You’ve noticed over the past few years that your electricity bill has been creeping slowly upward. In fact, over the last decade the price of electricity has jumped by double digits in many states, even after accounting for inflation, choking the life out of the typical household budget.
There is a growing fragility in the U.S. electricity system, experts warn, the result of the shutdown of coal-fired plants, reductions in nuclear power, a shift to more expensive renewable energy and natural gas pipeline constraints. The result is likely to be future price shocks. And they may not be temporary.
But don’t turn off the air conditioner just yet. By making a few adjustments, you can slash your electricity costs without drastically changing your lifestyle.
First, the technical stuff: The way you are charged for electricity is by cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). The average cost varies by state from a low of about 7.5¢ (Washington State) to a whopping 26¢ (Hawaii).
Since it’s measured in pennies, it must be a bargain, right? Wrong. You can rack up hundreds of kilowatt hours in a single month. It happens fast when computers, TVs and other energy hungry devices run continuously; when inefficient appliances overstay their welcome; and when air conditioners are set to keep homes cooler than a florist’s fridge.
Go look at your electricity bill—you’ll be shocked at how many kHw you’re using. You can stop the drain by doing what really smart consumers do.
1. Install a programmable thermostat. Starting as low as $20, this little gizmo will automatically regulate your home’s central heat and air when you’re asleep or while you’re away. (If you have a window unit, use an appliance timer instead.)
You could, for example, set the temperature to 85°F or higher during the day when you’re out, then have it adjust to 78°F about 30 minutes before you get home. According to Energy Star (a government-backed program that promotes energy conservation), you can save about $180 a year by properly setting your programmable thermostat and maintaining those settings.
2. Raise the temperature. When someone is home, the most energy-efficient temperature (aside from the air conditioner being off) is the highest temperature you can comfortably live with— around 80°F Each degree you set your thermostat below that will increase your electricity bill by 3 to 4 percent.
3. Use fans. Moving air gives a “wind chill” effect. Combining ceiling fans (which use very little energy) with air conditioning allows you to set the thermostat higher, yet still feel cool. It’s pretty simple: The blowing air makes it easier for sweat to evaporate, which is how we eliminate body heat.
4. Replace or clean the filter. If it’s dirty, your air conditioner has to work harder, so change it regularly during the summer. Better yet, buy a permanent filter at your home improvement store—just wash it with a garden hose each month.
FREEZER AND REFRIGERATOR
5. Vacuum the coils. Dust and debris that collect on the back or bottom of your fridge make it inefficient, so clean it at least once a year
6. Tighten seals. Are your refrigerator and freezer doors airtight? Close a dollar bill or piece of paper in the door. If it pulls out easily, your refrigerator may need a door hinge adjustment or a new gasket (rubber seal). The hinge is adjustable with a screwdriver. A new gasket costs around $50—this may sound steep, but it’s cheaper than buying a new fridge, and you’ll really notice a drop in your bill.
7. Defrost often. Your freestanding freezer is forced to work harder when frost is more than 1/4″ thick. (Though auto-defrost freezers take care of themselves, they often use more energy, so it’s a tradeoff.)
8. Keep it stocked—sometimes. A full refrigerator/freezer is more efficient than an empty one. If you don’t tend to keep a lot of frozen food, consider storing your dried rice, beans and nuts in there to keep it at least two-thirds full. As for the refrigerator itself, packing it too full requires more energy, so make sure you’re leaving enough room for air to circulate.
9. Fill it up. Before you press the button, make sure the machine is full. You’ll run fewer loads, which means less hot water, less detergent and less energy.
10. Air-dry. Open the door instead of using heated drying. You’ll cut your dishwasher’s energy use by up to 50 percent.
11. Load it properly. Underloading or overloading makes drying clothes more expensive. You’ll use too much energy if you underload, and the dryer can’t do its job efficiently if you overload. Dry lightweight and heavy clothes separately for more energy-efficient drying, and always clean the lint filter before a load.
12. Go old-fashioned. Instead of using the dryer, hang an occasional load of clothes outdoors or on a drying rack.
13. Pick proper pots. Foods cook faster at a lower temperature if you use pots and pans with flat bottoms and tight-fitting lids. Pans that are bigger or smaller than the heating coils on electric stoves waste energy.
14. Opt for smaller appliances. Ovens and stoves guzzle energy, so use your microwave and toaster oven, slow cooker and electric skillet whenever you can. And use your outdoor grill to keep heat outside.e
15. Turn off the TV. A 60-inch plasma TV that’s on for five hours a day could cost $130 per year to run. Add a DVD player, game console or home theater system, and that bill might jump to $200 per year. Compare that with a 28-inch CRT (tube) television: $30 per year. Unless you’re actively watching TV, turn it off, especially if it’s a plasma.
16. Unplug the computer. Electronic devices such as computers and stereos make up about 15 percent of the typical household’s electricity use. Even when they’re switched off, devices that are plugged in still use energy to power features we don’t really think about, such as clock displays and remote controls—in fact, the average U.S. household spends $100 each year to power devices while they’re in “standby” mode. Plug your gadgets into an easily accessible power strip, and turn it off when you’re not using them.
17. Inquire about a Home Energy Audit. Many power companies offer free or low-cost audits: They come to your home, show you where you’re losing energy and recommend ways you can cut your consumption. If your power company doesn’t do audits, you can do one yourself or hire a professional.
18. Do your own. If you have five minutes and your last 12 months of utility bills, use EnergyStar’s Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick to compare your energy efficiency with similar homes across the country and get ideas for energy-saving home improvements.
You’ll need to enter some basic information about your home (such as zip code, square footage and number of occupants). If you don’t have your bills, contact your utility and ask for a 12-month summary.
19. Turn to the pros. They use a variety of techniques and equipment such as blower doors (to measure the extent of leaks) and infrared cameras (to reveal hard-to-detect leaks and missing insulation). To find a home energy audit, contact your energy provider’s customer service department or find an Energy Star Home Advisor online.
OTHER WAYS TO SAVE
20. Inquire about discounts. Most utility companies offer programs that encourage customers to reduce their use. The reward? Lower rates.
21. Voluntary time-of-use. Most of us just pay a flat rate for electricity. Under this kind of program, however, you’ll be charged for electricity depending on when you use it. Typically, rates are lowest during off-peak periods: weekends, holidays, and weekdays from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. Rates are higher during other periods, when usage and the cost of generating electricity are higher.
Usually this type of program requires a special meter installation in your home that measures how much you’re using when. The great part: You can check the meter to monitor your usage. Contact your electricity provider to learn more.
22. Summer cycling. This kind of plan saves you money and conserves energy during the summer by letting your electricity provider remotely power down your air conditioner when there’s a power emergency or when demand is extraordinarily high. Southern California Edison, for example, offers up to $200 in credits for customers who sign up for summer cycling.
The company installs a switch in your home with a radio signal that can be accessed remotely. This lets SCE periodically turn off (or “cycle”) the customer’s air conditioner(s) as needed. Call your utility company to see if yours offers something similar.
23. Specialized services. Most utility companies offer a number of programs for customers with special needs, such as senior citizens or low income residents. Search your utility company’s website to learn more.