The laws of physical science teach us we can neither create nor destroy energy. But it’s also a simple fact that we can surely waste it. And that raises the possibility of saving money by refusing to let energy slip through our fingers.
Typical families in the U.S. spend about $1,900 each year on home utility bills. That’s $160 per month. Your bills may be higher if your household consumes a lot of energy, if you heat with oil or if you live where the cost of electrical power is high.
Those of us lucky enough to still own a place to live are in the best position to save substantial amounts of energy. Whether you live in a McMansion or a modest house built in 1949 like I do, September is a good time of year to consider how your household uses energy. If it turns out you are in need of adding insulation to the attic, maybe upgrading from the ancient windows in that back bedroom to modern ones, or simply caulking cracks and holes, this is the time of year to get in gear and upgrade your home.
In a typical household, heating and cooling account for 43 percent of utility bills. Your refrigerator and other kitchen appliances likely account for around 17 percent of your bill. Hot water and lighting chip in around 12 percent each. Computers, TV and other electronics account for an impressive 9 percent and other miscellaneous uses fill in the rest.
Because heating and cooling account for so much energy use, the largest savings you can make likely are to be found in improving insulation, repairing leaking ducts, or plugging cracks around doors and windows.
Attic insulation can be a do-it-yourself job using one of several options. Even if you hire pros to “blow in” some attic insulation for you, the investment can pay for itself in a year or two. Good insulation in an attic will also help save on your electricity bill if you have air conditioning. Check out www.energysavers.gov for ideas about insulating your attic.
Anything that penetrates an outer wall or ceiling that’s below an unheated attic is a place you should check for leaks. For example, electrical outlets and light switches can let air from the interior of your home leak into outer walls — and from there to the outside world. Hardware stores sell pre-cut foam insulation you can simply pop into outlets and switches. (The job is so easy even a Ph.D. like me can do it. But kindly turn off the power to the room you’re working on before you unscrew electrical plates.)
For myself, I know I really should check the crawl space at the back of my house. It’s an ugly job in the dark and dank, but I want to address it because I can’t keep my back room warm in the winter. I wonder if the insulation that’s in there has sagged or come entirely unmoored. My plan is to hire someone with better knees than I have and hand him what he needs through the unreasonably tiny door of the crawl space. I did a similar job myself about seven years ago for my previous house, then stupidly moved across town and now must face this unpleasant chore all over again.
But crawl spaces and basements pose moisture issues that can shape what’s really a good decision about insulation. Check with pros or home guides for more information.
Then there are the simple things. Programmable thermostats cost as little as $25 to $30 and mean you’ll never forget to turn down the heat at night again. And when you buy a new appliance, look at its energy efficiency. What you pay to take delivery on a refrigerator, for example, is only a small fraction of the total cost of running it over the years, so buy an efficient model and you’ll come out ahead in the long run, sometimes saving hand over fist. Ditto for front-loading clothes washers that can reduce energy bills and water bills at the same time.
We can’t win the fight against the first law of thermodynamics. But many of us can seize the day to save energy — and money — at home.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.