I’ve written many articles on energy efficiency, and read a lot on it as well. Where I’ve always gotten frustrated are the uncoordinated tips that are given about improving your home’s energy efficiency. “Buy this super duper auto shut-off plug!” “Install CFLs!” “Replace your windows and doors!” If you’re not taking targeted action, you’re not going to be as efficient as you think you are. You have to know where you use the most electricity before making changes, otherwise you’re not spending wisely, and you won’t see the results you want. Below are some tips on how to take a coordinated, rational approach to reducing electricity use in your home. Note that these tips apply only to plug load and lighting. If you use electricity to heat your home it’s best to get a certified energy auditor in to do a full evaluation.
Set a target. Let’s say you’ve determined that your family uses 1200 KWH of electricity per month by looking at your electricity bill, and you want to get that consumption down to 900 KWH/month. Next do a little investigation, making a note of all the items plugged in in your home, as well as the lighting in your home, both inside and out.
There are four ways to reduce plug load consumption:
Use power intermittently,
Replace items with more efficient models, substitution (ie., ceiling fans for central air),
Change family behaviour (probably the toughest action to enforce).
Unplug. Go after the inexpensive, low hanging fruit first. No, not the light bulbs, unplugging gadgets. Unplugging is a no-brainer. Why is your VCR still plugged in? When was the last time you used it? What about that digital clock and old TV in the spare room you rarely use? What about the coffeemaker? If you don’t use the timer and it has a clock, unplug it. Any cord that comes with a DC converter and feels hot to the touch when it’s plugged in should be unplugged unless in use, particularly cellphone chargers and laptops. Those chargers draw power even when nothing’s attached to them. If you’ve done your own plug load electricity audit, you can see on paper just how much electricity you’ll stop using by unplugging gadgets and just how close to your goal the unplugging will bring you. Not only have you not spent a dime to make changes, you’re now paying less to your utility company too.
Use power intermittently. This means put gadgets on timers, unplug cellphone chargers when something’s finished charging. Learn how to program and use your thermostat for both winter and summer. The earliest models were a pain to program, but the current models walk you through programming fairly easily. Schedule 15 minutes one weekend morning and program your thermostat to meet your family’s needs.
Add auto-shut off bars to your gaming stations, computer stations, and anything else that uses a lot of phantom power, such as cell phone chargers. You can plug several cords into one unit, so you will likely only need two or three cords, maybe you even have some already that you bought with good intentions, but just never got around to using properly.
Figure out how many power cords you’ll need, then program the devices to be on for only a few hours a day (why turn on a gaming station before 4 in the afternoon, or even, during the week if your kids aren’t allowed to game during the week?).
If you use your outdoor lighting every night, all night, you might want to consider putting it on timers or sensors so that it only goes on when someone approaches. We only use our outdoor lights when we’re expecting company (or the pizza delivery guy), because there’s a street light outside our home that does the job.
Calculate how much electricity you’d save if items were completely off for 18 hours per day and see how close you’re getting to your target.
Replace items with more efficient models. This is the area where some investment is involved, so you might want to develop a budget and see how much you’re prepared to do and when.
Lighting. In our house lighting counts for up to 20% of our over all electricity consumption, so it’s worthwhile examining where changes can be made to have an impact on overall efficiency. However, I have a confession to make: I hate CFL bulbs. I don’t like the light they cast or how long it takes for them to warm up. They don’t last as long as they’re touted to because (and no one ever tells you this) the more often you turn them on and off, the shorter their lifespan; they’ve got mercury in them, and you just know that some people are not going to dispose of them responsibly so some are likely ending up in landfill. It’s hard to find dimmable CFLs, and finally, I don’t like their shape because they don’t fit with some of my lamps. Harrumph. But I still use them. Not everywhere, just where I have a tendency to have lights on all the time, like in my office, the rec. room, and the kitchen.
Before changing all your light bulbs to CFLs and LEDs think about what really needs changing. Don’t bother replacing bulbs that are rarely used, ie., basement or hall closets, any other rooms/lamps where lights are rarely turned on. It’s not worth the money, and you won’t be saving enough electricity to make a difference. The next time those burn out, replace it with something more efficient. In the mean time focus on the rooms where lights are on the most often. In our house it’s the kitchen, the office and the rec. room. They all contain CFLs (even though I hate them). Not only will you see a significant drop in electricity consumption, but in the summer they generate less heat relieving your air conditioner of some stress too. Of course the corollary of that is that they generate less heat in the winter, so you might be increasing your heating bill slightly.
I like LED bulbs. They’re dimmable, they’re better looking, the light they cast is crisp. Plus, they don’t have any mercury in them. Because they’re still not cost effective for short-term decisions, it’s best to replace lights where they’re used the majority of the time. Invest in good quality ones and they will last the 75,000 to 100,000 hours they say they will.
Appliances. The next time you need new appliances, look for the most efficient Energy Star appliances you can afford. Here’s the thing about Energy Star, in order to be certified, an appliance needs to be at least 20% more efficient than its non-Energy Star counterpart. But there are many, many brands that go much farther beyond the 20% more efficient. Read labels and Energuide information that’s tacked on the front of all models and compare to the brand beside it. European models are so much more efficient than most North American models it’s not even funny – but they’re also considerably more expensive and may be hard or expensive to repair if anything goes wrong. Buy new appliances when you need them, and figure out which one is going to make the biggest dent in your electricity bill (most likely the fridge and the washer).
Note that central air conditioners and furnaces are also Energy Star rated, as are new homes, but not ovens or dryers. If you know how much energy your current appliances use, you can figure out how much electricity a new model is going to save you.
Ceiling fans: There are Energy Star rated ceiling fans too, although using ceiling fans throughout the house will permit you to set your central air conditioner at a higher temperature, or do without it altogether. Ceiling fans consume, on average, about 60 Watts of electricity, versus a central air conditioning unit which uses approximately 3500 Watts (depending on the size, year made, efficiency, etc.).
Change Family Behaviour. If you’ve been watching your family’s and your own behaviour, you’ll have noticed when they leave lights/computers/gaming stations on, the fridge door open, chargers plugged in, etc. Controlling your own behaviour is the easiest and maybe the best way to start is by improving your own habits. Can you line dry some of your clothes more often? Have you set up a centralized cellphone charging station where it’s easy to unplug at the end of a charging session? Have you got yourself into the habit of turning lights and computers off every time you leave the room?
Regarding the rest of your family, doing a few calculations to see how much it costs every time these little actions occur may help, especially if there’s a way to incentivize them to change. If, after a year of behaviour change you saved enough money to treat yourselves to your family’s favourite restaurant, or something even bigger, maybe that would help. Whatever motivates them to think about conserving, you should try. Maybe they can help you brainstorm ideas, if kids take a stake in the decisions, they are more likely to follow through – with lots of reminders, coaching, and encouragement.