By Mary Hunt
You've probably noticed over the past few years that your electricity bill has been creeping slowly upward. Not great news, especially in this economy. But don't turn off your air conditioner just yet. By making a few adjustments, you can slash your electricity costs without drastically changing your lifestyle. (Really.)
First, the technical stuff: The way you are charged for electricity is by cents per kilowatt hour. The average cost varies by state: from about 7¢ on the low end to a whopping 26¢ on the high end.
Since it's measured in pennies, it must be a bargain, right? Wrong. You can rack up hundreds of kilowatt hours in a single month. It happens fast when computers, TVs and other energyhungry devices run continuously; when inefficient appliances overstay their welcome; and when air conditioners are set to keep homes cooler than a florist's fridge.
Go look at your electric bill-you'll be shocked at how many kilowatt hours you're using. Now stop the drain by doing what really smart consumers do.
For Air Conditioning:
1. Install a programmable thermostat. Starting at about $30, this little gizmo will automatically regulate your home's central heat and air when you're asleep or while you're away. (If you have a window unit, use an appliance timer instead.) You could, for example, set the temperature to 85°F or higher during the day when you're out, then have it adjust to 78°F about 30 minutes before you get home. According to Energy Star (a government-backed program that promotes energy conservation), you can save about $180 a year by properly setting your programmable thermostat and maintaining those settings.
2. Raise the temperature. When someone is home, the most energy-efficient temperature (aside from the a/c being off!) is the highest temperature you can comfortably live with- around 80°F-according to consumer advocate Michael Bluejay. Each degree you set your thermostat below that will increase your electricity bill by 3% to 4%.
3. Use fans. Moving air gives a "windchill" effect. Combining ceiling fans (which use very little energy) with a/c allows you to set the thermostat higher, yet still feel cool. It's pretty simple: The blowing air makes it easier for sweat to evaporate, which is how you eliminate body heat.
4. Replace or clean the filter. If it's dirty, your air conditioner has to work harder, so change it regularly during the summer. Better yet, buy a permanent filter at your home improvement store-just wash it with a garden hose each month.
For the Freezer and Refrigerator:
5. Vacuum the coils Dust and debris that collect on the back or bottom of your fridge make it inefficient, so clean it at least once a year, says Chris Hall, president of RepairClinic.com, a site devoted to fixing home appliances.
6. Tighten seals. Are your refrigerator and freezer doors airtight? Close a dollar bill or piece of paper in the door. If it pulls out easily, your refrigerator may need a door hinge adjustment or a new gasket (rubber seal). The hinge is adjustable with a screwdriver. A new gasket costs around $50-this may sound steep, but it's cheaper than buying a new fridge, and you'll really notice a drop in your bill.
7. Defrost often. Your freestanding freezer is forced to work harder when frost is more than 1/4" thick. (Though auto-defrost freezers take care of themselves, they often use more energy, so it's a tradeoff.)
8. Keep it stocked-sometimes. A full refrigerator-freezer is more efficient than an empty one. If you don't tend to keep a lot of frozen food, consider storing your dried rice, beans and nuts in there to keep it at least two-thirds full. As for the refrigerator itself, packing it too full requires more energy, so make sure you're leaving enough room for air to circulate.
For the Dishwasher:
9. Fill it up. Before you press the button, make sure the machine is full. You'll run fewer loads, which means less hot water, less detergent and less energy.
10. Air-dry. Open the door instead of using heated drying. You'll cut your dishwasher's energy use by up to 50%.
For the Clothes Dryer:
11. Load it properly. Underloading or overloading makes drying clothes more expensive. You'll use too much energy if you underload, and the dryer can't do its job efficiently if you overload. Dry lightweight and heavy clothes separately for more energy-efficient drying, and always clean the lint filter before a load.
12. Go old-fashioned. Instead of using the dryer, hang an occasional load of clothes outdoors or on a drying rack.For an Electric stove:
13. Pick proper pots. Foods cook faster at a lower temperature if you use pots and pans with flat bottoms and tight-fitting lids. Pans that are bigger or smaller than the heating coils on electric stoves waste energy.
14. Opt for smaller appliances. Ovens and stoves guzzle energy, so use your microwave and toaster ovens, slow-cooker and electric skillet whenever you can. And use your outdoor grill to keep heat outside.
15. Turn off the TV. A 60" plasma TV that's on for five hours a day could cost $130 per year to run. Add a DVD player, game console or home theater system, and that bill might jump to $200 per year. Compare that with a 28" CRT (tube) television: $30 per year. Unless you're actively watching TV, turn it off, especially if it's a plasma.
16. Unplug the computer. According to Southern California Edison, consumer electronic devices such as computers and stereos make up about 15% of the typical household's electricity use. Even when they're switched off, devices that are plugged in still use energy to power features we don't really think about, such as clock displays and remote controls-in fact, the average U.S. household spends $100 each year to power devices while they're in "standby" mode. So plug your gadgets into an easily accessible power strip, and turn it off when you're not using them.
For the House:
17. Inquire About Home Energy Audit. Many power companies offer free or low-cost audits: They come to your home, show you where you're losing energy and recommend ways you can cut your consumption. If your power company doesn't do audits, you can do one yourself or hire a professional.
18. Do your own. If you have five minutes and your last 12 months of utility bills, use the Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick at EnergyStar.gov (click on "Home Energy Audits") to compare your energy efficiency with similar homes across the country and get ideas for energy-saving home improvements. You'll need to enter some basic information about your home (such as zip code, square footage and number of occupants). If you don't have your bills, contact your utility and ask for a 12-month summary.
19. Turn to the pros. They use a variety of techniques and equipment such as blower doors (to measure the extent of leaks) and infrared cameras (to reveal hard-to-detect leaks and missing insulation). To find a Home Energy Auditor, go to the Partner Locator under "Home Energy Audits" at EnergyStar.gov
Other Ways to Save:
20. Inquire about discounts. Most utility companies offer programs that encourage customers to reduce their use. The reward? Lower rates.
21. Voluntary time-of-use. Most of us just pay a flat rate for electricity. Under this program, however, you'll be charged for electricity depending on when you use it. Typically, rates are lowest during off-peak periods: weekends, holidays, and weekdays from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. Rates are higher during other periods, when usage and the cost of generating electricity are higher. Usually this type of program requires a special meter installation in your home that measures how much you're using when. The great part: You can check the meter to monitor your usage. So how much will you save? It depends on the provider, but Wisconsin Public Service, for one, says its customers can save as much as 15% on their electric bill. Call your provider to find out if they offer a program.
22. Summer cycling. This kind of plan saves you money and conserves energy during the summer by letting your electricity provider remotely power down your air conditioner when there's a power emergency or when demand is extraordinarily high. Southern California Edison offers up to $200 in credits for customers who sign up for summer cycling. The company installs a switch in your home with a radio signal that can be accessed remotely. This lets SCE periodically turn off (or "cycle") the customer's air conditioner(s) as needed. Call your utility company to see if they offer something similar.
23. Specialized services Most utility companies offer a number of programs for customers with special needs, such as senior citizens or lowincome residents. Search your utility company's website to learn more.
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