Making the cut
Give your home's utility bills a makeover with these tips for saving energy and money
If your home is like most homes, it's wasting energy – and money. According to the US Department of Energy, utility bills can run homeowners as much as six to 12 percent of their income, and a large portion of that energy use is unnecessary or wasted.
We've tapped local experts to enlighten us on some of the key energy guzzlers, and what strategies can help reduce their impact on your utility bills – and on the environment. Your bills may not drop quite as far as the temperature outside, but embracing simple short- and long-term energy conservation techniques can offer a substantial pay-off.
In Hot Water
It's no surprise that an estimated 65 to 77 percent of home energy consumption in cold climates, like Alaska, can be accredited to space and water heating. Trim your water heating costs simply by lowering your water heater temperature. "Make sure the temperature on your water heater is set at 120 degrees, which saves energy and prevents scalding," recommends Jimmy Ord, at Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. Just a 10-degree reduction in water temperature can result in an average reduction of three to five percent in energy costs.
You can also curtail hot water use by washing clothes in cold water instead of hot. Instead, substitute your traditional detergent for a coldwater detergent that can combat stains without the need for hot water.
Air leaks are a large source of heat loss in the home during winter. Instead of cranking up the thermostat this winter, seal cracks and openings in your home where warm air can easily escape – along with your hard-earned money. "Replacing the weather stripping on doors and windows and caulking around any exterior wall openings are low-budget items that will improve energy efficiency," advises Kevin Campbell of ENSTAR Natural Gas Company.
For an even greater return on investment, take advantage of Alaska Housing Finance Corporation's Home Energy Rebate Program, which offers homeowners rebates on energy-efficiency upgrades. The process begins with a home energy rating performed by an approved energy auditor. "This rating is a comprehensive report on where you are using energy, and where to improve the energy efficiency of your home," explains Ord. Homeowners are then offered varying percentages of rebates when they invest in eligible upgrades, and have the added bonus of an average energy savings of 30 percent.
Replacing your lighting is the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to cut your energy bill. Swapping out traditional light bulbs with more efficient light bulbs can reduce lighting energy use in your home by 50 percent to 75 percent, according to the US Department of Energy. To save the most energy and money, replace bulbs in the fixtures you flick on the most, such as kitchen ceiling lights and your outdoor porch light.
"Changing out incandescent light bulbs to more efficient CFL or LED bulbs definitely can have a fast return on investment because CFLs and LEDs are 70 to 80 percent more efficient than incandescent bulbs," explains Nick Horras of Chugach Electric Association. According to the Energy Star site, just replacing your home's five most frequently used light fixtures or the bulbs in them with Energy Star models will save $70 each year in energy costs. For added savings, install an occupancy sensor on appropriate light fixtures to cut back on unnecessary use.
Pulling the Plug
Unbeknownst to many homeowners, some electronics and small appliances can cost almost as much as powering your kitchen appliances. A surprisingly large number of electrical products – from TVs and cable boxes to microwave ovens – continue to suck up energy even after they've been turned "off." And these "phantom loads" account for five to 10 percent of residential electricity. Slash the energy impact of these devices by unplugging them when not in use, or using a power strip to easily switch them off. Eliminating these phantom loads can result in an annual savings of $48-$96.
Replace archaic appliances with energy-efficient appliances to decrease the amount of energy they consume. Look for the Energy Star label, which is earned by appliances that meet more stringent energy-efficiency standards set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency. "Purchasing more energy-efficient appliances requires an up-front investment, but they definitely cost a lot less to operate than older appliances," advises Horras. "They will pay for themselves in time." While the savings varies, a 15-year-old refrigerator replaced with an Energy Star refrigerator can result in a savings of $100 to $200 per year.
Energy Star rated or not, maintaining your appliances can go a long way towards curbing energy costs as well. Vacuum lint out of the exhaust duct and the screen insert in your dryer regularly to improve airflow. "Lint screens can build up residue from fabric softeners and restrict the airflow through them which increases drying time and electrical consumption," explains Horras.
Dirty furnace filters can also force systems to work harder and, in turn, wastes energy. Check your furnace filter monthly for dirty filters, and swap them out at least once every three months. Refrigerators and freezers also require cleaning dirt, debris and pet hair from around the condenser coils and radiator fins to enhance energy efficiency.
Upgrading your boiler or furnace with a high-efficiency unit requires a greater up-front cost, but can offer significant cost savings. "Low efficiency heating systems – such as those operating at around 60 percent efficiency – are old and are consuming too much energy," says Ord.
Campbell, for instance, upgraded the dated heating system in his 1978 home. "…I replaced my heating system with a 95-percent efficient boiler and indirect-fired water heater and added insulation in my attic and crawlspace, and I have seen a reduction in consumption (and my bill) of between 35 percent and 45 percent on average," he says.
No matter what your budget, there are many opportunities to conserve energy – from easy, no-cost steps you can take right now, to low-cost or long-term investments. The best advice? "Be an informed consumer," Ord recommends. "Increase your energy awareness and you will certainly be more likely to decrease your energy consumption, which in turn will lower your bills."