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Lighting accounts for 11 percent of most home electricity bills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Use these tips to cut down your lighting usage and costs:
Go fluorescent. Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs and draw only about 25 percent as much electricity, says Ronnie J. Kweller of the Alliance to Save Energy, in Washington, D.C. Though more expensive, CFLs can save consumers up to $50 over the lifetime of each bulb, and because CFLs put out much less heat, installing them will also help trim your AC costs in summer.
Consider LEDs. Lights that use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) draw even less power and last far longer than CFLs. But they're pricey—$60 and up each—and don't always work with dimmer switches. Eventually, prices will come down and they'll replace CFLs, says Joseph Harberg of Currentenergy.com, a Web-based store devoted to energy efficiency.
Make it automatic. You can save even more money by turning off lights when they're not needed. Adding motion sensors can ensure rooms go dark when not in use, though it's a bad idea to put one in the bathroom, says Harberg. For total control, an automated lighting system like Hawking Technologies' HomeRemote Pro (available at hawkingtech.com) lets you put all your lights (and other appliances) on a schedule and control them via any Web-connected computer. Kits for networking lights start at around $200, and most homes' lighting systems can be automated for under $1,000, says company officer Jason Owen.
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Appliances and electronics suck down 18 percent of household power on average, says the DOE. Here are a few ways to manage your appliance usage more intelligently:
Wash cold. Washing clothes in cold water instead of hot can save $60 or more annually, says Monique Tilford, coauthor of Your Money or Your Life (Penguin). To recoup even more, toss clothes in the dryer for 20 minutes to soften them up, then finish the job on a clothesline.
Air-dry your dishes. Wash only full loads and set to the no-heat-dry setting.
Kill the phantoms. Even when powered off, electronics like TV sets, computers, and cell phone chargers still draw "phantom" power—consuming up to 8 percent of an average home's electricity bill, says Kweller. Get a $50 power strip like Belkin's Conserve (belkin.com), which lets you instantly shut down up to six power-sucking devices via a wireless remote, while still providing juice to devices that need to run 24/7, like a DVR or fridge. (Side benefit: The ability to instantly kill the Xbox when the gamer finds himself unable to log off.)
Upgrade appliances. If your appliances are more than 10 years old, consider replacing them with more energy efficient models. Energy Star-rated washers use half as much water and electricity as traditional models; an Energy Star fridge draws at least 20 percent less power than a standard one. You might even qualify for manufacturer rebates or sales-tax exemptions; the Energy Star Web site has calculators that help you locate rebates and determine how much money each appliance can save you. Go to energystar.gov.
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Heat, Air, Water
Nearly half of the typical utility bill pays for heating and cooling. Another 15 percent goes toward heating water. A few quick tricks can save some bucks. Sealing your home costs more but offers bigger long-term savings.
Play the numbers. In summer set the air conditioner no lower than 78 degrees. In winter keep the heat no higher than 68 and crank it down 10 degrees when you hit the hay. Those moves can shave 10 percent or more off your annual tab, according to the DOE. To distribute air more efficiently, use ceiling fans to drive heat down in winter and pull cool air up in summer, and replace your HVAC air filters monthly.
Buy a smarter thermostat. For just $100 to $200, a programmable thermostat can crank down the HVAC while you're away, then turn it back on to the "Comfort" temp an hour before you come home. Kweller says a smart thermostat can pay for itself in a year or less.
Watch your water. The DOE recommends lowering water heater thermostats to 120 degrees, wrapping the tank in an insulating blanket (but don't cover the thermostat), and insulating the pipes. Installing low-flow shower heads and faucets can reduce your bill.
Get a pro energy audit. Though you may be able to fill out a questionnaire at your utility's Web site, it's better to arrange for a thorough on-site assessment, says Harberg. Find an auditor certified by the Residential Energy Services Network (natresnet.org). Hiring a company that only does audits can help you avoid getting recommendations for unnecessary improvements from general contractors.
Seal it. Tightening up your house is the biggest single way to save money on heating and air, says Geoff Chapin of home energy efficiency firm Next Step Living (nextsteplivinginc.com). For instance, as part of a standard home audit, Next Step Living specialists caulk around windows, apply weather strips to doorways, close fireplace flues, and fill cracks around pipes with foam. "This alone can save as much energy as closing a 4-by-4-foot window," he says.
Insulate your attic. Only 20 percent of homes built before 1980 are well insulated, according to the DOE, but it's one of the most efficient ways to reduce heating costs, says Ethan Ewing of Bills.com. "Insulating an attic can save from 20 to 25 percent on heating and cooling," he says. "So adding insulation to a 1,000-square-foot attic can save you more than $400 a year." For more information, go to ornl.gov.
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Tax Credits for Going Green
If you think you didn't get much out of the government stimulus package, here's your chance—as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act of 2009, Congress extended federal tax credits for weatherizing your home through the end of 2010. If you install energy-efficient windows, roofs, or HVAC systems, you can get up to 30 percent of the cost ($1,500 annual maximum) as a tax credit. You may also be eligible for a wide range of state and local incentives. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Electricity offers a handy interactive map at dsireusa.org that details exactly what's available.
The savings can be significant. Next Step Living's Geoff Chapin says a $600 home energy audit can end up costing New England homeowners under $200, thanks to a 75 percent rebate. John Griswold of EcoBilt Energy Systems (ecobiltenergy.com), a South Carolina firm specializing in alternative energy, says a thermal water heating system that typically costs $7,000 would be closer to $3,000 after federal and state tax credits are applied (assuming you owe the government money). Over time, the unit would pay for itself. There are restrictions on what qualifies for incentives, so check the rules carefully before doing anything. For info, see energytaxincentives.org and the Alliance to Save Energy's tax credit primer at ase.org/taxcredits.
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Energy Star A program sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and DOE that sets energy-efficiency guidelines for appliances, electronics, lighting, and new home construction. Visit energystar.gov.
EnergyGuide A large yellow label found on appliances that tells you how much money and energy that device will save you annually versus less efficient models.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification program developed by U.S. Green Building Council to rate energy-efficient buildings (applied to both commercial buildings and housing). A LEED-certified builder can help you find the most effective ways to retrofit your house. Visit usgbc.org/leed.
Low-e glass Specially coated windows that deflect infrared light, keeping rooms cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Many energy-efficient windows also use multiple panes separated by a thin layer of transparent gas that serves as insulation.
National Fenestration Rating Council Compares windows, doors, and skylights with regard to their energy efficiency. Visit nfrc.org.
Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) Used to measure the efficiency of heating and cooling systems; the higher the SEER rating, the better it is.
Originally published in the March 1, 2010, issue of Family Circle magazine.