6 Ways to Save Money and Energy at Home
Tips from the happy homeowner playbook: Don’t let your cash go down the drain or out the window.
Whether your live in a 19th-century farmhouse or 1990s colonial, chances are you're leaving real money on the table each year in the form of excessive energy consumption. Simple behavioral changes, such as turning off power-hungry video game consoles, can add up to serious savings. The following energy-efficiency advice also includes high-hanging fruit, like upgrading your water heater and making the investment in rooftop solar.
Here’s an easy way to pinpoint air leaks in your home that make for drafty rooms in the winter and can drive up annual heating costs by $100 or more. First, turn on every exhaust fan in the house, including a whole-house fan and kitchen range hood, and hold an incense stick up to suspected leaks around windows, doors, and even electrical outlets. If the smoke blows sideways, you have a leak large enough to undermine your home’s comfort and efficiency. For around $30 worth of caulk, weatherstripping, and expandable foam sealant, you can plug the leaks for good.
Clamp Down on Vampire Power
For $20 you can pick up the Kill A Watt, a device that measures how much juice your gadgets are consuming when you’re not actively using them. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that vampire power accounts for 5 to 10 percent of electricity consumption in a typical household. It can add up in terms of your electric bill and the environmental impact. Focus on devices such as laptops that are finished charging, printers, and game consoles. The Xbox One draws a little more than 100 watts in standby mode, for instance. The fix is to unplug them when not in use or to group devices onto a power strip with a switch. Doing so can save you several hundred dollars per year.
Wise Up About Washing Dishes
Do your dishes a favor and don’t rinse them before loading the dishwasher. Most dishwashers have a sensor to detect how dirty the dishes are and adjust the cycle time accordingly. Pre-rinsing removes most of the loose food debris, so the machine might run a shortened cycle, which isn’t as effective at removing greasy lipstick or baked-on foods. The lazy approach will also cut your water usage. The 5 gallons wasted by rinsing with the faucet on full blast for 2 minutes is about what most of our top-rated dishwashers use in an entire cycle.
Perform an Energy Audit
Certified auditors will charge $300 to $800 to do a comprehensive assessment of your home’s heating, cooling, ductwork, and insulation. They’ll also review your energy bills to find savings from, for example, unusually high air-conditioning costs. Some utilities offer free audits—just call to ask. If not, you can find a certified auditor at the website of the Building Performance Institute (bpihomeowner.org) or the Residential Energy Services Network (resnet.us). Don’t want to hire a professional? The Department of Energy’s website, at energysavers.gov, has details on how to perform an energy audit yourself.
Lower Your Water-Heating Costs
Is your water heater costing you more than it should? Upgrading a unit that’s more than a dozen years old to a high-efficiency model could pay off in a few years, especially if you’re switching from a standard electric water heater to a heat-pump type. Energy Star, the consumer product labeling program run by the Environmental Protection Agency, puts the annual savings for a family of four at $330, for a payback period of 2.5 years.
Think Seriously About Solar
There has never been a better time to consider solar power. Over the past five years prices have dropped 63 percent, based on a broad survey of manufacturers and installers by the Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry’s leading trade group. And plenty of generous incentives are still available to homeowners.
Installing rooftop solar panels will defray electricity costs while shrinking your home’s carbon footprint. A federal tax credit will cover 30 percent of the installation (a savings of about $5,000 for most homeowners). But the incentive will start to be phased out at the end of 2019, and other state and local rebates are also drying up. Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency website (dsireusa.org) for a list of programs in your state.
Another option: Solar water heaters, which can slash your water heating bills by 50 to 80 percent, according to the Energy Department. The systems include a rooftop cell, called a collector, which absorbs radiation from the sun and typically transfers the heat to an antifreeze like fluid that heats water in a storage tank. Given the steep up-front costs, the payback period for a solar water heater could be 10 years or longer, based on our past tests.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.