar energy accessible to everyday homeowners and renters. It’s for the majority of U.S. residents who are unable to install solar panels on their rooves. Community solar is a subscription-based program where you subscribe to a solar farm near your home. Instead of having to install panels on your own roof, you support a solar farm near you. You're enabling it to operate and promoting clean energy generation in your community. In return for your support, you receive solar credits on your utility bill that lower how much you owe for electricity every month. It’s a win-win! You save money and support clean energy going back onto the grid.
Some energy-conserving projects are quick and easy. Others require a lot more effort and more money invested up front. But even the big projects can be worth it when you consider the benefits.
Whether it’s home heating oil, gas, or electricity, energy always costs money. Thus, the less energy you use at home, the more money you can save. Over the long run, even expensive projects like upgrading your HVAC system or installing solar can pay for themselves in savings on your utility bill.
Better energy efficiency doesn’t just reduce your energy bills today. It also protects you from future increases in energy costs. As the price of electricity and heating fuel rises, you’ll feel the pain less because you’re using less energy.
The steps you take to make your home more efficient can also make it more comfortable. For example, better insulation and air sealing help you stay warm in winter and cool in summer.
An energy-efficient home is also a healthier home. For instance, upgrading your HVAC system often improves your house’s ventilation. This helps you remove germs that cause illness and reduce the buildup of mold and indoor pollutants.
Making your home more energy-efficient adds to its value. A 2019 study by the National Association of Home Builders measured this benefit in dollar terms. It found that if you make upgrades that cut your home energy bills by $1,000 per year, it increases your home value by around $5,000.
Every time you save energy, you’re also helping the environment. By reducing your fossil fuel use, you shrink your carbon footprint and cut back on pollution that harms human health.
One final perk: cutting your energy use at home can help you transition away from fossil fuels altogether and towards renewable sources like solar and wind. The smaller your electricity needs are, the easier it is to meet them with a home solar setup. Or, if you want to switch to a renewable power provider, you can offset the additional cost per kilowatt-hour by using fewer kilowatt-hours in total.
By combining energy conservation with a switch to cleaner power sources, you help create a cleaner, safer world for future generations. And that’s something you truly can’t put a price on.
One other way to help the planet long-term? Practice "green parenting"—or raising your kids in an eco-friendly, sustainably-minded way. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting: How To Raise Eco-Conscious Kids.