18 Ways to Slash Your Utility Consumption in Half

Laundry hanging on clothesline

Appliances that generate heat or cold — think dryers — tend to use the most electricity. Photo: TraciTodd

When you tear open your utility bill each month, are you annoyed with the outstanding balance listed on the statement? If so, you aren’t alone. I was having a chat with my hairstylist the other day and she expressed how disgruntled she was about having to fork over $300 or more per month on her utility bills alone. That’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard such a complaint.

According to Energy Star, the average American household spends around $2,200 annually on utility expenditures. Here’s a closer look at where the money goes:

  • Heating: 29%
  • Cooling: 17%
  • Water heating: 14%
  • Appliances: 13%
  • Lighting: 12%
  • Electronics: 4%
  • Other: 11%

If money’s tight, exorbitant energy bills can eat into the other, more exciting areas of your spending plan. But fortunately, there are simple actions you can take to reduce consumption throughout your home and lighten the load off your wallet each month.

1. Ditch Dirty Air Filters

The longer you wait to change the air filters in your furnace or air conditioner, the harder the unit has to work to circulate hot or cool air throughout your home. And guess what that means for you? Increased energy consumption and a higher bill from the utility company, not to mention potential damage to the HVAC system from the extra workload.

To curb costs, Energy Star recommends you inspect filters on a monthly basis and swap out the used ones for new ones at least once per quarter to prevent excessive buildup.

2. Open the Windows

Instead of automatically relying on the air conditioner all summer long, try some fresh air once in a while: Open multiple windows to create a cross breeze on days when it’s not too hot and humid. If the temperature is forecast to drop at after dark, open your windows all night to let in the cool air, then shut them in the morning and draw the shades to trap that cool air in the house for as long as possible. On a very hot day, you still may need to turn on the AC by early afternoon, but you’ll take a significant burden off your cooling system.

I spend a bulk of my day in my home office, so it’s not unusual for me to open the windows and let the cool breeze permeate the interior of our home. For some strange reason, I always tend to get too cold or hot within minutes of turning the air conditioner on, especially when it’s cool outside. Plus, it helps knowing it will keep my utility bill under $100 each month.

3. Pull the Plug

Take a look around your home and count the number of plugs in use. Now, count everything that is plugged in but powered off. I can almost assure you those two figures are pretty close together. For whatever reason, many of us tend to leave our small kitchen appliances, game consoles, televisions, chargers, and other electronic gadgets plugged in all day long.

Whether it’s a result of laziness or hard-to-reach outlets, one thing’s for certain: Even if a device is off, it is still sucking electricity from the outlet. Those energy vampires, as Energy.gov calls them, are adding a whopping 10% or more to your utility bill each month. So, if it’s not in use, pull the plug.

4. Wash Clothes in Cold Water

Most washing machines have a handy diagram on the lid explaining which water setting is appropriate for the specific fabric and color of clothing. However, I haven’t followed this guide in several years, and most of my garments are still in stellar condition. I have no interest in paying the utility company more to wash my clothing in hot or warm water when a cold wash achieves the same end result.

If you’re concerned that the laundry detergent won’t dissolve as well, run just a small amount of warm water at the beginning of the cycle when you first pour it in. Or you can even buy detergent specially designed to dissolve better in cold water.

5. Don’t Overdo It With the Dryer

On those chilly winter nights after a long, hard day of work, I like to snuggle up on the couch with a warm blanket and sip a cup of tea. But after I misplaced my electric blanket years ago, I got into the habit of grabbing a comforter and throwing it in the dryer at the maximum heating setting until it was scorching hot — and extra cozy.

Those days are quickly becoming a thing of the past, though, since I learned excessive dryer use can also spike your energy bill. (In general, appliances that use electricity to generate either heat or cold use the most electricity — think hair dryers, air conditioners, space heaters, and freezers. And dryers.)

To minimize dryer usage, hang your clothing and linens out to dry (or inside to dry, as the case may be). Growing up, we hardly ever used the dryer. The clothesline out back always got the job done for free. But nowadays, I don’t have that luxury, and I’m not sure how the homeowner’s association would feel about my hanging clothes outside. So I created a makeshift line in the garage to hang up all of the heavier garments.

6. Replace Your Lightbulbs

I’m certain you’ve come across this suggestion on several occasions. And even if you haven’t made the switch, you’ll have to eventually, as traditional incandescent bulbs are being phased out entirely.

If you’re wondering what all the hype is about, well, here it is: Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) have a lifespan that’s 10 times longer than both standard and incandescent light bulbs, and they operate on less energy, saving you up to $70 annually on utility bills, Energy Star notes. CFLs contain mercury, though, so when they do finally burn out — many years from now — you can’t just throw them in your regular garbage. Another common complaint is that they take a few moments to reach full brightness.

Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs cost a bit more up front, but they last even longer than CFLs, also use a fraction of the energy of traditional bulbs, and they do not contain mercury. They also turn on at full brightness right away, unlike most CFLs.

You can buy LEDs and CFLs in various brightnesses and hues; choose soft white if you want to replicate the warm glow of a traditional incandescent bulb.

Some utility companies will sponsor big discounts on LED bulbs at home improvement stores to make the price more attractive; if you come across a sale like this, stock up, switch all the lights in your home, and watch your energy bill drop.

Extended life at a fraction of the cost? You can’t beat that.

7. Shut the Fridge

How many times have you stood smack dab in front of the refrigerator with the door wide open trying to decide which item you’ll devour next? I’ve been guilty of this offense on several occasions, particularly on those days I was tired of eating leftovers or didn’t care for what was on the menu. But the longer the door is open, the greater the amount of cool air that escapes and the harder the appliance has to work to cool back down to its optimal temperature.

My advice: Have a purging session at least once each week to dispose of any expired items. Doing so will reduce the clutter and enable you to keep the contents neatly organized and more easily accessible.

8. Use Hot Water, Not Hottest Water

There’s nothing like a hot shower. Warm dish water, warm bubble baths… warm everything! And you just can’t get enough of it. But heating the water in your home comes at a premium.

According to Energy Star, “The average household spends $400-$600 per year on water heating, making it the second largest energy expenditure behind heating and cooling.”

I don’t know about you, but I can think of several ways to put that money to better use. So check that your water heater is set to the optimal temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit to conserve energy and maximize cost savings. It will still be plenty hot enough for a good shower, and it will be less likely to scald you or any little ones in your home.

9. Take Advantage of Natural Sunlight

This is definitely one of my favorite utility cost-cutting strategies. I’m a big fan of natural sunlight and use it to light up our home as much as possible. In fact, as soon as I rise each morning, I make a beeline for the windows and let the sunlight seep through. It brightens the mood and keeps me alert.

10. Flip the Switch

If you have kids in your home, you know it’s not unusual to enter a room they were in earlier and notice that the lights are still on. This is also a major energy suck and it has the potential to drive you insane if curbing consumption is one of your top priorities.

Two suggestions: Affix a large sign to each light that serves as a friendly reminder to flip the switch when not it’s in use, or install automatic sensors.

11. Maintain Your Equipment

I touched on this earlier when explaining the significance of swapping out air filters, but HVAC equipment maintenance is also important to keep your unit running efficiently. Energy Star provides a handy maintenance checklist for your reference here.

And if you’re bummed out by the thought of having to fork over cash to a contractor for semi-annual inspections or maintenance, I can assure you it’s better to be proactive than reactive for your wallet’s sake. I know from experience and it definitely wasn’t pretty.

12. Substitute the Microwave or Toaster Oven for the Range

When you revisit last night’s leftovers from the local pizza parlor or Italian eatery, it may be second-nature to follow the instructions on the box to preserve the taste, which typically says to reheat everything in the oven. But did you know using the microwave to heat up or cook food items in lieu of the oven can slash energy use by up to 80%? That figure definitely came as a surprise to me, and the switch has really made a difference.

Likewise, don’t heat up your whole oven just to cook a few frozen chicken tenders or fish sticks for the kids. The close confines of a toaster oven will concentrate the heat and cook them more quickly — without wasting unnecessary energy heating up the rest of your full-sized oven.

13. Request an Energy Audit

When I moved into my first apartment several years ago, the interior was quite warm. It was the month of May, but temperatures hadn’t quite reached unbearable heights. A month or so into my stay, I received a utility bill for over $300, which didn’t seem quite right for such a small space. And I wasn’t prepared for it, so I immediately called the billing department for assistance. They made a payment arrangement and suggested an energy audit so this wouldn’t happen again in the future.

Initially, I was a bit hesitant about having some strange guy from the electric company in my tiny apartment checking things out, but it was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. Not only did he identify the problem with my unit, but he provided me with a comprehensive list of things I could do to reduce my energy bill by more than 50%. I immediately got to work and began implementing each of the items on the list, and I didn’t have a bill over $80 until I moved into my first home.

You should be able to schedule an energy audit through your local utility company. Expect it to take a couple of hours, depending on the size of your home. They’ll make energy-saving suggestions that are specific to your home, and often they’ll make some small improvements for free as they go through the house — for instance, replacing light bulbs or insulating hot water pipes.

14. Choose the Proper Burner

This suggestion surprised me, but after thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. The larger the burner, the more energy needed to heat it up. You can save about $36 or $18 annually just by using the proper-sized burners on electric and gas ranges, respectively.

Another tip: Don’t forget to cover the pot when you’re heating up water to boiling, as the lid entraps the heat and gets the job done much faster.

15. Use the Dishwasher Sparingly

Growing up, my sister and I were the dishwasher. There wasn’t a fancy machine sitting in the kitchen waiting to clean the dishes for us. And I’m sure my mother’s reservations had nothing to do with utility consumption, but everything to do with concerns about germs behind left behind.

Anyhow, they come standard in most new homes these days, and are heavily used to minimize the time spent cleaning up in the kitchen. We were thrilled when the builder installed a high-tech GE dishwasher in our kitchen, but weren’t quite sure how to use it. After a few floods and botched attempts, I gave it a rest.

Regardless, there is some debate over the comparative energy efficiency of dishwashers. Manufacturers say they are more efficient than washing dishes by hand, but that’s assuming you wash and rinse all of your dishes in hot water, possibly even with the faucet running the whole time. (Don’t do that.)

But dishwashers use hot water, plus electricity for the motor and other controls, so they still use plenty of energy per load. So make sure that when you do run the dishwasher, it’s full (but not overloaded), and set it to air dry to save even more energy.

16. Open the Vents

This is a no-brainer, but I’ve been told countless stories by HVAC technicians, most of whom are family friends, about consumers who thought their heating units were faulty due to lack of circulation when it was just a matter of their vents being closed. And you’d better believe they cranked the heat up and saw their energy consumption skyrocket before the real problem was discovered.

17. Install and Use a Programmable Thermostat

Replacing an old thermostat with a programmable one is a fairly simple project, and it allows you to micromanage the heating and cooling of your home for maximum efficiency. For example, you can program the temperature to drop a few degrees at night since you’ll be huddled under your blankets in bed, and set it to heat back up a half hour or so before you get up in the morning.

Your furnace will expend a little extra energy to heat everything back up, but it will more than make up for it by not having to keep the home as warm for the other six-plus hours you’re sleeping. Likewise, if you’re gone for most of the day, why pay money to keep your house nice and toasty for nobody? Program the thermostat to drop a few degrees while you’re out and then heat back up an hour before you get home in the evening.

My childhood home had one of these fancy gadgets and I never paid much attention to it. But when our home was being built and I saw one being installed on the wall, I decided to ask the construction manager about the perks. He said it enables consistency in household temperatures simply by clicking a button and is a money-saver because your unit won’t have to work as hard to reach a comfortable level after being shut off for an extended period of time.

18. Inquire About Discounted Rates

Did you know some utility companies charge less for energy consumed during slower periods of the day? Me neither, until I did a little research and realized there is a such thing as peak periods. Wondering if your provider offers this? Simply pick up the phone and call to inquire. If they do, shift some of your more energy-heavy household tasks accordingly — for instance, set the dishwasher or washing machine to run at night.

Whenever you’re ready, give some of these strategies a shot and let me know how it goes in the comments. And check out some more energy-saving tips in Trent’s post on 20 Money-Saving Tactics for Winter.