Saving Money, Saving Energy

Categories: Environment, How To
Comments: 3 Comments
Published on: 2012.05.20

Best Electric Bill (May 2012)
Electric Bills At Our New House
(Copyright © 2012 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

Search the internet for “How to cut your electricity bill”, or any variation of that subject, and you’ll see thousands of results. Sadly, most of them aren’t that helpful, and many of them actually encourage buying new products like Energy Star rated appliances or CFL bulbs. The whole point of cutting your electric bill is to save money, right?

The image above is a chart I’ve kept of our monthly electricity bills since moving into our new house. The most recent month was our lowest electric bill since moving in, almost two years ago. I didn’t list dollar amounts because it isn’t relevant. The dollar amount will change depending on your provider and location, and of course your house, the weather, and all kinds of things.

But what have we done specifically to get our bills lower in this house? I’ll list our energy saving tips below, hopefully some of which can help you as well. First, it’s worth noting that nothing in our home is natural gas powered; everything is electric including the central heat, the water heater, the oven/stove, etc.

It’s also worth noting that our home was built less than two years ago and so includes some energy-saving features that older homes just don’t have, like radiant barrier roof decking, high efficiency blown insulation, Energy Star rated air conditioner, digital thermostat, and low-emission double-paned windows. I’m pretty sure someone could go broke in an older home replacing all their inefficient features with new ones, and the energy savings would thus be negated. But if you need to replace something anyway, spend a little more on the right products and it’ll save you in the long run.

Also, keep in mind that our electricity doesn’t appear magically at our houses. It’s generated in giant plants, usually using non-renewable resources. About half of the electricity in the U.S. comes from burning coal. Another 20% comes from natural gas and another 20% is nuclear power, for a total of 90%. All other sources of electricity combine for less than 10% of our usage, including hydroelectric, solar power, wind power, etc. (Source). It would be nice to know some of those resources aren’t being used up so quickly.

Energy Monitor

Wireless Energy Monitor
Owl Wireless Energy Monitor, with kitchen timer for scale
(Copyright © 2010 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

If your home doesn’t have one, it can be a great buy, especially if you’re not sure how much electricity each appliance or outlet is using. Most of them can be programmed with your local energy rates, so the LCD screen will display how many cents per hour you’re using (or kilowatts/hour if you prefer). This helps to know which appliances are draining your budget, and which ones aren’t making an impact.

I’ve seen them priced as low as $20 and as high as $80.

Thermostat Control

Growing up in some of the hottest areas of the U.S., I’ve always been thankful for central air conditioning. But I never understood why some people keep it cold in their homes during the summer months. (I had a friend whose home was so cold inside that I kept a sweatshirt in my car in case I visited him.) On the other hand, we don’t want to sit around in pools of our own sweat when we could be running the A/C.

We keep it as warm as we can stand it in the summer. It took us a few weeks after moving in to find out what this temperature was, going a little too warm at times and a little too cool at times. In the winter, we keep it as cool as we can stand it.

Ceiling Fans

One way to stay a little cooler without running the A/C constantly is to use ceiling fans (or other types of fans). Of course, the cost of buying and installing ceiling fans has to be considered, but their power usage is almost nil.

Be sure to turn off fans when you leave a room. They don’t actually keep the house cooler and in fact create a bit of heat from their electric motors. The cooling sensation is evaporation of moisture from your skin. If you’re out of the path of the moving air, it’s not doing any good.

Open Windows

Most of my regular readers live in relatively rural areas. They already know to leave the windows open when the weather’s nice. For those of us in tightly compact subdivisions, leaving a window open is just like turning up the volume on the noise all around. Instead of crickets chirping at night, you hear car engines or someone’s party music from down the street. (Also, some home security systems incorporate window contacts, so you can’t set the alarm if the windows are open.)

But the morning hours are generally quiet and cool. If you’re home, you can save a bit of power by opening the windows first thing in the morning. Here in Central Texas, it’s usually too hot by 10 a.m., so closing the windows at 9:30 is generally advised.

Use A Dishwasher

Doing The Chores
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

Both my wife and I were surprised, but we’ve cut both our power bill and our water bill by using our dishwasher every day, and only hand-washing items that aren’t dishwasher safe. (Of course, it’s a new dishwasher, so this might not be true of your old one.)

Also, it will depend on how you hand-wash dishes, and whether you use cold, warm, or hot water to do it.

Avoid the Oven

On those hot summer afternoons, using the oven not only spins the electric meter, but it heats up the house and forces the A/C to work harder. When possible, save power by warming/heating items in the microwave or in a toaster oven.

Our microwave uses almost the same amount of power as our oven, but doesn’t create the same heat, and only runs for a fraction of the time. Our toaster oven also uses nearly the same wattage, but doesn’t heat up the entire kitchen.

Fill The Fridge

The Presidential Museum & Leadership Library
(Copyright © 2010 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

An empty refrigerator costs money every time you open it. The cold air is displaced with room temperature air very quickly, and so the compressor has to run again, cooling off all that air that moved. But if it’s full, all the items inside maintain their temperature as you open and close the door, and there’s less air to worry about.

Large families don’t have this issue; their fridges are always full. Bachelors can find it difficult to keep their refrigerators full, since so many items have quick expiration dates. If that’s you, here’s a tip: Don’t throw away empty 2-liter soda bottles or gallon milk jugs. Wash them and fill them with tap water and leave them in the fridge.

Natural Light Is Free

This is a no-brainer, but we’ve all seen people running electric lights throughout the day. Open the curtains or blinds a little. Move your reading chair near the window. Light bulbs only burn a tiny fraction of power compared to large appliances, but they’re on a lot longer and some people keep multiple lights burning at once.

The cents you save by keeping them off when possible will add up fast.

I’m also surprised at how many people keep their porch lights on all night. (Drive through any neighborhood at 2 a.m. and you’ll see what I mean.) Not only are those lights attracting bugs, but they’re burning power. (And they don’t deter burglars, despite what you’ve heard.) A motion sensor with timer might be a good idea; the light will come on when it detects motion, and then go off after a specified amount of time.

Make the Switch to CFL

The energy monitor I mentioned above made it clear to us that CFL bulbs use a fraction of the energy of incandescent bulbs. And they last quite a bit longer. We’ve been using CFL bulbs since 2008 or so and have noticed a marked decrease in power usage, and we almost never have to buy bulbs anymore.

Another advantage for those of us in hot climates: the CFL bulbs aren’t hot; they’ll be warm to the touch, but won’t burn you. This saves on your A/C usage as well.

(Newer LED bulbs made for household sockets are still very expensive. We bought one recently to test the technology, but it’ll be a while before we are convinced.)

EDIT, April 2013: After learning how toxic mercury is, and that CFL bulbs contain it, I recant this previous paragraph. It’s true that CFL bulbs offer the energy-saving advantages that I mentioned above. But they’re just not worth it.

Dryer Smarts

If you use a clothesline to dry your washed clothes, you’re already saving money. But you can’t use it if it’s raining or below freezing outside. And some Homeowner Associations (including ours) don’t allow clotheslines.

Electric dryers are a great convenience, but can burn up the kilowatts pretty quickly. We’ve found that our clothes dry on the “low” heat setting almost as quickly as they do on medium or high, and much less power is used.

Additionally, you can save drying time if you keep your lint traps clear, and occasionally check the vent to the exterior. We’re fortunate that our dryer is only a few inches from the exterior wall vent. Venting through the roof requires more power, as does venting to a side wall from the center of your home. (In one of our apartments, the dryer hookup was in the center of the home; the exterior vent pipe was almost 20 feet long, which is a pretty poor way to design a building.)

Always run the dryer in the early morning hours. It creates heat. In the winter, it’ll help warm at least part of your home. In the summer you don’t want that heat being created in the afternoon.

When possible, wash several loads in a row (instead of spacing them out). The dryer won’t use as much power to re-heat if it’s already warm from the last load.

Cool, Quick Showers

New Shower Head
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

There’s no reason for a shower to take longer than a couple of minutes, or to be steaming hot. Lukewarm or merely warm water will clean you just as quickly. Your home’s water heater uses quite a bit of power to refill that tank with hot water. (And tankless heaters still use power to heat the water as it runs through, besides being prohibitively expensive for most of us.)

Dress for the Weather

This is related to my “thermostat control” point above. If you’re wearing long pants, socks, and a heavy shirt in the summer time, you’ll keep your house too cool. If you wander through your house in a pair of shorts in the winter, you’re going to keep your house too warm. If your home has central heat/air, you can watch your electric meter spinning away your hard-earned dollars.

Let Computers, TVs Rest Awhile

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Remote Control
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.)

A desktop computer like mine costs a couple of cents per hour when they’re on. A little more if you have a second monitor or external hard drives running. Even more if you leave your printer turned on. If you leave yours on all day, that’s 32 to 60 cents per 16 waking hours. Leave it on all night and that’s another 16 to 30 cents. A laptop might only use a cent per hour — only when plugged in and charging.

Our TV uses less power, but it still shows up on the energy monitor. There’s no reason to leave it on all night or while you’re out shopping or on vacation. (Yes, I’ve seen people do all of those.)

Curtains

All our windows have blinds and curtains. Almost all our curtains are not only decorative, but also block light and heat. During the hottest parts of summer days, we close the blinds and curtains on the windows that are facing the sunny side of life. The money we lose by burning electric lights in those rooms is easily saved by the A/C running less.

In winter, it’s the opposite — keep curtains closed unless that window is getting direct sunlight.

We always close all blinds and curtains at night, which adds quite a bit of insulation and saves running our central heat and/or air.

Did I forget some obvious power-saving tips? Let me know in the comments below.

Editor’s Note

I’ve added in some of the tips from the comments below, wording them in my own way.

3 Comments
  1. Shari says:

    Only run fans when you can feel them. We accidentally left one on all night last night.
    If it cools off at night, open the windows; if you can’t have them open at night, then you still can for a couple hours in the morning.
    Grill or use stovetop or microwave in the summer.
    Spend more time outside. Your body adjusts to those temps, and you don’t want the big shock when you come in (if you’ve been out in the snow, a 60 degree house will feel quite warm).
    Dress for the season.
    In the winter, sleep with blankets. Remember Granny’s house? It would get cold in the bedrooms at night, but under that pile of quilts I slept very well. Studies have shown that people sleep better if the room cools through the night. Just don’t take it to extremes – a house with no insulation should have some heat source at night. I’ve tried that, too.
    I’ve heard that doing several loads of wash in a row will help, as the dryer stays warm inside. Don’t have any proof of that, though. I was surprised to hear that low heat saves energy. I always use low anyway, to save the clothes, but assumed it would dry faster on high.

  2. Richard says:

    Caveat: I knew a guy who was making some kind of “stick it to the man” point by not rinsing his dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. The result was serving food to us on dirty dishes and him looking like an idiot. He never caught on why we stopped having dinner with them.

  3. Wil C. Fry says:

    @ Richard: Interesting tale. He might be interested to know that many modern dishwashers don’t require (or even recommend) rinsing first…

    @Shari: Some good tips. Thanks!

    I may add a few of them to my post above; some of them we’re doing now, and you reminded me of a few others. :-)

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