The Washington Post
12 ideas to help you save money on your energy bills this winter
Wondering about the outlook for your household heating bill this winter? In a word, it’s . . . ugly. Higher energy prices, demand that outpaces supply and anticipated slightly colder weather could have you seeing an increase of 30 percent or more, depending on the fuel you use to heat your home.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the nearly half of all U.S. households that heat with natural gas could spend an average of $746 this winter, 30 percent more than a year ago. Those that use electricity (about 41 percent) may spend an average of $1,268, up 6 percent over last winter. Households that use heating oil could spend 43 percent more — $1,734 on average. Propane users may spend $631 on average, or 54 percent more.
The good news is there are lots of low- and no-cost actions you can take now to lower your energy bill. Many may seem inconsequential, but small changes add up and can have a big effect. Here are 12 ideas to get you started.
Get a furnace tuneup. Heating your home is typically going to be your largest energy expense, which also means it’s where you can save the most. Start by having a professional check your system to ensure it’s operating efficiently, says Joel Worthington, president of Mr. Electric, a national franchise of residential and commercial electricians. Typically, a technician will clean and test your heating equipment and inspect it for corrosion, as well as identify parts in need of replacement. “Ask the technician how often you should change your furnace filter, and do it,” he says. “Some require changing every month. Dirty ones restrict airflow, causing your furnace to work harder.”
Let your thermostat do the thinking. Make sure your furnace isn’t running when you don’t need it to. Install programmable thermostats, and set them to lower the heat at night or when you’re away. The newest “smart” models even work with phone apps, allowing you to adjust the temperature from afar.
Focus on the temperature. You can save about 1 to 3 percent on your bill for each degree you lower your thermostat. But you don’t have to flash-freeze your home. Worthington suggests slowly reducing the temperature to find a level you’re comfortable with. “Our bodies acclimate, so lower it one degree and wait a few days until you are used to that temperature before lowering it another degree,” he says.
And restrain yourself from cranking the thermostat too high when you come into your home. “Often, we do that when the house feels cold, just as we do when we get into a cold car,” says Lizzie Rubado, an energy expert with the nonprofit Energy Trust of Oregon. “Oversetting doesn’t warm the house faster, it just makes the heating unit run longer.”
Get a utility checkup. Free home energy audits/checkups are available to homeowners. These last about an hour and can identify issues that can affect your energy usage, such as leaky faucets, gaps and cracks, inefficient lightbulbs and older shower heads. Your utility provider may even swap out certain items at no cost. If you are a renter, ask your landlord to have the utility company perform an assessment. “A lot of people disregard these services, but they can help lower your bill by 10 to 20 percent,” says Christine Ciavardini of MD Energy Advisors, an energy consulting firm in Baltimore.
Seal any gaps. All the tiny cracks and gaps in a typical home can cause the same loss of energy and comfort as leaving a window open year-round, Rubado says. Use caulk or weatherstripping around doors and window frames. Check for gaps where pipes enter your home, and seal them with expanding foam insulation, which comes in a spray can. Also make sure your walls, attic, basement and crawl spaces are insulated. “If you don’t address leaks, it’s like throwing on a fuzzy sweater with holes in it to ward off the cold,” Rubado says.
Let the sun shine. Open your shades or blinds during the day, so the sun’s rays can warm your space. Especially if you have southern exposure, the sunlight may be enough to warm the room to the point that your heater runs less frequently — or not at all. At night, close your window coverings to trap in the heat.
Know your fireplace. An open fireplace damper is akin to a gaping hole. Make sure you know how to operate the damper on your fireplace, and ensure it’s closed when it’s not in use. For those who can’t remember the proper lever position for open vs. closed, use a visual reminder, such as an instruction tag or a cheat sheet with an arrow. And close the doors to the room when you’re using a fireplace (if you can) to conserve heat.
Swap out lightbulbs. If you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to switch to LEDS. They use about 75 percent less energy and last about 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs, are widely available and pay for themselves over time, Rubado says.
Reset your hot water heater. In many homes, the second-largest use of heat is hot water. Setting your water heater to about 120 degrees will yield about 10 percent in savings on your energy bills, Ciavardini says. When you go out of town, turn it down even further.
Cool down your laundry. Use the cold setting on your washing machine. Run full loads of dishes and laundry, and time your wash, so the dryer doesn’t have the chance to cool down between loads, forcing it to use more energy as it reheats.
Turn off phantom energy users. Anything with a digital display or glowing light is using a continuous trickle of energy, even when it’s not operating. “The average home has about 40 phantom loads,” Rubado says. If you aren’t using it, unplug it. Or cluster like items together (such as a scanner, printer and paper shredder) on a power strip that you can turn off and on as needed.
Use the most efficient appliance for the job. The holidays can mean more time in the kitchen whipping up meals and treats. A slow cooker is more energy efficient than a stovetop for stews and soups, while a toaster oven uses a fraction of the electricity of an oven if you need to reheat a slice of pizza. And when baking, do not peek into the oven, Rubado says. Every time you open the door, the oven temperature drops about 25 degrees, she says, and it has to work harder to climb back to its set temperature. But when you’re done using the oven and turn it off, Ciavardini says, leave the door open, so the residual heat can help warm the kitchen. For more stories about homeownership, home maintenance, decorating, organizing, home finances and more, visit The Home You Own at wapo.st/thyo.
Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at