The One Hour Project: Make Your Home More Energy Efficient

This post is part of The One Hour Project, in which you can spend just one hour to put your finances in a better place without a big lifestyle change, through frugality or other financial choices.

An hour around the house (doing everything here would take more than an hour, but most people have done some of these things – but the things done vary from person to person) can trim your energy use significantly, trimming your power bill quite a bit. The best part? These things, once done, require no maintenance – they just sit there and save money without any life changes or additional effort on your part. Some of these will seem pretty familiar to regular readers of The Simple Dollar, but I keep mentioning them because they’re simple and they really work.

Install CFLs
I’ve talked again and again about installing CFLs at home on The Simple Dollar, so I won’t go through it again. Just remember that over a five year period, a single CFL can save you about $40 over a single incandescent bulb. Also, the stories about requiring a HazMat cleanup if you break one are flat-out untrue – just let the room air out and then clean it up carefully and you’re good to go. Want to know more?

Blanket Your Water Heater
If you use a large tank water heater, a thermal blanket for it (available at your local hardware store) can save significant energy costs, even given the internal insulation on water heaters. Water heaters very slowly lose heat – often at such a slow rate that they feel cool to the touch – but this heat loss is constant and a blanket can slow it down. Installing the blanket takes just a few minutes and will consistently save money over a very long time. One big tip: cut holes in them to reveal the underlying warnings on your water heater or you may void its warranty.

Install A Programmable Thermostat
If you’re willing to do a bit of home electrical work, installing a programmable thermostat is well worth your time; here’s how to do it. What does a programmable thermostat do? Basically, it allows you to set your house’s heating and cooling to automatically adjust themselves at night and also during the workday – there’s no need to keep having your air conditioner or furnace kick on and off all day when you’re not at home. Programmable thermostats can significantly drop your monthly energy use and often pay for themselves in just a few months – after that, it’s all profit.

There are many little moves you can make to save energy, but these three will cut down on your energy usage – and save month after month on your energy bill – without any additional effort after the initial install. Spend an hour making it happen and enjoy the savings over time.

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  1. Lisa says:

    I am familiar with the CFL and the water heater blanket — but I am fascinated by the programmable thermostat! I had no idea you could install one that easily. We are planning to settle on a house in the next month, and now I have another project to add to my priority list! Thanks so much!

  2. FIRE Finance says:

    Nice tips! Another simple tip for reducing energy costs for the approaching winter is to plug air leaks in your home. Weather strip and caulk any leaky doors and windows and install foam gaskets behind outlet covers.
    Cheers,
    FIRE Finance

  3. FIRE Finance says:

    Nice tips! Another simple tip for reducing energy costs for the approaching winter is to plug air leaks in your home. Weather strip and caulk any leaky doors and windows and install foam gaskets behind outlet covers.

  4. Eric says:

    We took the CFL “plunge” recently, along with turning up the temperature on our AC. Although I think most of the savings was due to our upping the temperature and using the AC less, it did make a significant difference in our bills. We calculated that we were saving nearly a buck per bulb (well, frequently used bulbs) per month when we replaced the incandescents with CFLs. Multiply that by the number of bulbs in the house and it starts to rack up. If you have environmental concerns about the mercury in CFLs, you can find recycling centers that will take them at http://earth911.org .

  5. I know about CFLs, but I dislike them – they tend to have a constant flickering when on, and they emit a blueish light, while I am preferring the rather yellowish light of a traditional light-bulb.

    Even if you are an technology dinasaur like me who intends to keep his energy-wasting lighting, You may consider how much energy (and money) you ‘d save if only those lights were on that you really need, instead of creating your very own lichterfest-kristallpalast.

  6. Dave says:

    Please note that special care must be taken when installing thermal blankets on gas/propane fired water heaters. See: http://www.eere.energy.gov/consumer/your_home/water_heating/index.cfm/mytopic=13070

  7. mgroves says:

    I got a programmable thermostat on eBay for less than $10. It was a little confusing to figure out which wire when where because they were labelled slightly differently, but I eventually figured it out.

    It must have saved me $50 this last winter.

  8. Geoff says:

    Good points … have 2 of the 3 points under control:
    1 CFL … as my old buld blow out in goes the CFL.

    2 Thermostat (programmable) … this is a real easy fix and gives you much more control of your coolling and heating. In selecting a model look for one that provides:
    - 4 cycles per day (morning, day time, evening, night)
    - individual per day setting (weekend needs are usally different from weekday needs)
    - has a vacation setting (allows you to hold a consent temp).

  9. Christina says:

    Hi,

    Good tips, I’ve been meaning to change all of our light bulbs. However, if you have a gas water heater you should not put a blanket on it.

  10. John says:

    Consumer Reports this month has a really good issue on Energy savings tips and even evaluate programmable thermostats. I have the Hunter one that is one of their recommended models and it took less than an hour to change out the old, non-programmable one…

  11. I’m really not so sure about CFLs. Sure, they may end up saving you some cents a month after 7 months (which a typical 75W CFL Equivalent needs @ 5hr/day*5days/week*4.5week per month usage level)… but at what other costs? Personally, when government agencies recommend that I and my pets vacate a room after breakage… I’m a little leery of the contents of that bulb. Now, I’m not alarmist enough to say “ZOMG I WANT 2000$ CLEANUP GUY!” – but I am a bit skeptical.

    High up front costs, low return on investment that takes up to seven months of high use to yield pennies, bulbs warranting government warnings and requiring special disposal (my garbage company won’t accept them, my county requires disposal at a proper facility and my state recommends the same)… and it sounds like a little too much issue for me. I’ll stick to my good old incandescent bulbs for now. Maybe in a few years, when the mercury content is down… I’ll check it out.

  12. Hammermill says:

    Another good way to save some cash is insulation. While not exactly a one-hour project to seal up your house/apt, it is a good use of an hour to walk around and figure out exactly what needs to be sealed up. The average house has the equivalent of an open window’s worth of cold air coming in during the winter due to the hundreds of small air leaks. A lot of that can be sealed up with some elbow grease a couple tubes of caulking (silicon is the best, pricey but worth it).

  13. Barry says:

    Another quick and easy way to save is to reduce your water consumption. This can be done fairly inexpensively by replacing your bathroom faucet aerators with .5 or .7 GPM aerators, your kitchen faucet aerator with a 1.5 GPM, and your showerhead(s) with a 1.5 GPM head. I found all of the above at Home Depot.

    Remember, when you reduce your water consumption, you’re also reducing the amount of energy consumed to heat the water, as well as the sewer costs (if you’re on a public sewer system).

  14. tom says:

    I work for an Electric Utility in the Pacific NW and deal with high bill/efficiency calls all day. There are a few dozen more recommendations I could add, but let me start with water heaters. Not all water heaters require a blanket – in fact, newer models are already insulated well enough that the blanket is just overkill, even if you amortize the cost over the life of the water heater. If you get any moisture in the wiring, the extra insulation will cause problems. If you don’t need one, spend the money on a kill-a-watt. (other hints: leaving for more than 3 days? turn it off. read your owner’s manual -drain as recommended, especially if you have hard water. check your temperature – 120-130 is usually best, but a higher temp might be necessary depending on the size of your household.) Programmable thermostats are still subject to debate (for some people) because they aren’t always used correctly. Many states have terrific rebate programs for efficiency upgrades – replacing your washer/dryer with a front loaders is a great start. However, great returns start with things like windows and efficient heating and cooling systems. Make sure your unit is sized correctly for your house. Never pay anyone who is installing any HVAC equipment with beer. CFC bulbs are worth the (amortized) cost but remember to dispose of them properly, and try before you buy. Not everyone loves the light. I’m sure the disposal issue will be resolved as they become more used. Weatherize. Check if your utility has a time of use program and then see if it fits your lifestyle choices. Learn how to do a spin test on your meter. Unplug the extra freezer(s). Do an inventory of everything plugged in. I tell customers it comes to the intersection of comfort, cost and convenience. Check with your local utility to see if they (or someone else) offers site visits. Check for community workshops on saving energy – you can often pick up free efficiency goodies. Stop being so smug in your new house: chances are the builder cut down all the trees that would have saved you more money than you realize. Realize most a/c units make up about a 20 degree gap, so if it 107 outside and your a/c is set to 68, how do you expect it to make up a 39 degree gap? Oh, and stop using so much energy at work too…

  15. Brian Pellin says:

    I think you probably get a lot more bang for your buck by insulating your hot water pipes instead of the heater itself.

  16. Dori says:

    I tried CFL’s while living in the Cascade Mtns in Washington – long, dark winters. I bought bright white from Home Depot. I hated how long they took to warm up. But once they did, the color was very good. It seemed like the warm-up time increased as they aged. That was three years ago. Now when I see them I walk right by. I didn’t know they saved that much energy.

  17. Sunny says:

    Very useful information. The link regarding installation of programmeble thermostat has tons of handyman information. It will be great if you can post the similar links. Will help to save $$$$ on handyman projects

  18. Bill says:

    Turn your water heater down to 120 for energy savings and the knowledge you’ll never have to worry about scalding (think young children who don’t know to mix hot & cold)

  19. Liz says:

    Lots of good tips…as for CFLs I’m not so sure, check out newstarget.com http://www.newstarget.com/021916.html
    there are articles on there about lots of health issues. The one I linked is about CFLs.
    Also, this is a link with articles about mercury
    http://www.newstarget.com/mercury.html.

  20. phatmike says:

    if you have concerns about mercury with CFLs, consider that the number one contributor to mercury pollution is coal-fired electric plants. (at least in the states – which is where i’m from.) the amount of energy saved with CFLs (opposed to incandescents) drastically reduces the amount of mercury released into the environment. concerned about mercury pollution? then you should -absolutely- switch to CFLs.

    it’s also worth considering the amount of mercury in a CFL. it is about 100 times less than in a simple thermometer. take care when handling them and disposing of them, but you dont need to call a hazmat team.

  21. AGoodGerman says:

    Wow, Americans… I really love you guys, but often it’s hard to understand you. A blanket for the water heater???
    It is amazing that not one single poster here had the idea to dry laundry on the balcony or in the garden. If you enjoy the luxury of one or both of those you can turn them into real moneysavers by simply doing what your grandmothers presumably did and leave it to the gentle winds of spring and summer to dry your laundry.
    In Germany, where I am from, tumble dryers are not nearly as common as they are here in the States. Sure, they make life easier and if you have a bunch of kids to take care of, ok…but even if you have two kids it might still be manageable to get along without. I personally think it’s far more fun to hang laundry in the garden then to simply stuff it into a tumble dryer in your basement. And you save the money for the dryer sheets as well.

  22. Daniel says:

    I have a question about programmable thermostats. I have not been able to find any real numbers on how much they really save. The one gentleman mentioned that they are still up for debate because most people don’t use them right. Where is the information on how to use them right?

    I have run the thermostat mainly at a fixed temperature (around 68 in the winter and about 76 in the summer) and am now trying the programmable features. I already have one and this is what I have noticed.

    When running at a fixed temperature it comes on a few times an hour and runs for a few minutes all day (24 hours).

    When running in programmable mode (I am trying this right now with the heat), I get the same behavior except at night when the setting drops to the lower temperature (about 9 degrees difference). I get a few hours where the heater does not run while the house drops to that temperature. Then when it hits it, I see the same usage. But then in the morning when the house is warming back up, it takes forever to make up that 9 degree difference.

    My gut seems to tell me that the overall time the heater is running is not really any less than when I am just having it sit a fixed temperature. In fact it almost feel like it is running more.

    Maybe I am one of these people who are using it wrong. But I would really like to see instructions on the right way to use it as well as numbers showing the savings.

    Maybe I’ll just have to be patient and compare last years usage to this years and see if there is a difference.

  23. Thunderhardt says:

    Daniel,
    You must take into consideration the age and size of your home. Progamable thermostats may not save you much in an old and big drafty uninsulated home. They take so long to get back up to temperature, it may not be worth it unless you leave the heat down a large part of the day. If you have a large house, everything in that house is 62 degrees (if that is your low setting) Everything in that house has to warm up to 70 degrees (if that is your high setting) The longer that it is in it’s low temp setting, the more you save. Setback in a big house for a couple of hours, just won’t save you money.

  24. steve says:

    to Daniel whose “gut” told him that the furnace uses up the same or more energy reheating the house in the morning as would be saved through lower temperatures:

    Actually, in this case your gut was wrong. Our guts are very good at things like determining whether we are being attacked by a predator and should run, and really really bad at doing math.

    The truth is described by the physics of heat, and can be summarized:

    Anytime you can drop the temperature of your house (in winter) for a period of hours, you slow the rate of cooling and the decrease energy usage over that entire time period. Imagine it as if heat were pouring into your house like water from a hose. Your house constantly “leaks” the heat outside to where it is colder, but the more you raise the heat inside, the faster the leaks flow.

    this is an anological way of describing what is known as Newton’s Law of Cooling, which basically says that the greater the temperature gradient (the difference between the temperature of your house and the outside temperature), the faster the rate of heat loss (the leaks). Over any period of time, if you experience a slower rate of heat loss (by having a lower house temperature) you will be saving energy, CO2 (probably the most important in the long run) and money. Just remember, when you lower the temperature inside while you are sleeping, for that entire time your house requires less energy per hour to heat as compared to the same period of time at a higher temperature.

    The fact that it takes a while to make up the 9 degrees in the morning does not mean that you are wasting energy. It’s just as if you are “filling” the house with heat again after you let it down in the first place. The filling doesn’s mean that it’s costing you extra money or energy, you’re just bringing the house back to the state it was originally in. In the intervening period, though, you’ve saved $$, CO2, and fuel.

    Personally, I’ve invested in a great cover for my bed and some warm slippers for the morning to cover those “colder” periods.

    I don’t know what those people are referring to when they are saying “improper usage of the programmable thermostat.” Of course, if you buy something you need to understand how to use it and use (program) it properly and with an understanding of what effect you are trying to create

    But , in my experience, any time you can design turning the heat down into a system that you don’t have to always think about, you are going to end up saving money compared to relying on your habits and attention to adjusting things manually “when you think of it”.

  25. steve says:

    I just saw Thunderhardt’s post, which also repeats a concern that is not true in most cases :that “you don’t save because it takes “a couple of hours” to get back to the regular temperature.”

    This, again, is incorrect in almost every conceivable case. You will indeed save money. The fact that the furnace takes a while to get the house back to the regular temperature is irrelevant in a properly designed heating system (it shouldn’t burn more fuel/ create more heat in a given period of time than can be distributed in the same period). What I said in my above post is correct and backed up by scientific fact as opposed to inherited “common sense.”

    Thunderhadt’s issue does bring up a theoretical issue, and we would have to look at the overall heating design to answer it in any specific case. the issue, again, is that the heat source (furnace) it shouldn’t burn more fuel/ create more heat in a given period of time than can be distributed to the living space in the same period of time.

    there could be issues with older systems where there was no thought that maybe people would want to turn it down 15 degrees at night. A knowledgeable heating specialist could tell you about your particular system, but they would have to be someone who understands your desire and perspective to save energy and money, as opposed to the perspective that has it as its goal to just ” make the temperature comfortable all the time”. In most cases, though, i believe that furnaces will only run 10 minutes at a time, then take a break before running again, and it would be only oddball cases where you wouldn’t save money over a time period of 8 hours by dropping the temperature. It’s conceivable that by changing the furnace timing and heat pumping you could save less or more than you currently are on the reheat phase, but it’s highly highly unlikely that you’d ever be actually spending more fuel on the reheat phase than you saved on the low temperature interval at night or when you are at work.

  26. Hot Momma says:

    I’ve had 2 babies in the last year, so as far as my hormones go, I might as well be menopausal, so this is my hardest area to try to save money! However, I’ve been making a point to shut the air off when I’m going to be out of the house for at least an hour, and not make it as cold at night because I’m not running around as much in the evenings and the temperature doesn’t matter as much when you’re unconscious. I should be set in winter, keep it low!!! Does anyone know if there really are merits to using lots of ceiling and portable fans in order to circulate more air and not have to keep the air conditioner as low? My dad’s always telling me to do this and I just wondered if it was financially sound?

  27. Hot Momma says:

    whoops, that’s two babies in 3 years, I wasn’t quite THAT impressive!

  28. John says:

    Very nice actions to make a quick difference in an hour. I would just add installing a few aerating, low-flow faucets and showerheads in your home. This is quick to do in an hour, makes sense after you have turned back the temp and insulated the hot water heater as well. Here are some other home energy saving tips I put together.

  29. William says:

    We installed a $40 programmable thermostat and saved well over $1,000 on utilities in the first year. We measured this by comparing each month’s bill to the prior year.

    This was not due to differences in weather or prices — in fact, the weather was more extreme in the year after installation, and utility prices were much higher, yet we still paid $1k less.

    This was accomplished by programming it to heat only to 62 at night (10pm to 5am), and to cool only to 78 during weekdays (9am to 4 pm).

    Our experience was that, if you program it correctly, the unit will almost certainly pay for itself in a single month. And you can easily measure whether it worked for you.

  30. P Bizzle says:

    Does anyone know a place that can give pointers on setting a 4 program thermostat? I have been doing it over the course of 2 weeks… everyday tweaking it a tad. I’d like a how-to or just some pointers that could help out on getting my thermostat setup efficiently.

  31. Esther says:

    I’m more than familiar with the CFL. Both my dad and my boyfriend have replaced every single incandescent bulb in their houses with one much to my shagrin. Though it does save money there is something to be said about the “warmer” glow that an incandescent bulb casts. have you ever seen the biginning of the movie “Joe vs The Valcano”? This is an extreem comparison but it’s how I generally feel about CFLs; )
    I didn’t know about the water heater blanket. I’m going to mention that to my men. Also thanks for the heads up about cutting the holes around the warnings to preserve the warrantee.

  32. dolphin says:

    On programmable thermostats: they are wonderful UNLESS you have a heat pump (in heating mode). Heat pumps are most efficient if operated at a constant moderate temperature setting. Setting a heat pump at a lower temperature causes it to run less efficiently negating whatever power you would normally be saving by running it at a lower temperature. For more info: http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/space_heating_cooling/index.cfm/mytopic=12720

  33. Rosa Rugosa says:

    We’ve had a programmable thermostat (actually we’re on our second) for 20+ years now, and while I would be hard pressed to quantify the cost savings, I love it for the comfort value. It kicks onto super-toasty shortly before we get up in the morning, and again shortly before we come home from work in the evening. We have steam heat, which emits a pretty variable heat flow, so our thermostat gives us maximum warmth when we want it the most. We live in New England, so our heating system is just geared to heating and not cooling.

  34. Stacy says:

    I don’t know if anyone here is familiar with ceiling heat but every room on the main floor in my house each has it’s own knob to control the heat. Is it even possible to use programmable thermostats with this type of heat? It is very hard to keep the temperature constant. It is always too hot or too cold. When we bought our house we saw a bunch of vents and stupidly assumed that it had central heating/air. We should have been more careful.

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