February to-do's: Cut Your Energy Costs!

The Gillis kids, many years ago.

The Gillis kids, many years ago.

Growing up in New England, I had ingrained in me the concepts of frugality and hard work. It got cold there in the winter (really cold!), and paying a high energy bill was out of the question for our family of six. We were a family of DIYers, from the pretty dresses Mom sewed for the girls to growing incredible fruits and vegetables in Dad’s enormous garden, or cutting down trees, chopping and stacking the wood and seasoning it for the following year’s fireplace warmth. If the yard needed weeding or raking, the kids did it. If a room needed renovating, Dad did it (and we helped). If the dishwasher acted up… oh, no—we didn’t have a dishwasher; we had four kids who could wash and dry them by hand. Life’s a little easier in California (no snow, but we do have earthquakes, fires, mudslides, rising water tables, traffic; maybe it’s not that much easier). Here are some Real Simple projects to do this month to cut your energy costs, without having to cut down a tree (check out that saw!).


Cut Heating and Cooling Costs


Seal your house: Close the fireplace damper; install a timer (available at hardware stores) on the bathroom exhaust fan; seal ductwork.

Cool your home naturally: Open windows on cool summer nights. Use energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs (they emit less heat). Hang washing out to dry, and grill food outside. Install window awnings. Plant deciduous trees on the east and west to shade your house and cool it by as much as 20 degrees.

Install an Energy Star–certified ceiling fan (50 percent more efficient than others) and comfortably keep your home four degrees warmer in the summer.

Consider switching to a natural-gas water heater (which uses less than half the energy of an electric one), and turn the setting down to 120 degrees.

Potential savings: About $500 a year.
Green point: If one household in 10 bought Energy Star–rated heating and cooling equipment, the change in greenhouse-gas emissions would be equivalent to taking 1.5 million cars off the road.

Cut Lighting Costs

Replace regular incandescent bulbs and fixtures with Energy Star–qualified compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), available at most hardware stores. CFLs cast a warmer glow than the cold, harsh fluoros of old. They cost more than regular bulbs, but they use 70 percent less energy, last much longer (10,000 hours, compared with 750), and look just as good.


Use task lighting. (You wouldn’t refrigerate the whole house to keep your food cold, would you?) One exception: If you have a torchère-style halogen lamp anywhere, get rid of it. It probably runs a 300-watt bulb and heats up to about 970 degrees.

Install dimmers on all bulbs to save energy and extend their life. Timers work well for front-door and security-related lights; sensors, which turn on lights only when needed, are ideal for outdoors. Solar-powered outdoor lights (solarilluminations.com has a wide selection) are an energy-free option.

Don’t underestimate the power of daylight. Use skylights and well-placed mirrors to reflect natural light and help reduce lighting costs.

Potential savings: At least $90 a year.
Green point: If every American home swapped just five incandescent bulb fixtures for Energy Star CFLs, it would keep 1 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases out of the air and save $6.5 billion in energy costs.

Cut Home Electronics Energy Costs

Unplug DVD players and TVs, or plug them all into a power strip you can switch off. Sixty to 80 percent of the electricity they use is consumed while they’re idle, powering light displays and “instant on” features (such as the remote’s ability to talk to the TV).


Unplug “wall warts,” or plugs attached to a black transformer box (like a cell-phone charger). If they are plugged into an outlet, they are sucking up electricity whether charging another device or not.

Ideally, unplug or turn off your computer when it’s not in use. If you can’t do this, use its power-saving sleep mode, which uses 60 to 80 percent less energy than full-power mode. Visit energystar.gov to learn how to activate your computer’s power-saving mode or to download free software that enables these options on computers that don’t have them. At the very least, turn your monitor off instead of using a screensaver.

Turn off printers and copiers when they’re not in use. Don’t rely on sleep mode.

Potential savings: As much as $175 a year.
Green point: Using power management on your desktop computer could save 900 kilowatt-hours a year. That amounts to 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of driving a medium-size car from New York to Salt Lake City.

Cut Appliance Energy Costs

Replace an old refrigerator. One made before 1993 could be costing $140 a year in electricity. Even refrigerators built between 1993 and 2001 cost about $60 a year to run. A new Energy Star–rated model runs on about $20 worth of electricity. A new $600 refrigerator will last for decades and could pay for itself in less than five years. For efficient chilling, keep the refrigerator full, remove things stored on top of it, and clean the condenser coils annually.


Replace a top-loading washing machine with a front-loader, which generally uses 50 percent less energy and a third less water. With those savings, it will pay for itself in six years and should last for 10.

Do several loads of laundry in one stint every week, and dry the loads back-to-back to capture residual heat in the dryer.

Run only full dishwasher loads. The most efficient machines use a third of the water of hand washing. About 80 percent of a dishwasher’s energy use goes to heating water. Select “unheated air-drying” to cut that by 12 percent.

Potential savings: $400 a year.
Green point: A front-loading Energy Star–certified clothes washer saves enough energy annually to light your entire home for a month and a half, and it saves as much water in a year as the average person drinks in a lifetime.

I just tell people to put on another sweater in the winter — I’m from New England. What do you do to conserve energy and keep your bills down? Comment below and share!

Read more of this Real Simple article here.

Adele GillisComment