It seems like the price of energy keeps going up. As a result, many people are learning to reduce their energy costs by using energy more efficiently. In this module we’ll discuss several ways to be more energy efficient so you can save money on your utility bills. But before we look at what we can save, let’s first look at what we spend. The largest part of the average utility bill is spent on heating and cooling. According to the US Department of Energy the typical home uses about 34% of their total energy for heating and about 11% for cooling. Refrigerators account for about 8%, while lighting, electronics, and other appliances make up about 34%. Finally, water heaters use about 13% of the total energy cost in our homes. Throughout this module we’ll see how you can use less energy in each of these areas.
Section A, heating and cooling. As we’ve seen heating and cooling uses more energy than anything else in your home. As a result, it’s also the area where you can save the most. To begin we’ll look at the winter months and see how you can save money, yet stay comfortable during the coldest months of the year. You may be surprised how much money you can save with just a slight change to your thermostat. In fact, during the winter months you can save up to 5% on your heating bill for every degree you lower the indoor temperature. For example by lowering your thermostat just five degrees your heating bill could drop by 25%.
During the winter we recommend setting your thermostat to 68 degrees during the day if you’re at home, and at 63 degrees when you’re asleep or away from home, unless you need the temperature higher for medical reasons. It’s a good idea to turn the temperature down at night since you’ll save energy and money while you sleep. If you don’t think you’ll remember to turn the temperature down, you can always buy a programmable thermostat to change these temperature settings for you automatically. Make sure you buy the programmable thermostat that’s suited to the type of central system you have, and if you have room by room heating with individual room control, set it back or turn it off in rooms you’re not using.
Finally, if you’re going to be away from home for several days or longer during the winter months, we recommend setting your thermostat to 55 degrees. If you shut your heating system off completely and your house gets too cold, water in your interior pipes can freeze and cause them to break. By setting your thermostat to 55 degrees you’ll still save a lot of money on your utility bill, but your house probably won’t get cold enough to freeze your water pipes. If you rent it’s a good idea to talk to your landlord or building professional before setting your thermostat this low.
Now let’s skip ahead a few months from winter to summer. During the hot summer months only run your air conditioner when it’s necessary. In the evening or on cooler summer days open up your house and use fans to bring air in. Take advantage of moderate temperatures and lower humidity when you can. After all, there’s no point in air conditioning your home if you don’t need to. When you do need to run your air conditioner, close up your house and set your thermostat to 78 degrees.
To make your house even more energy-efficient here are some additional summertime tips. Turn up the thermostat three to five degrees when you’re leaving for work or going away for a weekend. Install ceiling fans throughout your house. They can make the temperature seem about four degrees cooler inside. If you have window air conditioners, only use them in rooms where you spend most of your time. Use your stove and other heat producing appliances early in the morning or late in the evening. Remember not to adjust the thermostat to a colder temperature to cool a room quickly. The room won’t cool any faster and you’ll just end up wasting energy. Just set the thermostat to the temperature you want.
Plant trees to shade your home, especially in your east and west facing windows. In addition, evergreen or fir trees can help block cold north and west winter winds. By shading your air conditioning unit you can increase its efficiency up to 10%. Be sure that shrubs are at least two feet away from the unit so they don’t block its air circulation. Keep the hot daytime sun out of your home by using drapes, blinds, or shades on your windows. Keep lights low or off and use fluorescent lights since they produce less heat.
So far we’ve seen how you can use your heating and cooling equipment more efficiently. Next we’ll look at how to keep it running properly and safely. Without regular maintenance your furnace, air conditioner, heat pump, and other equipment can become less effective or even dangerous. To keep everything running right, heating and cooling equipment should be checked and serviced every year by a qualified professional. If your furnace isn’t running properly or if you have a blocked flue pipe, it could spread dangerous carbon monoxide through your home. Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas, which can kill. Symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure such as headaches, dizziness, and nausea are easily overlooked since they can seem like the flu. To protect yourself and your family you should install carbon monoxide alarms on each level of your home and check them every few months. But even with these alarms it’s still very important to schedule a professional inspection of your heating and cooling equipment each year.
In addition to the yearly inspection, you’ll also need to clean or replace the air filters in your system fairly often. Changing these filters is quick, inexpensive, and easy enough to do yourself. Check your heating and cooling system filter each month, and if it’s dirty, replace it. If you are a renter, be sure to ask your landlord who’s responsible for cleaning or changing these filters. Also, since home heating and cooling equipment needs good air flow to work properly and safely, you’ll need to keep the area around your equipment clear. In particular, if you have a furnace or hot water heater in a closed area or closet, you’ll need to be sure that air can get to that unit easily.
To get the most out of your equipment it’s also a good idea to have your ductwork inspected. If you have a central heating or cooling system, conditioned air moves through the ductwork to each room in your house. If ducts don’t move air properly or aren’t well insulated, you end up paying to heat or cool air that doesn’t go to the right place. Some homes leak 15 to 20% of their conditioned air into attics, crawl spaces, walls, basements, and garages, which can add hundreds of dollars a year to your utility bills.
To keep your air distribution system working efficiently, it’s a good idea to have a professional inspect and test your ductwork for leaks. If you want, you can even do some of the repair work yourself. For example, leaking duct seams are easy to fix. Although some people use regular duct tape to patch ductwork it’s not a good idea since there are much better products available these days. The proper way to seal joints, seams, and gaps in your ductwork is to either use mastic, which is a thick paste or Underwriters Laboratory approved foil backed duct tape. Some parts of your ductwork may be difficult to get to, but don’t ignore these areas. Instead, have a qualified professional seal any ducts you can’t fix yourself.
If you have ducts in unconditioned areas such as crawl spaces or attics, you should not only have them checked for leaks, but you should also have them insulated. Keep in mind however that during the winter months insulated ducts will not heat up your attic or crawl space the way they used to. This means that if you have water or drain pipes in the attic or crawl space, they’ll be more likely to freeze and crack. So if your attic or crawl space has water pipes, you’ll want to talk to a professional before insulating any nearby ducts. If you rent, be sure to ask your landlord if these things have already been taken care of.
Finally, after inspecting, sealing, and insulating your ductwork, be careful not to block the air flow from the air vents, radiators, or baseboard heaters. After working hard to have efficient ductwork, the last thing you want to do is block your vents. Air systems work more efficiently when all the vents are open and unblocked. This will give you an even flow of air throughout your rooms. Air deflectors and extenders are also available if you want to direct the air in a certain direction.
So far we’ve talked about the maintenance of your heating and cooling equipment. But before we finish, it’s important to note that even with the best maintenance this equipment won’t last forever. Eventually these units will need to be replaced. When you do decide to buy new heating or cooling equipment, look for Energy Guide labels to compare efficiencies and purchase the most efficient model you can afford.
As we’ve seen, heating and cooling accounts for almost half of the energy used in our homes, but with a few simple actions such as lowering thermostat settings in the winter, raising settings in the summer, changing or cleaning furnace filters regularly, and repairing ductwork you can dramatically improve your home’s energy efficiency. To keep your heating and cooling equipment running properly and safely, have it checked regularly, and if you’re purchasing anything new, look for the Energy Star logo and Energy Guide labels. With these tips you’ll be on your way to having a truly efficient and comfortable home.