Flipping the light switch is a great start, but a little more can go a long way for saving energy at home.
The unearthing, processing, transportation, and burning of fracked gas, coal, and crude oil for energy has devastating consequences for ecosystems, human health, and our global climate. With 80% of all energy consumed in the United States coming from fossil fuels, energy use and reduction have real implications for the planet and our personal carbon footprint.
The residential sector accounts for 21% of all US energy consumption, so saving energy at home is far from inconsequential, and can be as simple as changing your laundry habits, adjusting your television settings, or unplugging some appliances on your way out the door. The average monthly electric bill for residential customers in the US comes to about $115, and taking care that no energy is wasted can also keep some of that money in your wallet.
Reducing national energy consumption and curbing climate change can be daunting prospects – but, lifestyle changes don’t have to be drastic to make a difference.
Here are a few tips for cutting down on energy use at home.
The simplest solution to using less energy is turning off any appliances not in use – but, even when turned off, some devices still continue to suck up energy while they’re plugged in.
A 2015 study by the NRDC found that 23% of power consumed by the average American household is “idle load electricity” – power sucked up by “always-on” energy vampires like computers, gaming consoles, and smart appliances – which costs an individual home roughly $165 a year. Many of these are appliances left in sleep mode, ready to be powered on instantly. Even phone and tablet chargers siphon off small amounts of energy when plugged in.
To cut down on this wasted electricity, make a habit of unplugging appliances when not in use. Turn off the “quick start” option on gaming consoles and TVs, and plug appliances into power strips, which can be flipped off or unplugged in an instant. For appliances you only use at specific times of the day – like a coffee maker, hot water heater/recirculation pump, or bathroom towel warmers – plug them into timers so they switch off automatically. Take special care to unplug when you’re leaving home for a few days.
2. Low-Impact Laundry
Clothes dryers are one of the most energy-intensive appliances in homes, and consume as much power as a new clothes washer, refrigerator, and dish washer combined, so choosing to air dry makes a big difference. Set up a clothes line in your backyard or in the laundry room, or use a drying rack if you’re short on space.
When washing or drying clothes, run only full loads and make sure to replace lint filters often so the machine runs as efficiently as possible. Utilize moisture sensors if available, which automatically stop a cycle once the load is sufficiently dry.
About 90% of the energy needed to run a washing machine goes towards heating the water, so running only cold cycles also makes a big difference and cleans your clothes just as well.
3. Adjust Your TV Settings
Modern televisions do use less energy than earlier models, but many utilize a “quick start” feature that allows them to boot up instantly, continuing to suck up power even when turned off. Disable this quick-start feature, and enable the automatic brightness control (or ABC sensor) if your television has one; this will adjust the brightness of the screen based on light levels in the room.
In general, using internet-compatible televisions or add-on devices like Roku, Google Chromecast, or Apple TV for streaming is much less energy-intensive than using gaming consoles, which require about 30% more power.
If you use your TV to listen to music, podcasts, or the radio, be sure to utilize the blank screen feature so the display isn’t using unnecessary energy.
4. Mind Your Thermostat
More than half of the energy used in homes is just for heating and cooling. Investing in an automatic or programmable thermostat can cut that energy consumption by 20-30%, and save you close to $200 in energy costs. These devices can be set to switch off the heat or air conditioning overnight, while you’re away at work, or other times when it’s not necessary to minutely control the temperature of the home.
Some smart thermostats are even more efficient, and often learn your schedule/habits to properly heat/cool your home, adjust the temperature in rooms based on occupancy, and connect to apps or other smart devices in the house.
However, saving money and cash on heating/cooling doesn’t necessarily require complex gadgetry: open the windows to let in cool summer breezes, or throw on a sweater instead of cranking the heat. A good rule of thumb for the colder months is, for every 1°F you turn down the thermostat, 1% less energy is used.
5. Utilize Windows
Even without an automatic thermostat – or a thermostat at all – you can control the temperature in your home.
Some homes are designed for passive heating and cooling, strategically positioning the structure and its windows to maximize/minimize sun exposure throughout the year. However, this passive approach can also be utilized in normal homes to great effect.
Open curtains facing the sun to warm your home in the winter, and keep your home cool in the summer by closing the curtains strategically: before bed for east-facing windows, during the day for south-facing, and in the late afternoon/early evening for west-facing. Think twice before cutting down deciduous trees surrounding the house, which provide shade from the sun in the summer and, when they drop their leaves in the winter, allow the sun’s rays to warm your home.
Strategically placing mirrors and painting with bright colors – which reflect heat – will also brighten up a room without switching on the lights.
6. Conserve Hot Water
Water heating is a major source of energy use in homes, accounting for about 18% of total energy consumption.
Taking shorter showers (and colder, if possible) will cut down on this consumption, along with lowering the temperature of the water heater, which is often set as high as 140°F. Insulating hot water heaters and pipes can also raise the temperature of the water between 2 and 4°F, allowing you to lower those water-heating settings even further. Be sure to switch off the water heater if you’re leaving the house for a while to prevent energy waste.
If you are able, consider replacing your water heater with a newer, more energy-efficient model, which will save power and money – usually enough to offset the cost of the new appliance pretty quickly.
7. Change Your Flow
While typical showerheads use about 2.5 gallons of water per minute, many low-flow models use no more than 2 and can save up to 2,700 gallons of water a year for the average household.
Installing a faucet aerator in your bathroom or kitchen sink also cuts down on water use by mixing air into the water stream, limiting the amount of water flowing through the faucet without sacrificing its effectiveness.
Look out for the WaterSense label on showerheads and faucet accessories, which indicates that the product meets EPA criteria.
8. Use the Dishwasher
Surprisingly (perhaps), washing dishes by hand is less energy-efficient than sticking them in the dishwasher. Compared with the energy needed to heat water for hand-washing, dishwashers create fewer emissions – at least 50% fewer, according to a 2020 study published by Environmental Research Communications – as long as it’s a new-ish machine.
Turning off the pre-rinsing and heated-drying settings can further save on energy consumption; scrap dishes clean before loading them into the dishwasher, and let dishes air dry after the cycle completes.
9. Improve Your Insulation
In total, the gaps around doors and windows in the average American home is roughly equivalent to a 3-foot by 3-foot hole, which can let out a whole lot of heat or air conditioning. To prevent leakage of warm or cool air, install sweeps to the bottom of doors and seal gaps around window panes with putty.
In older homes, improving insulation can reduce heating/cooling bills by as much as 20%. Insulating floors, walls and attics – which are especially important, given that hot air rises – makes a big difference, or even just covering bare floors with rugs.
Follow Energy Star guidance for identifying problems and making improvements to the insulation in your home. Some utility companies will even offer free energy audits, during which a professional can asses your insulation and make suggestions about efficiency.
10. Shop Consciously
While reduce, reuse, and recycle is always the motto, buying newer appliances is actually important for cutting emissions.
According to the NRDC, many modern appliances use half the energy of their predecessors from 20 years ago, and, taken all together, can save a household $500 in utility costs every year. If your home contains a lot of older machinery, some upgrades might save you a lot of money and energy.
Managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Star program helps consumers identify products that are truly energy-efficient. Look for the Energy Star label when replacing appliances, including televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners, and dozens of others, knowing they meet certain environmental and efficiency criteria.
11. Upgrade Your Light Bulbs
When replacing older appliances in your home, consider replacing your light bulbs as well.
Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are widely considered the best bulbs for energy efficiency – much more so than incandescent bulbs, which waste the equivalent of $100 worth of electricity throughout their lifetime – but LEDs are quickly taking a front seat.
While LED bulbs can be more expensive than the alternatives, they last 2- to 4x longer than CFLs. LEDs also emit very little heat – as opposed to incandescent and CFL bulbs, which emit 90% and 80% of their energy as heat, respectively – and are more efficient than both incandescent and CFLs. So, the long term savings of LEDs certainly outweigh the upfront costs.
12. Measure Your Electricity
Learning how much electricity individual appliances in your home use is a great first step to cutting down on energy waste.
Use the Department of Energy’s appliance and electronic energy use calculator to estimate the annual energy use and associated costs of specific products. Meters like the Kill A Watt also help you determine the real consumption of refrigerators, coffee pots, computer monitors, etc., and allow you to conceptualize where energy waste is occurring in your home.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.