Our energy bills are just too damn high, but lowering them doesn’t require spending money on green power gadgets or sacrificing your sanity. With a few simple tricks and minor adjustments to the way you operate your appliances, you can drive your energy costs down.
I moved into a new, larger apartment this year, during the hottest and longest summer I’ve spent in Los Angeles. The heat was unyielding, and so was the air conditioning. When my first electric bill came, it soared to heights I didn’t even expect. When I looked at common solutions, everything cost money. Solar panels cost a pretty penny and energy-conserving outlets aren’t cheap either. While I could measure my energy costs, I’d need to spend a lot of time and money I don’t have. I’d also have to significantly reduce the way I used my air conditioning, computers, and appliances. Nothing seemed ideal, so I decided to find out if I could lower my bill simply by using everything more efficiently. I found out that I could, and you can too.
Air Conditioning and Heat
I live with sunny weather all year round, so air conditioning usage accounts for most of my bill. If you live in a colder part of the country, however, heat is probably what costs you the most. Either way, you can use the thermostat more efficiently with simple tricks.
Keep Your Vents Open and Clean
When an inspector came to my apartment to assess various things, I asked him to take a look at my air conditioning and tell me all the dumb mistakes I was making. I found out I’m pretty stupid, and many others are, too. Here’s what I learned.
If you have central air conditioning and/or heat, check the vents in your home. Some may be closed. It never occurred to me that any vent would be closed because I would never close them. I just assumed they were open. In reality, nearly every vent in my home was closed. After opening them all up, the air conditioner no longer struggled to keep the apartment cool or kept running after reaching its target temperature. Some believe that closing vents can reduce energy consumption by preventing the need to cool or heat a particular room. That’s actually a myth: closing vents will actually raise your energy costs.
Your vents also use air filters to keep dirt, dust, and other unwanted crap from blowing throughout your home. Those filters should be replaced monthly or they’ll prevent ideal airflow. You can pick up a bulk pack at your local hardware store for $1-2 per filter. Just be sure to measure the size of your vents before you go so you get the right ones.
If you know a thing or two about air conditioning and heating, these two tips probably seem a little obvious. For those of us who rarely think about it, they’re a vital bit of education we somehow missed during our transition into adulthood.
Promote Better Airflow in Your Home
Trapping the right temperature in your home often requires little more than good airflow. Unless you have a very small living space, even central air and heat can have a tough time keeping each room at the same, steady temperature. If you remember that heat rises, you already know how to fix this problem. When it’s hot, the heat will escape through the higher parts of your home (whether that means the ceiling or another floor). You want to help it out faster by pushing the air upwards. When it’s cold, you don’t want that heat to escape so you need to push it back down. Fans make both tasks easily achievable.
Chances are you have a few standing fans in your home that require far less power than your air conditioning or heating system. Fans don’t cool or heat the air, but they do move it around. When air in your home circulates properly, it’s easier to maintain an even temperature and that means less work for your heating/cooling system. Position the fans so they move the air in the direction you want it to go. Simply moving the air all around your home (circulating it) will do the trick, but if you want to trap hot air you should push it down and push it up if you want to remove it.
If you’re lucky enough to have a ceiling fan, running it in the correct direction makes this easy. When it’s hot, the fan should spin counter-clockwise to push the hot air up and out. When the weather turns cold, instead spin the fans clockwise to trap heat inside. You’ll often find a switch on your ceiling fan to choose a direction, so consult your fan’s manual to find out where it is.
Cutting costs on laundry takes very little effort. Simply stop using heat whenever possible, pack the right amount of clothing into the machines, and tackle the task at night.
According to LG Electronics, who makes washers and driers (among other things), “heating the water in the wash drum accounts for about 90% of the energy your machine uses.” While most of us know that washing our clothing on the cold water setting will reduce energy costs, the amount was higher than I expected. I’ve always washed my clothing on cold out of pure laziness—because cold water won’t cause colors to run quite so easily and that means you don’t have to separate lights and darks. On top of saving energy, using a cold wash reduces the amount of work you have to do.
If you’re drying your clothes in a machine drier, you’re obviously using quite a bit of heat. Unfortunately, there is no way around this unless you want to air dry your clothing. That’s a bit of an inconvenience for some (and may not be possible for those of us in small spaces), making this method far from perfect.
Measure Your Laundry Loads
Ideally, a load of laundry should pack in as many articles of clothing as possible, but stuffing your washer until it’s full isn’t a good idea. While the washer can likely fit whatever you throw at it, if you’re using a machine drier afterwards you need to consider what it can handle as well. If there’s little room for movement in the drier, the hot air won’t be able to do its job and you may have to run the drier twice. That’s really inefficient, so make sure your load of laundry doesn’t take up too much room in the drier before you wash it. A good rule of thumb is to leave about 25% of the drier unfilled so there’s room for movement, and even more if you’re drying large bed sheets or blankets. Many driers are larger than washers, and your clothing takes up less space when wet, so your clothing will always fit. Measure for 25% before you wash to ensure you leave enough room for good air flow.
Do Your Laundry After 8:00 PM
According to Andrew Schrage (co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance), some power companies offer discounted rates during non-peak hours:
Many utility companies have plans set up that offer discounts for switching some of your power usage to off-peak times. The hours and times differ slightly depending upon what part of the country you’re in, and each plan is set up a little differently. If you’re willing to shift a significant portion of your energy usage to outside the peak times, you certainly can save money.
Call your power company and ask them if they offer non-peak discounts and when they begin and end. Commonly, the hours begin at 8:00 PM. I typically do my laundry and dishes in the evening, anyhow, so I see this as a great deal. Those who handle their chores during the day, however, may find this method inconvenient.
Reducing energy consumption with your dishwasher utilizes the same tactics as your laundry machines. Primarily, that means you need to reduce the amount of heat you use and load the machine as efficiently as possible.
Dishwashers require some heat to do a good job. Part of the cleaning process requires quite a bit of hot water. That said, drying your dishes doesn’t. Most machines employ a heated dry method that you can disable. Heated drying helps prevent water spots on your dishes, but so do rinsing agents like Jet Dry. If you already use a rinsing agent, you can forego the heated dry method. This is because rinsing agents coat your dishes and make it difficult for water to stick to them for a limited time. Your dishwasher releases the agent later in the cycle so it can clean effectively first, too, so you don’t have to worry about water being repelled at the wrong time. If you’ve never used a rinsing agent before, it’s very easy. You simply look for a small, often circular cap on your dishwasher’s door, unscrew it, and load it up with your rinsing agent until full. Then just stop the dishwasher once it enters the heated dry stage and let everything dry on its own.
Load Your Dishwasher Efficiently
While you can just stuff clothing in a laundry machine and call it a day, dishwashers require a little more care and effort to load efficiently. How you pre-wash your dishes matters, and the design of each rack offers specific advantages.
When pre-washing your dishes in the sink, your goal isn’t to remove all signs of food. If it were, you wouldn’t need a dishwasher in the first place. You need to worry about pieces of food, and simply leave any food residue for the machine. If you like to be extra clean and thorough, you may want to wash more. Remember that pre-washing dishes requires water, and if you’re constantly running water for a longer period you’re likely wasting it.
Where you places your dishes matters. The bottom rack works best for plates, and plates should face into the center of the dishwasher. Utensils obviously go in the dedicated carriage on the bottom rack, but how you place them might seem counterintuitive. Place all utensils with the handle at the bottom. This means the sharp end goes up, so be very careful that you don’t hurt yourself. The handle doesn’t get as dirty, so it doesn’t need as much attention as the other end of your utensils. Facing the sharp ends upwards allows more water to reach them.
Place your bowls and cups on the top row. Cups should face down and bowls at a slanted downward angle. If you don’t face rounded items downward, water will get caught inside them and may not reach the lower dishes as much as it needs to. A similar effect occurs when you place bowls and cups on the lower rack, as they’ll catch water when facing upwards and block water from the top rack when facing downwards. Always load them up top. Additionally, tupperware and other thin plastics belong up top as well, regardless of their shape. The heat from the washing machine can warp them, and that’s less likely to happen on the top rack.
When dealing with large and flat objects (e.g. a cutting board), do not place them close and parallel to the dishwasher door. When loaded up front like this, flat objects can prevent the detergent door from fully opening and the detergent from being used at all. This prevents the dishwasher from properly cleaning your dishes and you’ll have to run the load again. That’s twice the power consumption.
Finally, use a good detergent. You might not think this matters much, but some detergents actually do a better job of getting stubborn food off of your dishes. I’ve tested many and, in my personal experience, Quantum Finish and Miele are most effective (though Quantum Finish almost always costs less). Both clean aggressively without the harsh effects (and ultimately damage) caused by some soaps.
Other Appliances and Electronics
We recently learned that most appliances and electronics don’t have a very high energy cost—they only account for about 17% of energy use in the average American household. That said, some devices have a more significant impact than others. Here’s what you want to watch out for:
- Modern video game systems (e.g. Xbox 360, PS3)
- Electric kettles
- Always-on desktop computers
- Television sets (especially plasma-based displays)
With the exception of electric kettles, which are easily replaced by boiling water on the stove, reducing energy consumption with electronics requires actually turning them off. When you have tons of devices and appliances, shutting them off regularly gets annoying. The easiest solution? Stick everything you can on a power strip and turn off the power strip. Chances are you have a few of those around the house already so you won’t need to buy them. In the case of computers, even letting them sleep can draw a decent amount of power, so you should shut them off completely. To avoid the nuisance of turning them on and off, simply schedule your startup and shutdown times so the computer handles the task automatically.
You can’t do much else to reduce the energy costs of your electronics without investing a little money, but since they only account for an average of 17% of your energy costs that’s not a big deal. If you want to spend a little money to lower your bill, however, we have a guide for that, too.
Special thanks to BlueRock Energy, LG Electronics, Andrew Schrage, co-owner of (Money Crashers Personal Finance), and my dad’s relentless home efficiency tips for their contributions to this post.