smart spending

Energy savings: Get the most for your money

No matter where you live, recent increases in energy prices have probably pushed your utility bill higher than you'd like, but you don't have to take it lying down.

There are plenty of ways to cut your energy costs, and many of them involve small changes that don't require spending a lot of cash.

In fact, you can get some significant power savings without spending a cent.

"Turn down your home thermostat two degrees (in cold weather)," says Mark Fryburg of Portland General Electric in Portland, Ore. "For every degree that you lower it, you will cut 2 percent of your heating bill." The reverse holds true with air conditioning in warm weather.

Fryburg also recommends lowering your hot water thermostat. "For every 10-degree temperature reduction, that's saving 3 percent to 5 percent, or $9 to $15 a year off your water heating bill," he says. "That's assuming you're heating with electricity."

Another free way to save electricity, Fryburg says, is to "fix leaky hot water faucets. That'll save you about a dollar a month."

Michael Lowndes, of Uniondale, N.Y.-based Long Island Power Authority, says the first thing homeowners should do is have a home energy audit.

"Not just once -- repeat it every couple of years," he says. "It gives a good baseline to work with."

Audits, whether they're done in person by someone from the utility company or by questionnaire, are usually free and cover everything from heating and cooling systems to appliances and insulation.

When the audit is done, you'll know which areas of your house are the least energy efficient. In other words, you'll know where you're letting money fly out the window.

The U.S. Department of Energy has many energy saving tips on its Web site. They can help you save money in every area of your home.

Which energy-saving improvements give you the biggest and fastest return on your investment can vary widely depending on a number of factors, including where you live. But the folks at Portland General Electric have come up with a list that can save everyone money.

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Spokesman Mark Fryburg says if you decide to implement any of the suggestions, don't pinch pennies. It's important to buy the best "high-performance" equipment.

"Don't get the cheapest shower head or porch light and don't hire the cheapest contractor to install insulation unless you're assured of the quality of the product or the service purchased," Fryburg says. "For example, there are low-flow shower heads that deliver less water but don't deliver a quality showering experience." A good shower head will pay for itself in about four to five months, he adds.

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