How to Save Energy at Home – Part 1 of 3

This simple 3-step process can save you electrical and gas energy at home.  I’ve divided it into 3 articles as follows:

  1. Step 1: No tools, no cost, no outside help. Simple tips to grab gains with no investment.
  2. Step 2: Take your savings to a higher level. With just a $30 tool that you can pick up at Amazon or a local home improvement store, you’ll become the neighborhood energy guru and have friends and neighbors asking for your help.
  3. Step 3: Tackle the bigger jobs by purchasing more efficient appliances and hiring professionals to make your home more energy efficient. I’ll show you what’s worth doing and what’s not. You’ll be an informed buyer of energy services and you’ll know the next most effective step to take to maximize utility bill savings.

I’ll guide you through the steps without all the technical jargon, and with a dose of common sense.  When you have questions, leave a comment and I’ll reply to it.  If you don’t want your question to be public, then write me using the Contact Form.  I’ll do my best to write you back as quickly as possible.  And be sure to share your thoughts in comments at the bottom of pages.  By posting your comments you help others who have the same questions.  In addition, I use your feedback to make this site better and target the subjects you’re most interested in.

How We Use Energy In Our Homes

Eneregy Use Breakdown for How to Save Energy at Home - Part 1 of 3The chart shows how the average household uses energy. Obviously, somebody living in a hot climate will use proportionately more air conditioning than somebody in northern Minnesota, but it is helpful to see the national averages. I’ve covered this subject in more detail in my blog titled Residential Energy Consumption by Type of Use and another related blog titled How Humidity Affects Heating and Cooling.

By the way, if you’re like me you probably wonder what the heck “Adjust to SEDS” means. SEDS stands for “State Energy Data System”. When data is gathered from millions of sources for statistical analysis it is never perfect, so data analysts add an “adjustment factor” to account for discrepancies between data sources. This is energy that is attributed to residential use, but not directly to a specific end use. In English, that means the analysts know that it should be part of other categories, but they just don’t know which categories.

Also, if you’re wondering what “Wet Cleaning” means, it is the category that includes clothes washers, natural gas clothes dryers, electric clothes dryers, and dishwashers. It does not include water heating energy – that has its own category and is the majority of the energy used for washing clothes.

We’ll approach Step One by addressing the largest categories in the chart to get the most bang for the buck. Then we’ll run through the same process for Step Two digging in with a bit more detail. You can think of Step One as some quick ways to save, Step Two as a way to get significant savings with a minimal amount of time and cost, and Step Three as a reference for longer term projects, some of which do have significant costs.

Step 1

Let’s keep this simple.  If your electrical and gas energy usage is anywhere near the average depicted in the pie chart above, you can clearly see that saving energy must first focus on space heating, space cooling, and water heating.  All the other categories are minuscule in comparison.

What that means is that, in the beginning, you don’t need to focus on turning lights off, unplugging phone chargers or turning off the computer.  Yes, all these have an effect on utility bills, but let’s not sweat the small stuff until we’ve fixed the big stuff.

If it is winter you’ll need to put your efforts into saving on heating costs (electricity and fuel), and if it’s summer you’ll be saving on cooling costs (electricity).  Saving on water heating is a year-round effort.

Adjustment of heating and cooling temperature is a family affair.  Sit down with others living in the house and discuss any changes you are recommending.  Be sure to get buy-in from everyone so your efforts aren’t sabotaged.  Changes should be tried for a week and then discussed to see how everyone was affected.  Remember that adjusting temperature is always a compromise.  One person might be happy with a cooler temperature in the winter but argue against raising the temperature in the summer.  And another person might be just the opposite.

Here are some heating, cooling and hot water tips for saving energy.

  • When you are home, set your thermostat as warm as possible in the summer and as cool as possible in the winter.  Your body takes some time to acclimate, so give any change in temperature a week or two before concluding that it won’t work.  Temperatures that people generally find to be ok are:
    • 79 F in the summer.  This temperature tends to be comfortable for most people when the humidity is 55% or less.
    • 69 F in the winter.  This temperature is considered comfortable with a couple layers of clothing on.
  • ThermostatSet your thermostat back when not at home.  The setback temperature for every situation is different depending on humidity, freeze protection requirements, and how long you expect to be away.  Here are some temperatures to use as a starting point.  Adjust to your needs.
    • Turn the thermostat up to 85 F when away in the summer.  There are two limiting factors.  One is whether or not you have items in your home that are affected by high temperatures.  Computers and other electronics are generally fine up to 85 F.  Same for wax candles and plants.  The other limiting factor is that you never want humidity to exceed 60% to avoid mold growth.  As long as it is below 60%, the ambient air conditions will not support mold growth.  For a more detailed explanation of the effect humidity has on heating and cooling, see How Humidity Affects Heating and Cooling.
    • Turn the thermostat down to 55 F when away in the winter.  Most everything in a house tolerates cool temperature very well.  You might be able to set it even lower depending on your climate, house construction (to prevent frozen pipes), and whether you have delicate plants or other items that are sensitive to the cold.

Note:  You will always save energy by using a thermostat setback.  The smaller the difference between the outdoor and indoor temperature is, the more energy you’ll save.  See my article on Energy Myth Busters to dispel common misconceptions.

  • Water HeaterSet your water heater to maintain a temperature on 125 to 130 F in the tank.  Water at the tap will be lower since water cools off while flowing through the pipes between the tank and tap.  I choose a temperature of 125 F for a number of reasons.  It is the lowest practical temperature setting that also takes into consideration the following criteria.
    • Dishwashers need as high a temperature as possible.  Actually, 125 F is low for a dishwasher but most have cycles that use the heating element in the dishwasher to heat the water to 140 F or higher.  These cycles should be used in lieu of setting the water heater temperature higher.
    • Washing machines need at least warm water for certain types of loads.  125 F is more than sufficient for a washer.
    • The risk of scalding is low with a water heater temperature of 125 F.
    • Maintaining a temperature of 125 or higher kills harmful bacteria in the water heater tank, including Legionella.
  • Minimize use of hot water.
    • Shorten time spent in the shower.
    • Wash full loads of dishes in the dishwasher.
    • Wash full loads of clothing in the washing machine.  Wash warm and rinse cold.  When washing a load of laundry in hot water, 80-90% of the energy used is for heating water in the water heater.  So there is a significant saving by reducing the amount of hot water used.
    • Turn off the hot water at faucets when not using it.

Ok, that’s a great start!  We’ve kept it simple by focusing on what really matters.  If you can successfully save on heating, cooling and hot water, you’ll see a big difference in your monthly utility bills without changing anything else.  It’s the biggest bang for the buck, and where you should put your effort first.

In Step 2 we’ll take electrical savings to the next level.

Go to Step 2

And be sure to share your energy saving experiences in comments below.