16 ways to conserve energy and save on your bills

Saving energy doesn't mean you have to do less or sacrifice any creature comforts. Thanks to new, more efficient (and often affordable) tech, it's easier than ever to get more out of your home while conserving electricity and other fuels, shrinking your utility bills, and reducing your environmental impact. Here are some of the lowest-hanging fruit you can start picking off in your home.

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Traditional incandescent light bulbs consume excessive electricity and don't last as long as energy-efficient alternatives. When shopping for light bulbs, look for the government-backed symbol for energy efficiency, Energy Star. For reference, Energy Star-certified LED light bulbs use up to 90 percent less energy than an incandescent light bulb while providing the same amount of light. Although energy-efficient bulbs can be more expensive off the shelf, their efficient energy use and longer lifetimes mean they cost less in the long run.

"Phantom energy," also known as "standby energy" or "vampire energy," is the electricity used by electronics when turned off or in standby mode. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), standby energy accounts for 5 to 10 percent of residential energy use and costs the average U.S. household as much as $100 per year. Smart power strips, also known as advanced power strips, eliminate the problem of phantom loads by shutting off the power to electronics when they are not in use. Smart power strips can turn off appliances at an assigned time, during a period of inactivity, through remote switches, or based on the status of a "master" device.

Smart thermostats can help reduce heating and cooling energy use without upgrading your HVAC system. Smart thermostats can automatically turn off or reduce heating and cooling while asleep or away and come in different models to fit your weekly schedule. 

According to ENERGY STAR, a smart thermostat could save you approximately 8 percent of your heating and cooling bills. Savings may vary based on your local climate, personal comfort preferences, how many people live in your home, and the type and age of HVAC equipment in your home. Some smart thermostats even indicate when to replace air filters or HVAC system problems to further improve the efficiency of your heating and cooling system. 

Learn more about smart thermostats like Google Nest and Ecobee.

When purchasing an appliance, you should pay attention to two numbers: the initial purchase price and the annual operating cost. Although energy-efficient appliances might have higher upfront purchase prices, they usually save money on your monthly utility bill.

When purchasing an energy-efficient appliance, look for the Energy Star label. Energy Star is a federal guarantee that the appliance will consume less energy than standard models. Importantly, energy savings differ based on the specific appliance. For example, Energy Star-certified clothes washers use approximately 20 percent less energy than standard models, whereas Energy Star refrigerators use 9 percent less energy.

Water heating significantly contributes to your total energy usage. Other than purchasing an energy-efficient water heater, there are three ways to reduce your water heating expenses: use less hot water, turn down the thermostat on your water heater, or insulate your water heater with the first six feet of hot and cold water pipes.

When shopping for efficient water heaters, consider the type of water heater that meets your needs and the fuel it will use. For example, tankless water heaters are energy efficient, but they are also a poor choice for large families as they cannot handle multiple and simultaneous uses of hot water. Heat pump water heaters are one of the most efficient ways to heat your home's water. Energy Star-certified heat pump water heaters can save a household of four people approximately $550 per year on its electric bills compared to a standard electric water heater. While heat pump water heaters usually have a higher upfront cost, tax credits and rebates are available to many homeowners looking to upgrade to a heat pump water heater.

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), heat gain and loss through windows account for 25 to 30 percent of most homes' heating and cooling energy. You can replace single-pane windows with double-pane products to prevent heat loss through your windows. For homes in colder regions, "low-e" storm windows are more insulating and can significantly reduce your heating expenses. In addition, low-e interior or exterior storm windows can reduce unnecessary heat loss by 10 to 30 percent. You should especially consider storm windows if your area frequently experiences extreme weather.

In warmer climates, heat gain through windows may be a problem. In addition to minimizing heat loss, low-e coatings on windows can reduce heat gain by reflecting more light and lowering the amount of thermal energy that enters your home. Energy Star breaks down the most efficient windows by climate or area of the U.S. on its website. Window shades, shutters, screens, and awnings can also provide an extra layer of insulation between your home and outside temperatures, leading to more energy conservation and better energy management. Some states and utility companies also offer incentives for replacing windows with more energy-efficient versions.

When shopping for energy-efficient windows, there are two key labels to look for:

  • Energy Star label: review details on this label just as you would on appliances

  • National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) label: helps you compare between energy-efficient windows, doors, and skylights by providing you with energy performance ratings in multiple categories.

An HVAC system comprises heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment. Replacing your old heating and cooling equipment with Energy Star-certified equipment can cut your annual energy bill by nearly $140. Whether you select heat pumps or a natural gas furnace, you'll want to ensure the HVAC equipment you choose is sufficient for your climate. Heat pumps are advantageous because they efficiently heat and cool your home. Otherwise, you'll need two systems: an air conditioner to cool and a furnace or boiler to heat.

Upgrades to ventilation can also improve your energy efficiency. A ventilation system comprises a network of ducts that distribute hot and cold air throughout your home. If these ducts are not properly sealed or insulated, the resulting energy waste can add hundreds of dollars to your annual heating and cooling expenses. Proper insulation and maintenance on your ventilation system can reduce your heating and cooling expenses by up to 20 percent.

Weatherizing, or sealing air leaks around your home, is another way to reduce your heating and cooling expenses. The shield or "building envelope" between the inside and outside provides a barrier to weather, air, and moisture. The most common sources of air leaks into your home are vents, windows, and doors. Ensure there are no cracks or openings between the wall and vent, window, or doorframe to prevent these leaks.

You can apply caulk to seal air leaks between stationary objects, such as the wall and window frame, and weather stripping for cracks between moving objects, such as operable windows and doors. Weather stripping and caulking are simple air-sealing techniques that typically offer a return on investment in less than a year. Air leaks can also occur through openings in the wall, floor, and ceiling from plumbing, ducting, or electrical wiring.

Hot air rises and escapes through small openings, whether through ducts, light fixtures, or the attic hatch. As the natural flow of heat is from warmer to cooler areas, these small openings can make your heating bill even higher if your attic is not sufficiently insulated. Some approaches to energy efficiency, such as the Passive House standard, include a specific standard of thermal performance for the building envelope. Consider fully insulating your home to get the most out of weatherization.

Insulation plays a crucial role in lowering your utility bills by retaining heat during the winter and keeping heat out of your home during the summer. The level of insulation you should install depends on the area of your house. Your attic, walls, floors, basement, and crawlspace are the five main areas where you should consider adding insulation. Consider receiving an energy audit to help you determine if you need to add insulation.

Here's what a typical energy audit might look like in your home:

  1. An energy auditor will look at your building from the outside. They'll examine various components, including windows, walls, and eaves, to see if they can spot any significant issues causing leaks into or out of your home.

  2. The auditor will check out the attic (if you have one) to look at a few things. Most importantly, they'll inspect your insulation to ensure it's correctly installed and applied evenly between your walls. They'll also evaluate the holes where electrical lines run to see if they're properly sealed or could be a source of leakage.

  3. The auditor will examine your furnace and water heater. If either is on the older side, it's likely a candidate for an upgrade. They'll also probably look at the filter in the furnace to ensure it doesn't require replacement. They'll check connections in the ducts in your basement to try and locate any possible leaks where you may be losing heat and energy. 

  4. Most professional audits will include a blower door test. This device allows them to locate air leakage and test air quality in your home. During a blower door test, all the windows and doors are closed, and they'll use a blower door machine to depressurize the house. At that point, the auditor often uses an infrared camera to see where cold air may leak into your home and identify opportunities for air sealing.

  5. Finally, audits usually include an inspection of the lighting in your home. 

What you pay for a professional energy audit often depends on the company and size of your property (some companies offer fixed rates, while others will charge more for a larger home). Even as a paid service, the upfront cost for an energy audit and the following energy efficiency updates are usually worth it when you save on your electricity bills down the line. In fact, by making energy efficiency upgrades in your home, you can save between 5 and 30 percent on your energy bills, according to the DOE.

Washing clothes is a necessary chore and part of the weekly routine of most Americans, but it's also energy-intensive. According to Energy Star, heating water uses about 90 percent of the energy to operate a clothes washer. Fortunately, some claim that washing in cold water can increase the lifespan of your clothes!

Many home systems, like your HVAC, use filters that must be replaced or cleaned regularly. Clean filters are more efficient and put less strain on your system, but this step often gets overlooked. It's best to refer to the manufacturer's recommendations for your specific equipment, but in general, you'll want to clean them every month or two.

Along with other household chores, heating food is necessary but energy-taxing. Using a toaster oven instead of a regular oven can be an energy-saver if you have smaller portions. Overall, microwaves are the most energy-efficient ways to reheat food.

Using light from the sun is an intuitive way to reduce energy consumption. North and south-facing windows allow for more glancing light that produces heat and limits harsh light in the winter. While east and west-facing windows allow for more direct sunlight, they aren't as effective at letting heat in. Trees and nearby structures can also shade a building's surfaces and block winds from different directions.

While it may seem obvious to bundle up when going out in the winter, doing so inside can also help save on your heating costs. If you stay warm by wearing more clothes indoors, you can reduce the energy needed to heat your home.

Luckily, you don't always need to purchase new energy-efficient products to reduce energy consumption in your home. Energy conservation can be as simple as turning off lights or appliances when you're not using them! Performing household tasks manually also avoids the use of energy-intensive appliances. For example, hang-drying your clothes conserves the energy your clothes dryer would use otherwise. 

Heating and cooling costs typically impact utility bills the most, so reductions in the intensity and frequency of those activities offer the most significant savings. Energy monitors help you understand where most of your electricity is going in your home and which appliances use the most electricity daily.

There are many different products you can purchase to improve your home’s energy efficiency and reduce your overall energy consumption. Below are some examples of ways you can leverage renewable energy sources and reduce your dependence on fossil fuels:

  • Solar panels

    • Solar panels can help you use available energy from the sun to power your home, so you can harness that energy to power your home. 

  • Solar batteries

    • You can install solar batteries when you install solar panels, allowing you to store the extra solar energy your panels generate when the sun goes down as well as other benefits like increased energy savings.

  • Heat pumps

    • An alternative to having two different HVAC systems to heat and cool your home, air source heat pumps are a type of heating and cooling system that moves heat inside during the winter and outside during the summer.

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