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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.