20 Inexpensive Ways to Lower Your Utility Bills

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the typical American family spends over $1,600.00 a year on utilities. We all could probably save significant amounts on our utilities by buying the newest and most efficient appliances, heaters and boilers. But the amount of money we’d have to pay up front is sometimes prohibitive, and it’s difficult to be sure that long-term reductions in our utility bills would be worth it.

The good news is that the concept of snowflaking is particularly well-suited to helping us cope with climate control. Below are 20 ideas that, for a reasonable cost, can help us reduce the amount we pay each year for water, electricity and heat/cooling.

  1. Get an Energy-use Consultation: In many communities, utilities companies provide this service for free, or for a nominal fee. Many local volunteer organizations also perform energy audits. They can test your home to identify your areas of greatest heating/cooling loss, analyze your past utilities bills, and, in some cases, estimate how long it would take you to recoup the cost of upgrades to your home or apartment. If you’d rather perform your own audit, the Department of Energy has an online audit tool that takes you through the steps.
  2. Install Extra Insulation: This can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be, especially considering that attics, basements/crawl spaces, and the areas around utility pipes can be some of the biggest heat suckers in your home. These areas are usually tucked out of sight anyway, so the insulation job you do doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be effective and safe. Also remember that insulation will help you even if you live in the tropics. Not only does it keep in warm air when it’s cold, it keeps in cool air when it’s hot.
  3. Seal Off Gaps: Weather stripping, heat-safe tape, and caulk are all relatively inexpensive and easy to find. Use them to seal off leaks to the outside of your home. Two things to pay attention to in your quest to mind your gaps: 1) The Department of Energy estimates that only 10% of air loss in a typical house comes from windows, whereas 15% comes from ducts and 13% comes from plumbing leading outside or to other un-insulated areas. 2) Ducts especially are tricky creatures, and sealing or insulating them improperly can be hazardous. Make sure that you know what you’re doing, or talk to someone who does, before you tamper with them.
  4. Install Door Sweeps: If you have several heating zones in your house, installing small, insulating door sweeps on the bottom of your doors can help keep those zones from leaking into one another. Even if you don’t have zones, installing door sweeps on your outside doors, and the doors closest to the outside, can cut down on air leakage. Sweeps are easy to install, and cost about $5-$10 dollars.
  5. Get a Programmable Thermostat and Use it: Now that the above steps are complete, and you aren’t leaking energy like a sieve, this step is the equivalent of having part of your paycheck automatically sent to your savings account. Set the thermostat a few degrees lower while you’re away at work, and a few degrees lower yet for bedtime. If you have multiple heat zones in your house, even better. Chances are some of those zones won’t need to be heated up to livable temperatures 24-7. If you live in an area where central a/c is required, some of the same conditions apply. The house can probably be 85 degrees in the daytime while you’re away at work. These thermostats can be expensive, but they offer significant savings as well. Amazon offers a wide selection of programmable thermostats, many for under $50.
  6. Consider a Heated Mattress Pad: If you live in an area with cold winters, you can probably turn your thermostat down even more during the night by using one of these. The electricity that it takes to heat your bed is miniscule compared to the cost of heating your entire house a few extra degrees at night.
  7. Use Compact-Fluorescent Bulbs: Yes, the light they give off is different from that of normal incandescent bulbs. But they typically use 75% less energy, and last ten times as long.
  8. Use Power Strips: Even in sleep mode, your computer, DVD player, and other electronic devices use some energy. By plugging them into power strips, and then turning off the power at the strip, you use less electricity.
  9. Maintain/Clean Your Appliances: If your heating vents (or the vents on the underside of your baseboard heater) are caked in dust, they probably aren’t running at maximum efficiency. Likewise, replace or clean the filter on your furnace and drain the sediment from your water heater as often as their user manuals say you should. Appliances last longer when they’re well-maintained, and it will knock some money off your utilities as well.
  10. Make Your Water Heater More Efficient: If it’s an old heater, chances are it’s not as well-insulated as it could be. (Though be sure to first check the owner’s manual to see if it’s safe to add an insulating cover to your water heater.) Most hardware stores sell insulating sleeves for water heaters for around $20-$30. Likewise, make sure the pipes leading from your heater to the wall are insulated. If they’re not, simple pipe insulation, again available at most hardware stores, should do the trick.
  11. Turn Down your Water Heater: If your water heater is set at 140 degrees or above, chances are that you can get away with only setting it at 120. The only thing you might need 140-degree water for is your dishwasher. Experiment a bit and see if you can get clean dishes at lower temperatures.
  12. Install Faucet Aerators: They use less water, even if you’re turning on the taps for the same amount of time. You should be able to get faucet aerators for less than two dollars apiece. Chances are you already have some form of aerator in your faucet (they’re those little mesh screen pieces that screw onto the nozzle). If you already have them, you can unscrew them and check the side for their gpm (galleons per minute) rating. If it’s over 2.75 gallons, it’s probably worth it to get one with a better, lower rating.
  13. Install a Low-flow Shower Head: If you take long showers, this is definitely an investment to think about. These puppies cost anywhere from $5 to $50. Most of them operate by aerating water. Note that low-flow shower heads should not reduce your water-pressure by all that much. Take a look at your local hardware store’s return policy, too. It might be worth it to experiment with several different types if you can return them after one or two uses.
  14. Only Run Your Dishwasher When Full: Unless you have a newer dishwasher with a half-wash option, you use the same amount of water no matter how many dishes you put in. Also note that since it’s hot water, you’re paying not only for H2O, but also for the energy used to heat it.
  15. Air-dry Dishes: Instead of using the drying cycle on your dishwasher, just set it to clean only, and open the door when the dishwasher is done. The wire racks in the dishwasher can conveniently double as drying racks, and you’ll save the energy it would have taken to dry all your dishes.
  16. Wash Whites on Warm, Not hot: Unless you or a member of your household is an athlete, or particularly stinky, your whites will probably turn out just as clean on the warm setting as they did on the hot setting, and you save your water heater from having to heat up several galleons of water to max temperature.
  17. Simulate a Low Flush Toilet: If you don’t have a new, water-saver toilet, you can simulate one by putting a clean brick, or a sealed plastic bottle filled with pebbles, or a weighted mason jar, into your toilet tank. This displaces water so that less is used each time you flush.
  18. Be Kind to Your Freezer/Refrigerator: Let hot food sit out an hour or so before you put it in the fridge, so that you don’t waste energy having your fridge work extra hard to cool it down. If you have empty space in your freezer, and live in a cool place, freeze plastic containers full of water by putting them outside, and then put them into your empty freezer space, giving the freezer a helping hand.
  19. Buy Wisely: When Buying New Appliances, pay attention to their energy ratings: An Energy Star logo is put on many appliances that meet federal standards for energy efficiency. Large appliances such as refrigerators, boilers, water heaters, dish washers etc. have yellow Energy Guide tags on them that tell you how energy efficient an appliance is compared to other models.
  20. Consider Tax Breaks/Energy Incentives: Your county or state may have an initiative that offers savings on certain energy-efficient appliances. Rebates may be available for large, expensive appliances that meet certain energy requirements. Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to learn more about options in your state. The database also includes a federal incentives page.

Bonus Tip: Pay your utility bills with your cash back credit card. Many utilities let pay with a credit card, and you can also pay your phone, internet and cable bills with a cash back card, too. It’s a convenient way to pay your bills and an easy way to pocket some cash each month. Our favorite cash back card is the Chase Freedom® Visa, which offers up to 5% cash back and a $100 Bonus Cash Back for new card holders.

You can also check out these additional Money Saving Tips DR wrote about several months ago. It started out as 51 tips, but thanks to great reader comments, has grown to over 75. If you have other tips on inexpensive ways to lower your utility bills, please leave a comment.

Published or Updated: March 22, 2012
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. Exick says:

    You have galleons coming out of your faucets? Sorta brings a whole new twist on the ship-in-a-bottle idea.

  2. DR says:

    EXICK, yes and it’s a big part of my retirement fund :)

    It’s great to see that some folks actually read these articles so closely! Thanks for catching that one.

    • Anisha says:

      Alakazaam-information found, prlobem solved, thanks!

  3. Roman says:

    Okay, i didn’t notice that fact but still cool that he noticed. The best part is that most of these improvement are eco-friendly. A greener dollar is alway better!

  4. Try washing your whites in cold water & see if they don’t come out just as well as they do with warm or hot water. Detergents contain agents that create the illusion of “brightness” and “whiteness.” Cold water will do the trick.

    If you’re concerned about the Parfum de Tennis Shoe, toss in the clothing, add detergent (and, if you like, non-chlorine bleach), fill the washer with cold water, and leave the lid open for 10 or 20 minutes. This will cause your clothes to soak that long. Then come back and close the lid, allowing the load to run through a short (four to six minutes) cycle. Works just as well as running the laundry for 10 or 15 minutes in heated water.

    Saves energy two ways: avoids heating water and minimizes the appliance’s run time.

    Along the same lines, try hanging some or all of your laundry to dry. Many pieces can be hung right on hangers and allowed to air-dry. If you like them fluffy, wait until they’re dry or almost dry and THEN put them in the dryer–but only for 8 or 10 minutes. The machine will fluff and shake wrinkles out of clothes that are already dry.

    • Dolores says:

      Better yet, try a laundry device that ONLY uses cold water, but sanitizes the entire wash with UV light, O2 and silver. Never use laundry detergent again or hot water and it’s great for the environment, totally safe for your septic tank, or you can recycle the “gray” water and use it to irrigate.

  5. kime3400 says:

    USE DIMMERS!!!!!!Don’t Use Compact Fluorescent Bulbs!!!! They may save some money now, but they are not safe! Each compact flourescent lamp contains MERCURY! You must dispose of these lamps in a special way, which no one ever does, read the box on each bulb! Just one bulb takes 800 sq. ft. & 16 years to disintegrate. The Mercury from one fluorescent bulb can pollute 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels for drinking.
    These are DANGEROUS!! PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING LINK: http://lightbulbrecycling.com/article.php?category_id=1&article_id=28
    Using dimmers is a much better soloution to saving money!!!! Please see the link below!!!!
    http://lutron.com/CMS400/page.aspx?id=17327&mn=1921

    • DR says:

      kime3400, interesting that you would leave this tip, as just this morning my son broke a cfl in is bedroom. It will be hours cleaning it up, although I’m not convinced CFLs are the danger you say they are. Everything I’ve read says (1) take precautions in cleaning up a broken CFL, but (2) the amount of mercury in a CFL is so small that with proper ventilation and cleanup, it’s really not a serious danger.

      • emlazo says:

        I changed all my light bulbs to CFL’s only to find out that they don’t work if you have a dimmer switch. So far I have lost a lot of money replacing the burnt out CFL bulbs and the hassle of taking it back to the home improvement stores for disposal. I finally found some CFL bulbs that will work with a dimmer switch. If it’s not time to change your light bulbs because it’s not burnt out, leave it alone. Change only those that need changing.

  6. Chris says:

    Great info!! You can also lower your air conditioning and heating by blocking the vents to rooms you are not in often. I bought magnetic vent blockers from Lowe’s.

    There is also a product to seal off your attic. That could help you save money.

    To save money visit http://savethatmoney.blogspot.com/

    • Bob says:

      You do realize most people who would read this in order to save money don’t have EXTRA rooms to their house. You are only worried about saving a couple bucks here and there on your utilities if you live in a house that is actually the right size for your family. The best tip to save on electricity is to turn off what you are looking at. How come I didn’t see that anywhere?

      • Wendy says:

        Bob – after a family has grown and gone (return for visits), the house is no longer “the right size” but it could cost more to move to a smaller home.

        With the LED or CFL bulbs turning them off obsessively doesn’t have as much impact as it used to with traditional light bulbs. Dark hallways, stairs and corners create safety issues across the country. But also currently 13% of our country is 65 or more and in 10 more years that will be @ 20%. As people age having adequate light can make a significant safety issue. Shutting off the electricity doesn’t have the umph it used to.

  7. I live in Florida and even here my husband and I both use an electric mattress pad — and love it. It definitely helps at night.

    We also have a programmable thermostat. We paid quite a bit more to have all the bells and whistles, but it has still paid for itself. Our utilities bill has never been lower!

    I also wash my clothes in cold water. I use the delicates cycle for all my stuff and then hang dry stuff on hangers on a bar right above the indoor dryer. That way, it saves me time and electricity — and my clothes last longer, too.

    • DR says:

      Meg, thanks for the additional tips.

  8. Kim says:

    Dear Dr.
    Here are a few statistics on CF lamps. These are just a few, but to me, they are a very serious danger.

    The Mercury from one fluorescent bulb can pollute 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels for drinking. WOW!!

    100 four-foot long fluorescent lamps contain about 4 grams of mercury. It only takes 1 teaspoon of mercury to contaminate a 20-acre lake FOREVER.

    Each year, an estimated 600 million fluorescent lamps are disposed of in U.S. landfills amounting to 30,000 pounds of mercury waste

    In America, one-in-six children born every year have been exposed to mercury levels so high that they are potentially at risk for learning disabilities, motor skill impairment and short-term memory loss.

    In 1992, mercury-containing lamps were added to the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of hazardous substances. (The EPA’s regulatory threshold of 2 mg./liter is usually exceeded by mercury-containing lamps).

  9. Jenny says:

    While it is wonderful that you are so aware of these dangers, why not encourage others to simply dispose of the floursecent bulbs properly instead of suggesting that no one buy them? These are a great way to save money (the purpose of this blog) and they are also a great way to conserve energy for the environment. So luckily, the environmentally-friendly people who purchase these bulbs will more than likely be eco-friendly and listen to your disposal tips!

  10. Jeremy says:

    Each CFL contains approx. 0.0008 oz. of mercury. Mercury fever thermometers contain over 21 times this amount. They do not pollute if disposed of properly, and the parts are 100% recyclable. However, many doctors and scientists believe there is no safe amount of mercury for the human body. Here’s a good PDF to answer more of your concerns regarding the environment:

    http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/promotions/change_light/downloads/Fact_Sheet_Mercury.pdf

    • DR says:

      Jeremy, thanks for the info and link. I hear mixed opinions on this issue, but we continue to use CFLs in areas with low risk of breakage.

  11. jason says:

    switch to led bulbs they use half the energy of a cfl bulb without the environmental problems

  12. Jason says:

    Great tips DR, I’ve covered some of these one my page and will be going over some of them in more detail soon.

    The little bit of savings really start to add up!

  13. Vincent M. says:

    What we did was buy car window tint and put it on all the windows of the house.It provides the same uv protection as if you were in you tinted car. Cuts down on our electric bill and the house stays cooler.

  14. Martha says:

    Don’t use a brick in your toilet! They eventually dissolve, leaving you with a mess and plumbing bills! The idea of displacing water is good, though. It’s just better to use pebbles in a quart plastic milk bottle.

  15. Jason says:

    I installed an Energy Management Computer on my house and it cut my electric bill by over 30%. Saved tons of money on my high A/C bills this summer in AZ. Check out Advanced Home Systems at http://www.cheaperutilitybill.com to learn about it. Not a new concept, just that usually energy management computers are used by businesses and not residential customers. ROI is short, around 3 to 4 years compared to 20+ years on a solar panel system.

    I found several of these tips to be amusing. Here’s why, this is how we are trained to save money on our electric bill – by not using the A/C or Heat and accepting that we must be uncomfortable or less comfortable. I used to keep my house at around 81 to 82 degrees in the summer in AZ. Miserable. Since installing my energy management computer, I now keep my A/C at 72 degrees all summer and my bills were at least $150 less every month from the same time a year ago ($450 vs $300 per month in the summer). Pay less and be smarter with your electricity, that is what an energy management computer does for you. The regular APS customer in AZ pays about 12 cents per kilowatt hour, Advanced Home Systems clients pay around 7.5 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Not so much about using less but paying less too.

    I wish I would have installed something like this about 7 years ago when I built my first home. Worth looking at if you want to save money.

  16. Will says:

    This is a old Blog but I thought I’ll re kindle the conversation.

    Our Energy Program empowers consumers with the knowledge needed to make an informed choice when selecting a competitive supply offer. This Energy Program brings competitive supply natural gas and electricity offers to residential / Commercial consumers in select deregulated markets. Our goal is the increase awareness of deregulation, provide energy savings tips, and alert you to the benefits of choosing competitive offers.

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