Lean and Trim

Is your home an energy hog? Here’s how you can put it on a money-saving diet.

By Jodi Helmer

October 2012


During the construction of his home, Ryan McKinnon selected energy-efficient windows, upgraded insulation and Energy Star-certified appliances. Since he has moved in, McKinnon, 34, has invested in a programmable thermostat, makes sure he changes his furnace filters regularly and uses the cold-water setting in the washing machine.

“We wanted to make sure the house was as energy efficient as possible, mostly because it would help keep our utility bills low,” says McKinnon, a millwright in Bowmanville, Ontario.
It’s time to start thinking about staying cozy this winter without forcing your utility meter to work overtime. Putting your home on an energy diet can help cut carbon emissions and lower your energy bills.

Energy Checklist

To shed excess emissions, follow these nine steps.

Schedule an audit: You wouldn’t set a weight loss goal without stepping on the scale, right? Reducing home energy use requires a similar approach; before you make any changes, it’s a good idea to identify the problem areas. An energy audit can help.

During the room-by-room evaluation of your home, an energy auditor will evaluate your energy use and make customized recommendations for improving energy efficiency.

“Getting a handle on a home’s energy use can help families learn about energy saving actions that can help save money while protecting the environment and their health,” explains Jonathan Passe, chief of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Residential Branch.

Some utility companies offer free or low-cost home energy audits. Online assessment tools, including those on the EPA’s Energy Star website, www.energystar.gov, also offer insights into your home energy use.

Initiate a cleanse: Start your home’s energy diet with a cleanse to eliminate energy hogs. Simple changes such as installing a low-flow showerhead and switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) have lasting impacts.

Turn down the temperature: When it gets cold outside, resist the urge to crank up the thermostat.

The higher the temperature in the house, the harder your system has to work. Grab a sweater and aim to keep the thermostat set at 68 degrees (lower overnight). In addition to reducing CO2 emissions, each degree you turn down the temperature saves up to 3% on your heating bill.

Installing a programmable thermostat ensures you’ll never forget to adjust the temperature before work or overnight. “Most programmable thermostats come with pre-programmed settings that are intended to deliver savings without sacrificing comfort,” says Passe.

Prevent energy from escaping: The EPA estimates that heating accounts for 34% of annual utility use. Sealing the cracks around windows and doors where heat can escape is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to improve the energy efficiency of your home.

“Keeping the thermostat at a conservative 68 degrees won’t really save that much energy if the system has to work extra hard to replace lost heat and maintain that temperature,” says Crissy Trask, founder of www.GreenMatters.com and author of Going Green: The Ultimate Guide to Saving the Planet, Saving Money and Saving Yourself (Skyhorse). “Preventing the escape of heated air from your home is critical to protecting energy dollars.”

It’s easy to find leaks; light a candle and hold it in front of window and door seams. The flame will flicker in drafty spots. Once you’ve identified air leaks, caulk the cracks or install self-stick weather stripping.

Switch settings: Making small adjustments to the settings on your washing machine and water heater can add up to big energy savings.

“Switching your temperature setting [on the washing machine] from hot to warm can cut energy use in half; using the cold cycle reduces energy use even more,” says Passe.

The reason: Approximately 90% of the energy consumed by your washing machine is used to heat the water, according to the EPA. In fact, if every household in the United States washed clothes in cold water at least 80% of the time, utility bills would drop by $6.7 billion and carbon dioxide emissions by 50 million tons annually, according to the Carbon Conscious Consumer, a climate awareness campaign sponsored by the Center for a New American Dream (www.newdream.org).
The EPA also recommends lowering the temperature on the water heater to 120 degrees, which can result in a savings of up to 10% on energy bills.

Flip the switch: Appliances and electronics account for up to 10% of home energy use, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Instead of letting the laptop, chargers, hair dryers, toasters and coffeemakers draw energy when they are not in use, unplug them.

“It’s a very significant environmental impact when you add it up,” says Sam Raskin, chief architect for the US Department of Energy Building Technologies program. “There are ways to be much more efficient.”

Raskin suggests plugging home electronics into a power strip and turning it off when the TV, DVD player and stereo aren’t in use. Unplugging appliances is also a good habit.

Turn on the fan: Heat rises, which means the furnace is pumping warm air up to the ceiling instead of spreading it around the room. Using ceiling fans in the winter helps re-circulate heat into the living areas and, according to Passe, can reduce energy bills up to 10%.

“In the winter, reverse the motor [ceiling fans have switches that change the direction of the fan blades] and operate the ceiling fan at low speed in the clockwise direction,” Passe says. “This will produce a gentle updraft that forces warm air near the ceiling down into the space.”

Invest in upgrades: Making major changes like adding insulation to the attic, replacing windows and doors, installing solar panels or a tankless water heater and upgrading to energy- efficient appliances is a significant out-of-pocket expense but the returns on investment can be significant, too.

As much as 50% of home energy consumption comes from heating and cooling and up to 15% of utility costs are from the hot water heater, according to Raskin. Swapping older models for more energy-efficient options can lower utility bills and pay dividends to the environment.

Perform regular maintenance: Just like it takes effort to maintain weight loss, keeping energy use in check also requires sustained effort. Your energy-saving to-do list should include scheduling an annual furnace inspection and replacing the furnace filters to improve airflow and reduce airborne allergens such as dust and mold. Some filters are good for one month and last for up to 90 days; check the packaging for replacement recommendations.

“A few minutes of maintenance can save a substantial amount of money over the course of a year,” says Kimberly Button, author of The Everything Guide to a Healthy Home (Adams). “Checking for energy efficiency not only reduces your energy usage, but can alert you to other problems, too, so it’s a win-win situation all around.”

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