Trimming the Average Budget: Home Energy Costs

Housing – utilities, fuels, public services – $3,477/year

The average American family spends almost $3,500 a year just keeping the energy going in their home. Between heating, cooling, and running the multitude of electronic devices in our homes, we’re paying an average of $300 a month to the energy companies.

Fortunately, there are tons of actions you can take to reduce your energy bill each month and your home insurance bill. Yes, I’ve mentioned many of these before, but that’s because they work. They really do trim your home energy spending and are well worth doing if you’ve not done them before.

Cutting Down Your Home Energy Spending

Install a programmable thermostat

A programmable thermostat is a device that allows you to set up a daily schedule of what you want the temperature to be in your home. This allows you to have the temperature go way up (in summer, keeping the AC from unning) or way down (in winter, keeping the furnace from running) during times when no one is at home or no one is awake – automatically. Even though I work from home, we still have found substantial energy savings from our programmable thermostat simply because of the temperature alterations at night. They’re easy to install – it takes about half an hour, a screwdriver, and a lack of fear about flipping a breaker.

Air seal your home

Air sealing your home involves detecting where cold or hot air from the outside is coming into your home, causing the cooling or heating in your home to effectively “leak.” Air sealing is a weekend-long project that can drastically reduce the leakage from your home, causing your energy bills to drop significantly. Here’s a great guide for energy sealing from EnergyStar.

Install new windows if your home is older

Properly installed EnergyStar windows can drastically reduce the energy lost directly through the windows in your home. Do the windows in your home collect frost in the winter? Is there noticeably warmer or cooler air near your windows? If that’s the case, it’s likely that your windows are adding significantly to your heating and cooling costs and there’s a substantial savings in your future if you replace your windows with energy efficient ones.

Use natural gas

In almost all areas, natural gas is more efficient and vastly less expensive per month of use. If natural gas is available in your area, consider moving major appliances to natural gas when it comes time to replace them.

Use natural ventilation whenever possible

If the temperature is between 60 and 85 F (or perhaps even more of a range than that), turn off the ventilation system entirely and throw open the windows. Our windows are open almost constantly during the spring and early fall months to take advantage of the wonderful weather outside.

Take advantage of incentives for energy improvements

Many energy companies (and federal and state governments) offer direct financial incentives for making energy-related improvements to your home. Quite often, these incentives will pay for a significant portion of the improvement, allowing you to simply collect the rewards from a lower energy bill. Take a look at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to get started.

Use fans

In the summer, ceiling fans do an effective job of utilizing breeze to make a room seem cooler than it actually is. Thus, you can easily afford to raise your thermostat a few degrees, trimming your energy bill substantially. In the winter, you can actually get away with lowering your thermostat a degree or two if you have ceiling fans. Adjust your ceiling fan to run counterclocklise in the summer and clockwise in the winter (see this ceiling fan guide for more details) to cause warm air to move up in the summer and move down in the winter.

Turn off lights and ceiling fans when you leave a room

It’s a simple habit – but a powerful one. If you leave four 75 watt light bulbs and a ceiling fan on in a room for even a couple of hours, you’ve lost a dime. Do it over and over again and you’re losing a lot of money. Get into the routine of just flipping the switch when you walk out of a room.

Move toward LED lighting

Yes, swapping out your lighting is a tried and true tactic for saving on energy, but CFLs are just a stopgap. LEDs are the ultimate best replacement for the bulbs in your home, as they have a very, very long life and use even less energy than CFLs. Use a mix of LEDs and incandescents in your home (incandescents still work best for natural lighting and reading lights, but LEDs are great for closets and hall lighting). Also, decorative lights are perfect for LED use.

Buy energy-efficient appliances

Study the energy efficiency numbers when you go appliance shopping and recognize that an appliance rated at 1,000 watts will consume about a dime’s worth of energy during every hour of use – and 100 watts will consume a penny of energy an hour. Use that for your calculations over a long lifetime – say, fifteen years – and you’ll often see that the energy efficient choice, though it’s a bit more now, is a huge saver over the long run. Add in the fact that there may be incentives (see above) for buying the efficient model and this becomes a no-brainer.

Get your major appliances erviced regularly

Your major appliances, namely your furnace and central air conditioner, serviced can lead to signifant savings. Simply getting your ducts flushed and having your unit checked over and tweaked can make a big difference in your energy bill. Plus, quite often, at least part of the cost of this will be refurnded by your energy company if you turn in a receipt.

Heat (and cool) less space

If you have unused rooms – or infrequently used rooms – turn off the vents in that room, turn off all energy-using devices in the room, shut the door, and use a towel to block any air flow under the door. This will help with energy bills in both the winter and the summer.

Keep your shades drawn unless you actually need the light

By default, the most energy-efficient position for your curtains and shades is to keep them drawn. That doesn’t mean you should never open them – by all means, let the sunshine in! Just make it a choice to open them – keep them closed by default. The only exception to this rule is in the winter, when it’s worthwhile to open up the curtains or blinds on the side of the house that’s receiving direct sunlight.

There are countless little steps you can take to improve your energy usage – these are just among the most effective I’ve found.

I want your help! In the comments, please let me know which of the tips you find most useful for trimming these costs. I’ll include the top choices in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of the series.

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  1. Michelle says:

    These look like mostly great tips (I’ve found the programmable thermostat to be a lifesaver on our budget), but I don’t know about the “Use natural gas” tip.

    We have natural gas running our furnace, stove, water heater and range (It’s an older house and we haven’t started replacing these yet), and the costs for natural gas per unit where we live are more than twice those for electricity. That would be why I’m looking into electric appliances and furnaces.

  2. Molly says:

    In the winter: Wear a sweater. Wear socks to bed (socks make the biggest difference in how warm I am at night). Keep slippers in the house and wear them (not shoes; take your shoes off to keep the house cleaner).

    In the summer: Turn a fan on at the foot of the bed. And a cool washcloth does wonders.

  3. Leah says:

    If you can avoid using air conditioning, that will save tons of money. I had the misfortunate of not appropriately turning off my electric when I moved out of an apartment, and I got the next tenants’ bill. My $15-20 a month bill ended up being their $80 a month bill! I made heavy use of fans, open windows, and just living with it, and I had substantial savings. On truly hot days, I visited the public library or just got outside and enjoyed the nice weather. Turning off lights also helped; I rarely use lights during daylight hours. Rather, I try to situate myself near windows to enjoy the sunlight.

    A good tip for some who rent: know what utilities you pay and what they pay. One place, I paid for electric, but they paid for all water (including heating that water). Therefore, it was much cheaper to wash dishes by hand than in the dishwasher. Handwashing didn’t take me too much time.

    One that you didn’t mention is keeping things on power strips. Little bits of electricity add up. In my super-miserly days, I unplugged everything when not in use, including the microwave and all the TV peripherals. At one point, I even only charged my laptop away from home (but realized that the annoyance outweighed the minute savings). I still use my cellphone as an alarm clock from those days — why should I use two devices when one would suffice?

    I think the key with energy is finding what works for *you* Unplugging the microwave didn’t bother me, but it did bother my roommate, so I had to let it go. For some people, AC is necessary, but they can turn off their computers at night. The most important part is to be aware of where you’re using energy and deciding whether or not that cost is worth it to you.

  4. Leah says:

    Molly, I love the fan tip for summer. I do that too! Some of my friends made fun of me, but it’s easier to turn a fan off of you get too cold. Also more efficient to cool just where you sleep rather than keeping your whole apartment cool.

  5. These are great ideas!

    I’d also encourage people to check about using off-peak electric rates. We use it for electric heat (with an oil boiler back-up) and for our hot water and it has saved us a lot of money.

    Washing your clothing in cold water and line drying can also save a lot of money on your utility bills.

  6. marta says:

    Even easier: dress accordingly to the weather. My energy costs (electricity and gas) are lower than 60 USD/month — they would be even lower if I didn’t work from home. Sure, I don’t have a big house to heat but I choose not to have A/C either, as that can be a big money suck. Yes, it can get a bit cold in winter but that’s what sweaters, cardigans, blankets and hot water bottles are for.

    That said, I am aware that I don’t live in a place with harsh winters. If I did, I think the stuff above still apply in order to reduce energy costs.

    PS: Trent, you need to edit the italicised paragraph at the bottom; you haven’t changed it since the first installment.

  7. Johanna says:

    It seems to me that in many parts of the country, the biggest chunk of the energy expense is going toward air conditioning, so maybe some suggestions specifically about that are in order:

    – Keep the temeperature as high as you can stand it. This is stating the obvious, but if the AC is on so high that you need to wear a jacket, you can probably turn it down.

    – If you have a basement, hang out down there. It’s probably cooler, especially early in the summer when the ground hasn’t warmed up much.

    – Use a fan. Open windows on opposite sides of the house to get a cross breeze going.

    – If you feel the need for AC, consider going to some other space where somebody else is paying for it. Even if you have to buy something (like a cup of coffee), it can still be an economical choice – a $2 a day is only $60/month, which is a lot less than $300/month.

    – Think about what life was like for people before AC was invented. :)

  8. Jeanne says:

    Has anyone seen any benefit from insulating their water heater with an insulation blanket? With the sudden cold temeratures here in the south, I notice it’s taking longer for hot water to come out in the shower.

  9. MegB says:

    We replaced the windows in our 1950s house, and it has made a HUGE difference. In fact, during this arctic blast, I’ve noticed that our house is not nearly as drafty as it used to be. Consequently, we can keep our heat at a lower temperature. Of course, we wear sweatshirts, socks, and slippers, too.

    In the summer, we notice that our A/C does not come on nearly as often. And I’m sorry, but we live in Texas and it gets entirely too hot to just turn off our A/C. :-)

    Also, if you have a pier and beam foundation with a crawl space (as we do) it helps to cover the outside cross vents in the winter.

  10. Jon says:

    I’ve become positively enthralled with smart power strips. You plug a master device in (say, a computer) to the master slot. All of that device’s peripherals plug into the subsequent slots. When you shut down the main device, it powers down all the other devices on the strip, thus preventing phantom drain. It may not save me much (I haven’t calculated my own setup), but it does make it much easier to have one power switch to hit and my monitors, PC, USB drive and speakers all power up. There are also two “always hot” plugs on the one I use, which I have a networked printer and my mouse charger plugged into.

    My landlord has given me permission to install a programmable thermostat, but I haven’t done so because we have two thermostats in my home, one for cooling, one for heating (two completely different systems – AC one one and gas heat on the other) and I’m not sure how to proceed. I’m sure I can install two, but my worry is that if the cold air kicks on, the one attached to heating will eventually decide it’s supposed to be active and kick on, thus the two fight each other.

  11. Steffie says:

    Insulate, Insulate, Insulate. It works in the winter and the summer. I noticed a huge difference in cost and comfort level after I had my man insulate the attic space above the bedrooms. I have used the hot water heater blanket and those pipe covers on my hot water pipes for years. I don’t know the exact $ saved because I didn’t keep track of that stuff before, but I feel better everytime I go in the basement and see the covers. And as for closing unused rooms, be advised that the walls of any adjoining room are going to retain the cold and pass it on to the room you are using. It may be better to keep the register open a little bit, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

  12. Jane says:

    I don’t know about servicing your furnace and AC. I certainly think it is a good idea from a safety standpoint, especially if you have a gas furnace, but I can’t imagine it makes that big of a difference in efficiency. I read that duct cleaning doesn’t really improve the efficiency. If you have allergies, it might be a good idea for that reason. The first year we were in the house we had the furnace surfaced in the Fall. The guy was down there for less than 10 minutes and charged us $60. I imagine that we didn’t gain $60 in efficiency for the season!

    @Jeanne
    It depends on how old your water heater is. If it’s less than 10 years old, it is sufficiently insulated and you don’t really need the cover. The problem is that your water is getting colder in the pipes. I would suggest insulating any exposed pipes.

  13. Jim says:

    Replace the ancient fridge: Old model fridges wasted a lot of electricity. A 20-30 year old fridge is probably wasting $150-200 / year in electricity compared to a new model.

  14. Steve says:

    We installed geothermal in our new house. When we inquired about a programmable thermostat, the installed told us that using one would increase our costs. I think this is applicable for us because a geothermal system runs more and that would put more stress on it over the long run.

  15. Sheila says:

    I read that if you use CFLs, it’s more efficient to leave them on if you are returning to a room within 15 minutes.

    We turned off our inefficient gas fireplace with the ever-burning pilot light, which saved quite a bit of money on the natural gas bill.

  16. Amy H. says:

    Live in San Francisco and rent in an apartment building with radiators.

    Just kidding. But honestly, this is one of the few budget items above where those of us who are renters in a big city have a lower $ amount. Our utility bill is only for gas (stove) and electric, and it’s under $1000/year. Landlord pays for heat (radiators), water, garbage and recycling. Of course you could argue we make up for it in the rent payment.

    The hints that are most helpful above for renters are to use natural ventilation, wear sweaters, and turn lights off when you leave the room/leave appliances unplugged.

  17. Sara says:

    I think “Use natural ventilation whenever possible” is the most useful of these tips. Really, just minimizing use of the heating and air conditioning can save a ton of money. I keep my thermostat at 56 during the winter, and I rarely turn on the air conditioning during the summer, and my gas + electric bills average less than $60/month.

    What I think is really crazy is when people set the thermostat lower in the summer than in the winter. If 72 is comfortable in the winter, why does it have to be 68 in the summer?

  18. Jane says:

    @Sara
    I had roommates in college who preferred to keep the thermostat lower in the summer than in the winter. It drove me crazy! They wanted to be able to wear T-shirts in the winter. This was around the time I decided that I was done with roommates altogether. Too many conflicts about the thermostat and other living arrangements.

    I actually think that it makes sense in the winter to switch your CFLs in certain lamps back to incandescents. For instance, we switched the lamp right by the couch in our house, and it kind of functions as a localized heating source for me in the evenings.

    I also second the use of smart strips that turn of all vampire electronics when you are not using one. We use one on the TV, and the type of smart strip we have has an outlet for our DVR that needs to stay on all the time. When you turn off the TV everything else goes off (DVD player, Xbox, etc) except for the DVR. Well worth the $25 we paid for it.

  19. Kara says:

    About installing new windows–Don’t forget about the doors leading outside! My husband and I replaced our windows two years ago, but our electric bill (we have electric heat) didn’t go down as much as we thought it would. After some detective work, it turned out that it was a combination of two things. The first was that the electric rate went up. The second was that both of our doors leading to the outside were letting significant amounts of air in. With weatherstripping we fixed it. The moral of this story is to

    About sealing off an unused room–this is not a very good idea, at least in the Pacific Northwest. Up here, that is a really good way to invite mold into your house.

    I thought that either air sealing your house or using fans was the best one of your tips.

  20. anna says:

    I have found that a heated mattress pad and a small space heater in the bathroom allow me to turn the heat WAY down at night, my bed is toasty warm and than leave the heat turned WAY down in the morning while I just heat up the bathroom for a comfy shower. Than my heat doesn’t have to run to heat up the whole house just for an hour while I’m getting ready. I am all about saving money and lowering my utility bills but at the same time, I want to be comfortable in my life. No sense in saving $100/month if I don’t want to get off the couch because my house is too cold.

  21. Kat says:

    72 degrees “feels” different in the winter and the summer due to the amount of humidity in the air. A summer humid 72 degrees feels warmer than a winter dry 72 degrees. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to make your house colder in the summer than in the winter, but there is a reason that some people do it.

  22. Lindsay says:

    I agree with Kat. The weather in FL gets SO hot, there’s almost no way that we can not run the a/c. We have a programmable thermostat, smart strips, and cfls. We got a quote on new windows for our townhome, but they want $1500 for 4 windows (and that’s AFTER the rebates), so that will have to wait a bit.

  23. Larabara says:

    I live in Southern California in a well-insulated house. I also recommend good insulation. I can leave the air conditioner off for most of the summer if I keep the windows and doors closed most of the day. The cool air stays insulated in the house, and by the time the house heats up, the evening air is cool enough to open the windows and run some fans to cool the house. When I have to use the air conditioner (usually some time in July or August), the electric bill jumps even though I’m only cooling one room!

    I tried to bundle up with warm clothing in the winter, but I found that my face and nose would get uncomfortably cold as I breathed the cold air. I have gas heat, though, and it’s a lot cheaper to use.

    Our biggest energy-guzzler was the old fridge. There was a link on this blog for a way to convert a chest freezer to a refrigerator by connecting it with a thermostat to regulate the temperature. I wanted to try it when our fridge finally died, but my husband vetoed the idea because he didn’t want to hurt himself from bending down to get any food out of the fridge (he has a bad back). So I settled for an energy efficient upright. But I really, really wanted to convert a chest freezer…it’s supposed to only use an hour’s worth of energy from a 100-watt light bulb every 24 hours. And the new fridge is very noisy.

  24. prodgod says:

    Please be patient with me when I ask this question, but what’s the deal with programmable thermostats? This is a favorite recommendation here and I have to say I just don’t get it. Isn’t it more efficient to just turn off the heater/AC when you’re not using it and then turn it back on when you need it? I have had one for 20 years, but I don’t program it; I just use the on/off button. I’ve heard it said that it uses more power to heat/cool a home from an extreme temp vs. just leaving it on all the time (programmed, of course). That just doesn’t sound logical to me and I have a hard time understanding how a programmable thermostat is the great energy-saving panacea that it’s made out to be here. I really think I’m saving more with OFF at night than with 62 (or whatever).

  25. Sarah says:

    @ prodgod: I live in Canada; shutting off my furnace for 8-10 hours at a time is not possible. A programmable thermostat is a great way to save $ for those of us in very cold climates.

  26. Kirk Bond says:

    I have had keen interest in replacing our lighting with CFLs and LEDs, but have become increasingly frustrated in getting objective information about true energy use and quality of light. With CFLs, the warm up period is very hard to grasp from the packaging. Additionally, I have had quite a few CFLs burn out much quicker than claimed. I am quite concerned about spending the money on LEDs without knowing light quality and fear of them lasting much shorter than claimed since they are very costly initially.

  27. Shevy says:

    Here in BC hydroelectric power is very cheap, I think the cheapest in North America so it makes more sense to use electric than natural gas. I also use $400 worth of fuel oil per year (the minimum charge to fill my 100 gallon tank).

    Also, I had a whole situation a year or two ago with my gas fireplace at our rural place. The fireplace couldn’t be used (problem with the connection) and was the only gas item in the whole place. But I’d opened an account before I knew that and was being charged a “delivery fee” for every single day that added up to between $10 or $12 per month. The rest of the bill was based on the quantity of natural gas used, which was always zero, but they tried to tell me that I still had to pay the delivery fee, plus taxes. In the end they canceled the fee (which was up around $100 because I kept refusing to pay) and even refunded me the money I *had* paid the first month or so before the inspector came and told me I had to get a pipefitter out to the house before the FP would be safe to use.

    So, think about the fact that you might be turning the gas off or down and reducing that part of the bill but that there may be a fixed aspect to it too.

    I’m also seriously thinking of replacing my 25 year old electric hot water heater with a tankless one. Considering that we’re not there all the time and the tankless unit only heats when you actually turn on the tap I think we’d probably save a fair bit of money every month. My electric bill averages $45 every 2 months and I think up to half of it is probably the water heater. (The other electric we use all the time are 2 CFL bulbs, one inside and one on the porch, one interior light on a timer, plus the fridge.)

    Side note: You also have to balance security and saving money. People might ask me why I have lights on when I may not be there for weeks. The answer is that I want to minimize the chance of a break in. Three light bulbs and a timer are a cheap way to do that. Our neighbour even used to park their extra car on our driveway so it wouldn’t look empty, but they just sold it.

  28. MoneyReasons says:

    I hate CFL! The have a cold odd glow (too much blue, dentist office like) and they are bad for the environment (they contain Mercury)… LED are also bluish, and still too expensive.

    I hate to admit it, but I still like the old traditional incandescant lights the best!

  29. Ryan says:

    @prodgod

    Your thermostat doesn’t control the actual temp of the air leaving the furnace or heat pump.

    So in your situation, the furnace will not run anyway unless the temp drops to 62. Off or 62 provides the same result basically.

    The other point is that you keep your home at comfortable temp for when you need it. If you set the temp to 62, go to work for 8 hours and come back home, your house is still going to be cold.

    The reason they save energy is because assuming enough time goes by without the heat running, it doesn’t take that long to heat the house back up.

  30. Also, if your gas or power service suppliers are not monopolies, consider switching.

    I’ve saved lots over the years by going with the gas supplier offering the best rates.

  31. Lenore says:

    Humid air feels warmer, so we set a metal bowl of water near one heat vent so it can evaporate. Bonus: our cats like to drink it, and our skin feels less dried out.

  32. Dawn says:

    My favorites are the programmable stats – so much easier to just set it and forget it. We also use our blinds which are honeycomb and our drapes our insulated. They work for both winter & summer. We also have ceiling fans in the bigger rooms and I was always curious about which way the fan should go in which months so thanks for that info Trent. Finally, we switched the bulk of our lights, especially the flood lights in the ceiling of which we have many, to CFL and noticed a significant savings from that. Though we too have noticed some burn out much faster than indicated primarily the bathroom fixtures. The light is cold, no doubt about it, but a couple of small area lights help offset that.

    Another great energy saver we found was switching to a pellet stove for the bulk of our heat. We heat by oil and even with keeping the heat low and wearing sweaters, etc., we were spending $1800-$2000 per year for oil. We installed the pellet stove. The first winter we purchased 3 tons of pellets at the cost of 300/ton which was what the stoe recommned and we didn’t use them all we had one oil fill up at $400. This year we were smarter, shopped around and got a better price on the pellets and got 2.8 tons for $700 plus we have had only had to top off the oil for $200.00. It will only take more winter before the stove has paid for itself. We installed doorway fans so it effectively heats our entire house. OUr house is 2600SQFT, cape style with the family room attached. It does not do the kids playroom in the basement and on the really cold nights,we live in New England, the family room is a bit chilly but wrapping up together on the couch is a small price to pay!! The bedrooms are all warm. It is also a cleaner alternative than wood.

  33. J says:

    I want to find a fan that runs “counterclocklise”. Is that related to widdershins and turnwise?

    We have an attic fan (aka whole-house fan) and it works well in our area, since the evening air in the summer is cool enough to cool the house. It costs a lot less to run than air conditioning. They came back into vogue recently when energy prices spiked.

  34. Ken Oatman says:

    Some areas of the country have outstanding incentives for renewable energy. This means the ROI for, say, a rooftop solar array can be much higher than the long-term S&P average.

    Also, since solar panel prices dropped 50% in 2009, this is suddenly a no-brainer long term investment …if your state or utility has awakened to renewables.

    The other advantage to photovoltaics is that you lock in your electric costs for the long-term, making you immune to escalating utility costs.

    I’d like to see you get a solar quote for your house in Iowa, Trent, that post your thoughts on the process. Then compare that to areas like New Jersey, Ontario or California that have advanced renewable energy policies.

  35. nancy says:

    We have been turning our heat off at night here in Ohio. We turn it up in the morning. If I am home during the day I usually wear a fleece vest and sometimes a hat or scarf. You lose a lot of heat from your head. The tip about socks is great but if your feet sweat a lot during the day put on dry socks before bed. I don’t need to change socks before bed but my husband does. My kids who are all on their own now used to say they opened the frig to warm up the kitchen, but it’s not really that bad. We have an all electric home so conserving is worth it. We installed a vent opening in our dryer pipe in the basement. For the few times we use the dryer at least the heat, in the winter, goes back into the house. The basement is dry enough to do this since we use our dryer infrequently. The vent has a flap that can be closed so the dryer vents normally in the summer. I have been tracking our kilowatt useage since 2001 and 2009 has been our lowest usage.

  36. When we bought this house (built in 1890) one of the first things we did was replace all the windows and put double cell cellular blinds on to help with heat retention. My MIL always says the inside of the house looks like a cave because I leave the blinds closed for the additional insulation.

    I do many of the other tips included-but one I didn’t see is that during the day when I’m the only one home (work from home) the programmable thermostat is set very low (the house is inconveniently a single zone)- I close the door to my office and use a small plug in heater to heat just that room.

  37. Trudy says:

    I could not wear a hat in the house during the winter or several layers as some people I have read about do. To me that goes beyond frugal into ‘cheap’ territory. Turn the heat up a little, spend the extra $50 a month for a couple of months in the winter and at least be comfortable. But to each his own….

    On another note, we replaced windows in our older farmhouse this year and I can’t wait to see the first gas bill now that winter has finally arrived. I know the furnace has not run nowhere near what it did in previous years and bonus – I’m not enduring any drafts as well.

  38. Christine T. says:

    For anyone that is frustrated with people they live with that want to keep the heat really high in the winter or AC really cold in the summer, there can be medical conditions that cause them to feel that way, they probably aren’t just being whiny. A mildly underactive thyroid (even if it’s low enough to be diagnosed hypothyroidism) is one reason you might feel cold all the time.

  39. Kami says:

    I got new windows in the front of my house a couple of years ago and it made a big difference. For the windows in the back of the house, I put clear plastic sheeting over the windows to block out the air (until I can afford to replace those also!).

  40. J says:

    I’m with you, Trudy. Dealing with winter’s short days, cold, precipitation and overall level of gloom isn’t helped when you have to keep your coat on as well as gloves and multiple layers of clothes in your own home! We don’t keep things tropical in the house, but we certainly keep it warm enough to only need one layer of clothing on!

  41. prodgod says:

    @Sarah: That makes perfect sense. I hadn’t considered how low the inside temp could go in a very cold region.

    @Ryan: I get what you’re saying from a comfort standpoint, but I still question which costs more. For instance, I turned the heater OFF last night before bed. This morning, it’s 58 inside; not too bad for me, but I kick it on to 62 as the family gets up. Had I left it set for 62 or even programmed it to drop as low as 60, it still would be running off and on all night long to maintain that temperature. I’m not sure that saves me any more than just heating it up in one fell swoop in the morning. But I could be mistaken.

    Another aspect to consider is the relative comfort of various temperatures. For example, if I had left the heater on all night, set for 62, it would most likely still feel rather cold in the morning, causing me to boost it to 65. Whereas the increase from 58 to 62 feels quite warm and comfortable. I’ve noticed that if we get too used to 62, then we have to bump it up to 65. Then, pretty soon 68 is necessary to feel warm, etc. Does that makes sense at all?

    I think if my house temp dropped down to 40 overnight, then it would makes sense to use my programmable thermostat to maintain at least a healthy temperature. And I could certainly see how expecting the heater to go from 40 to 62 would probably cost more (although, I’ll bet 58 would then feel toasty by comparison!)

    And running the heat doesn’t cost a mere $50 more a month in this house – my energy bill triples every winter.

  42. Sandy says:

    A few things we’ve done to keep utility bills low:
    1)We live in Ohio, and have all 4 seasons. We have an all-electric house, but we have a heat pump. We utilize the shades, screens, and fans in the summer to keep cooling to a minimum. In the winter, to keep the heat pump from going into overdrive (which it does at really low temps)we installed a fireplace insert. The heat pump hardly goes on at all during the day, and the house is really toasty warm. We have a 2 story 2000 sq. ft house, and our average bill for the year is about $125/month. Plus $200 for firewood delivered in the late summer. In the summer, it’s about $85/mo and in the winter, more like $150/mo
    2) we do a lot of smaller energy efficient things. I hang out 3/4 of our laundry in our upstairs office. It gives the upstairs humidity and keeps our elec. bills down. We’ve changed out all our light bulbs, but not sure how much that is saving. We use cold water for all but whites, sheets and towels. We use a programmed thermostat, also.
    3) I actually called our elec company to find out if our family was eligible for any of their budget plans, and when the rep looked at our usage history, he laughed and said that there was nothing he could do for us, as mine was the lowest that he’d ever seen for our size house. I guess we’re doing the right kinds of things!
    Stay warm everyone!

  43. Evita says:

    The best tip is not in Trent’s post but in Steffie #11 comment. Insulate the attic the best you can! the house will be cooler in summer (the sun literally bakes the attic) and warmer in winter (insulated from the accumulated snow). Many houses older than 20 years old can benefit from additional insulation.

  44. Ellen says:

    Also, landscape to strategically provide shade in the summer & sun in the winter. We live in the central valley (i.e., desert heat in summer, cold & cloudy/foggy in winter). Our first move when buying a house with a lot of western & south exposure was to plant fast growing deciduous trees on those 2 sides of the house. Added in a whole-house attic fan (which is automated to turn on when the attic reaches a certain temp) & it made a HUGE difference in the summer. They drop the leaves in the winter so we get the sun in the windows then.

    Our attic insulation was upgraded to include not only batting along the ceiling, but attached to the actual roof on the inside as well – which helps keep the heat from getting into the attic in the first place. Better attic insulation also helps keep the heat in during the winter.

    We heat with a new efficient wood stove (& very occasionally with a small electric portable) and cool with ceiling fans & an evaporative cooler – our energy bills never total more than $100/month, even factoring in purchasing wood for the stove (we get ours free).

  45. matt says:

    just wanted to pop on and disagree with trent, new windows would be a $30,000 investment, one that would never be recouped by the savings in my lifetime.

  46. Scott says:

    Every blog post or article lists programmable thermostats, usually as the very first suggestion. However, when I asked about them from the HVAC guys installing the unit in our new home, they said that at every training session or convention they go to, they are told that programmable thermostats really don’t help much…that keeping at a sensible temperature constantly is much better, energy efficiency-wise, as well as wear and tear on the unit. They even said with a non-programmable switch, turning it down at night or while you are gone put more stress and burned more energy getting the house back up to the desired temp all-at-once when you came back.

    I was confused about this at first, but the more I thought about it, it’s similar to gas mileage…we all know your gas mileage is better on the interstate where you stay at a constant speed vs in stop and go traffic…you burn more fuel getting to your desired speed, than staying on that speed constantly, especially if your desired speed is a sensible one. I would daresay a car that does all it’s driving on an interstate probably has less maintenance issues long term that a stop-and-go prone vehicle would.

    Then, I realized that where I see the recommendations for programmable thermostats are mostly in blogs, online articles looking for content, and the very large marketing display at home depot, showing all the various-priced specialty thermostats, that make companies like Honeywell a new revenue stream that they didn’t have a few years ago…

    I could be wrong, but sometimes I wonder if it’s mostly marketing hype, that’s just been regurgitated over and over because it sounds plausible at first.

    Makes you wonder.

  47. MegB says:

    @matt

    Wow! $30k for windows? Mine were only about $6200 (for 16 windows), and they are fabulous.

  48. Jill says:

    The deal with heat pumps is that the geothermal part of the pump is cheap to operate from an electricity standpoint, but that the emergency heating system part is effectively electric coil heat, and that’s an insanely expensive way to heat a home.

    And the typical heat pump is designed to cycle on the emergency heat when the thermostat set temperature is more than 2-3 degrees warmer than the ait temperature. So if you set up an ordinary programmable thermostat to have a 6-8 degree temperature gap over the course of the day, the emergency coil will cycle on when the system tries to bring the temperature up to speed, and that will cause an utterly huge spike in energy use and costs over the course of a month.

    If you use a heat pump and want to go the programmable route, you need to get one of the thermostats that have a tiny little computer brain in them that works with a set of algorhythms designed to move home temperatures back up to the set point in a way that doesn’t make the emergency heat cycle on in the process.

    In terms of whether the programmables work better or not, we’ve tried both steady temp and a heat pump specific programmable, and didn’t notice a difference either way.

  49. matt says:

    @MegB

    If i only replaced them with basic models it would be cheaper but I was looking at pella double insulated with blinds, otherwise new windows wouldn’t be much better than the ones I have already.

  50. matt says:

    Also would like to jump on the programmable stat discussion. In college I did a project which designed a thermostat that did just this, but the relationship to temperature and humidity is related in a human comfort index which can be found in ASHRAE standards. It has been proven that you can eek the most energy savings out by programming to a certain comfort level, and letting the thermostat control the heating and a humidifier to get to that comfort level with the least amount of energy. I would guess that this will be the future, though I have never seen a commercial system that did this. Additionally with data over power lines coming its possible to have a thermostat adjust temperature based on time of day pricing information which is also supposedly in the pipeline.

  51. Debbie M says:

    Let me just say that when it’s boiling hot, I turn off the AC during the day and turn it back on (to 80 degrees) when I get home. In the meantime, the temperature may have risen to over 90 degrees).

    For one month we just set it to 85 degrees while we were gone so it wouldn’t have to work so long when we came home. Our electricity bill increased dramatically that month, so I have an extremely hard time reconciling that experience with what Matt and Scott’s HVAC guy are saying. I know of nothing that could have messed up this data: the following month was even hotter and the bill went back down, we didn’t replace any old appliances during that time, etc.

    @Scott, although your car does do best at a constant speed, that is only assuming that it needs to go a certain distance. I think that turning your HVAC system off or down for a while is like shortening the distance you have to drive.

  52. KimC says:

    We saved this year by:
    1. Skip the a/c. We live in south Texas and the summer was brutal – but we did it, and probably saved nearly $1,000 in the course of 5 months.
    2. Line dry laundry. Our dryer gave out last year and we decided not to replace it right away. Line drying is saving us an estimated $40-50/month (we have a very large family and lots of laundry).
    3. Insulate. We replaced most of the missing insulation under our pier and beam home, and replaced the leaky front door. We put a homemade draft dodger in front of another leaky door. We covered northern windows with heavy blankets. There is more we can and should do, but these items made a huge difference in the cost to maintain a comfortable temperature during cold weather.

  53. Bill says:

    Don’t just add more insulation, but first seal to prevent air leakage between conditioned space and the uninsulated attic.

    Storm windows cost much less than replacing the main windows.

    We added storm windows on the 1920s house where I grew up and they lasted over 25 years before the current owners replaced the main windows (custom-built with an installed cost of nearly $500 each!)

    Many people use those temporary plastic wrap kits to add an air gap in the winter (the ones where you use a hair dryer to complete the seal)

  54. Paula says:

    We live in Maine, so we focus more on cutting costs during the winter months. I live in a single wide 20 year old mobile home with my husband and son, so I have found that covering the older windows with plastic (the ones that don’t have storm windows) has drastically helped our gas heating bills (until we can afford the cost of replacing them) by reducing drafts. We also use weather stripping around doors and caulk outside windows, along with using insulated drapes. Our thermostat is set to 68 degrees during the day when we are home on the coldest of days, otherwise we turn it down to 55 when we are at work. At night, I turn it down to 62 (I would set it lower, but my son’s room is in the front of our home and gets chillier than ours). We have found that our small portable K-1 heater has helped keep our furnace from running constantly in the early evening when the temps outside are below freezing, so we supplement with that when we are all watching TV in the living room, as well as bundling up with a blanket on the couch. As a bonus, it runs on batteries, so it is our emergency source of heat when the power goes out as we do not have a generator.

  55. triLcat says:

    Remember that sometimes these things have hidden costs – we find that if we don’t keep our kids’ room warm enough, they wake up many times in the night. Warm pajamas only help so much. The AIR has to be warm for them to sleep really well. Our kids are still in diapers (the older one is 2), but other people have told me that their kids are much more likely to wet the bed if the room is too cold. Is it worth having to get up and change the sheets?

    Hanging up laundry is a big money-saver, but it takes loads of time. Is your time worth money? Depends what you do for a living and how easily your time is monetized.

  56. SLCCOM says:

    If your windows are deep enough, you can put multiple layers of the plastic on them. We put plastic on both sides of the screen, another layer on the inside about an inch from the window and finally, another layer on the molding around the windows. That has made a HUGE difference. When spring comes, we just take it off, store the plastic that didn’t rip when removing it and replace it in the winter with new tape. That has been much easier than putting plastic on the outside of the windows (especially the ones over the rose bushes!)

    We also leave most of the plastic up in the summer, except where we have windows that open. We never remove it from the kitchen or laundry room.

    If you have to paint your house, buy some of those ceramic beads to put into the paint. They reflect infra-red heat and either keep it outside the house in the summer, or inside in the winter. It cost us an additional $500 for the beads when we painted last. I think, but don’t know for sure, that even if you paint over it with another coat or color later, you don’t need to get any more ceramic beads.

    When you seal your house from drafts, keep in mind that you also seal IN all kinds of air pollutants. Don’t let anyone smoke indoors, or even smoke outdoors and then come it, as all that uh, stuff, will be trapped indoors. You may need to turn off the furnace and open the doors and windows occasionally to air it out.

    And don’t even THINK of going without carbon monoxide detectors on all levels of the house. I assume I don’t need to mention the need for smoke detectors, and a plan to escape that you practice.

  57. SLCCOM says:

    In the summer we use our swamp cooler at night as an attic fan, to drive out the hot air and pull in the cool Colorado night air. Then we shut up the house for the day, use fans and only had to turn on the air conditioning for two days all summer.

  58. Griffin says:

    LEDs are a great investment, especially if you get them at a reduced cost. There are also ways to make them yourself, but I’ve never tried it.

    LEDs are the BEST WAY to light hard-to-read areas like over stairs because they last so long. I used to have a lamp that would get knocked down all the time and I got sick of the CFL cleanup. So, I switched it to an LED which worked GREAT!

    Conversely, cheapo basic lightbulbs are the best for lights you rarely use (like the attic or a storage closet). Also, if there is a light that needs dimming stick to the regular bulbs.

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