5 ways to slash home energy bills

Don’t panic if high home energy bills are blowing a hole in your budget. Lower cooling, heating and water costs are within your reach.

Obvious steps to conserve energy include turning off the lights when leaving a room, limiting the amount of time spent in the shower, and running the clothes washer/dryer and dishwasher only when they’re full.

But there are also less apparent ways to save. Following are five ways to lower energy consumption and utility bills.

Install and use a programmable thermostat

During the summer, programmable thermostats can help save energy — and reduce utility bills — by raising your home’s temperature at predetermined times, such as when you’re at work.

In the winter, they conserve power by lowering the temperature of your home at select times, such as while you’re sleeping.  

“It doesn’t take more energy to reheat the house than you save during periods of set-back, despite the myth to the contrary,” says Bruce Harley, technical director of Conservation Services Group of Westborough, Mass., and author of “Cut Your Energy Bills Now” and “Insulate and Weatherize.”

Remember, the programmable feature won’t save you a dime unless you actually use it.

“Programmable thermostats by themselves don’t actually save money — unless you use them,” he says. “Most models out there today come pre-programmed, which makes it a lot easier for them to do their job.”

SAVINGS: A programmable thermostat can trim between 1 percent and 5 percent off your heating and/or cooling energy costs, Harley says.

Switch to energy efficient light bulbs and appliances

Trade in standard incandescent light bulbs for more energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs.

“Every light bulb in your home should be replaced,” according to John Porterfield, a residential energy analyst and energy auditor in Oak Park, Ill.

You should be more discriminating about swapping out older appliances for more energy-efficient counterparts.

“In most cases, replacing a perfectly good, working appliance will not save enough energy to pay for the replacement,” Harley says.

“But when you are looking to replace the worn-out units that are near the end of their life, the added cost of the efficient appliance compared to a standard unit typically pays for itself in just a couple of years.”

Look for the Energy Star logo when buying an appliance. The Energy Star Web site has listings for most types of appliances that include energy ratings.

“Even within the available Energy Star products, some can be much more efficient than others,” Harley says.

SAVINGS: Harley estimates that replacing all standard light bulbs with CF bulbs and all appliances (washer/dryer, refrigerator) with Energy Star-qualified models would save the average family between $100 and $500 a year on electric bills.

Unplug appliances that you don’t regularly use

Unplugging small electronics like hair dryers and toaster ovens won’t save much energy, Harley says. Meanwhile, certain energy-hogging appliances — such as refrigerators — need to remain plugged in at all times.

However, other devices should be unplugged when not in use. Many devices use small amounts of energy even when turned off. These include TVs, DVD players, stereo equipment, computers, printers and fax machines.

You’ll save energy by plugging devices into a power strip and then turning the strip off when you aren’t using the devices, Harley says. Putting a computer into “sleep” or “hibernation” mode when it’s not in use also trims electricity costs.

You can net big savings by flipping the switch on one item in particular, Harley says.

“If you leave your furnace fan set to ‘on’ rather than to ‘auto,’ switching it back to ‘auto’ can save you up to $50 a month for any months in which you usually leave it ‘on,'” he says.

SAVINGS: “The savings may vary a lot depending on what items you have and how diligent you are, but it’s probably in the range of $20 to $100 a year for most families,” Harley says.

Schedule a home energy audit

In a home energy audit, an expert comes to your home and identifies ways to save energy.

Major, energy-wasting inefficiencies include little or no insulation in walls, ceilings or exposed floors; air leakage (typically hidden in attic, attached porch or garage, or crawl spaces); leaky ductwork in an attic, garage or crawlspace; and old heating or cooling equipment, Harley says.

Home energy audits cost between $100 and $600, but financial assistance is often available, Harley says.

“People of modest means can often get help from a local or state weatherization program,” he says.

Porterfield says you should ask an auditor about his or her training and experience.

“Some auditors may have one week’s training,” Porterfield says. “Others may have 25 years of experience and one week’s training, and so forth.”

Look for a consultant or auditor certified by the Building Performance Institute, the Residential Energy Services Network, or both, Harley says. 

SAVINGS: Varies widely, depending on what the auditor finds. “A good auditor will be looking for something that they’ve never seen before. He or she will have certain things to check, though more importantly they will be open to see what the house might try to hide,” Porterfield says.

Sign up for rebate and tax credit programs

Many local utility companies offer savings and rebate programs that reduce monthly bills.

For example, Florida Power & Light’s “On Call” program offers a small monthly credit to customers who allow FPL to turn off certain appliances and devices for short periods of time. The service is only activated during times of heavy energy demand, but consumers receive the credit each month.

“These programs typically don’t actually save energy,” Harley says. “However, they certainly provide a legitimate way to save some money on your bills.”

Customers generally experience “little or no inconvenience” in terms of service interruptions, Harley says. Contact your utility company to learn more.

State and federal government incentives for retrofitting a home to make it more “green” also can save you cash “if you actually need what the rebate is for,” Porterfield says.

Visit the U.S. Department of Energy and Energy Star Web sites for a listing of energy tax credits. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency offers a listing of other local, state and federal incentives.

SAVINGS: Rebate programs typically save homeowners from $5 to $15 per month off their utility bills, Harley says. Tax credits potentially can amount to thousands of dollars.

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