More and more of our energy comes from renewable sources, but most of it still comes from burning fossil fuels. And even our cleanest energy sources cause some environmental harm. So one big part of a sustainable lifestyle means saving energy at home with energy efficiency and energy conservation.
Energy efficiency means any behavior that uses less energy. We can accomplish it with simple lifestyle changes and making new habits. People who care about the environment have already made plenty of changes and are always looking for the next one.
Some changes might seem too small to make much difference, but imagine how much difference it makes when millions of people do the same thing. In fact, tens of millions of people making one small change might have more environmental impact than a few thousand people making one spectacular sacrifice.
Energy conservation means finding technology that uses less energy to perform the same functions as other technology. These two closely related concepts overlap a lot, but energy conservation can entail major expense. Replacing appliances or vehicles or other home improvement projects go far beyond simple lifestyle changes.
Energy efficiency at home: easy ways to save energy
The federal government halted production of incandescent light bulbs during the George W. Bush administration. So it’s surprising that so many articles about saving energy still start by recommending upgrading lightbulbs.
They’re worth mentioning, however. At the time, LED bulbs were not yet ready for prime time. None of them provided enough light to read by, and they were outrageously expensive.
But what was the most environmentally friendly alternative to incandescent bulbs, CFLs, take a long time to come to full brightness. When they burn out or break, you must treat them as a hazardous waste. So if you have CFLs, keep using them. But replace them with LEDs, and choose LEDs for any new lamp or light fixture you buy.
If you haven’t already, be sure to develop the habit of turning off lights when you leave a room. LEDs use much less energy than incandescent bulbs. Therefore, turning them off saves less electricity, but it still saves some.
You can find many more ways to save energy at home than just lightbulbs:
Recharge your phone or other electronic gadgets while you’re awake. That way, you can unplug the charger as soon as it’s finished.
And take a look at everything that has a big, blocky plug, known as energy vampires. Each one uses some electricity even when it’s turned off. So remember to unplug it when you’re not using it. You may not want to unplug your TV or wi-fi all the time. It can take a long time for them to reboot. But remember to unplug them when you leave town for a few days. That way, you’re saving energy even when you’re not at home.
When you cook
On the stove, use the smallest pan and burner that gets the job done. If you have an electric stove and put a small pan on a large burner, the red glow not directly under the pan wastes electricity. With a gas stove, flame that comes up past the edge of the pan is wasted gas.
When you boil water, boil no more than you need. It’s not necessary to cover, say, potatoes completely with water. It takes more time and energy to boil the extra water. Bring just a little water to a boil, cover the pot, and turn down the heat. The steam, which is what cooks the food, will stay in the pot. This suggestion is only one example of how saving energy at home also saves water.
Can you use a toaster oven instead of the oven? It takes less power.
And when you need the oven, don’t preheat it unless you’re baking pastry or something else that must go directly into a hot oven. Most of the time, you can turn on the oven at the same time you put the food in. You probably won’t even need to adjust the cooking time.
The more different things you can cook at the same temperature at the same time, the more efficiently you’re using energy.
Saving energy using other appliances
Only run the dishwasher or washing machine when they’re full.
You can set your washing machine to use less water for smaller loads, but smaller loads use just as much electricity as large ones. Also, choose the shortest wash time unless you’re washing something that is especially dirty.
If possible, line dry your clothes instead of using the dryer.
And let the weather determine when you use your appliances. Using the oven or dryer at the room. In the winter time, using them during the day will take some pressure off your furnace. In the summer time, they’ll add to the burden of the air conditioner. So use them during the day in the winter, when the heat is welcome, and in the evening when outdoor temperatures cool off during air-conditioning season.
Perform all routine maintenance on your appliances to keep them operating at peak efficiency.
Annual inspections of your furnace and air conditioner, for example, can prevent surprising catastrophic failure. You can fix small problems before they grow to major ones.
For the same reason, it helps to have an energy audit, although it’s not necessary to do it annually.
Energy conservation at home: saving energy with home improvement projects
The best energy savings require something more than changing habits. That energy audit can give you ideas for projects that will save energy once you finish them. Let’s start with simple, uncomplicated home improvements.
Do you have a programmable thermostat? If not, that’s the place to start. A programmable thermostat lets you set a schedule. It can make the house or apartment one temperature when you get up in the morning, another after the last person has left for the day, another when the first person comes home, and finally, another when it’s time for bed. The house is comfortable when anyone’s home and using less energy otherwise.
You can even choose separate temperature ranges for heating and cooling. The thermostat will automatically turn on either the furnace or air conditioner as appropriate.
For a little more money, you can install a smart thermostat, which you can control from your phone or with voice commands. They do raise privacy issues, though. Hackers can take over anything linked to the internet.
If your energy audit reveals that you don’t have enough insulation, getting enough is worth whatever it costs. You’ll get that money back in lower utility bills.
You have surely noticed rooms in public buildings where lights come on automatically when you enter. They turn off automatically, too. But did you know that you can get home occupancy sensors? They can come in handy if people keep forgetting to turn lights off. Or for places that you enter or leave with your hands full so turning lights on or off is difficult.
About 30% of the energy it takes to heat and cool your home gets lost through your windows. Paying attention to your windows plays a large part in saving energy at home.
Window glass conducts heat. If it’s hotter outside than inside, or if the sun is shining directly on the window, the room gets hotter. If it’s warmer inside than outside, the room cools off. And that’s just the opposite from what you want.
If you still have old-fashioned single-pane windows, you can upgrade to double pane windows, but that is very expensive. And even double-pane windows transfer some heat.
You’re going to want window treatments to beautify the room anyway. So put them up strategically. You have four basic choices:
- Curtains, made of some kind of fabric, reach from the top of the window frame to the bottom of the window sill.
- Drapes, also made of fabric, reach clear to the floor. They may be mounted at the ceiling instead of the top of the window frame.
- Shades roll up and down to cover or uncover the window. They’re usually mounted at the top of the window. Sometimes shades mounted at the bottom can provide better privacy. The most energy-efficient ones, called honeycomb shades, place insulating air pockets between the window and the room.
- Blinds have slats that you can open or close, either horizontally or vertically.
You can choose any of these basic treatments either to filter light or block it. Curtains and drapes combine nicely with shades or blinds.
With well-placed window treatments, you can either block or admit sunlight, and therefore heat transfer, on some windows and not others.
Don’t forget about outdoor window treatments
On the outside of your home, you can control sunlight on windows with shutters, awnings, or strategically placed trees. Adjustable shutters and blinds give you even more control.
If you plant deciduous trees, they’ll adjust themselves. That is, the leaves will keep the sun from shining on the windows. But when they lose their leaves for the winter, the sun can shine on windows when it’s helpful.
Energy Star appliances
You rely on appliances such as your furnace, air conditioner, water heater, dishwasher, and more. Eventually, they’ll stop working and you’ll have to replace them. Or you might want to consider replacing something while it still works.
It’s usually not a good green practice to get rid of something because something else looks more sustainable. In the case of appliances, however, new ones often work more efficiently than the old ones. Especially if the new one has an Energy Star rating and the old one doesn’t.
Energy Star is a voluntary program of the federal government. Manufacturers that choose to participate submit products for approval. Once approved, each product receives a tag that tells you how much energy it uses and how much it’s likely to save.
Any product with an Energy Star tag will probably cost a little more than comparable products without one. In part, that’s because the manufacturer had to spend extra money on research and development. Energy Star products may also have higher manufacturing costs. But you’ll soon recoup the extra outlay with the energy you’ll save by not buying a cheaper, less energy-efficient model.
Get your own solar panels and/or wind turbines
Installation of solar panels can cost between $15,000 and $25,000. Home wind turbines can cost even more. The good news is that solar panels, anyway, require little routine maintenance.
Plus, unless your house suffers a direct hit from bad weather, the system will work for you if your local utility suffers a power outage. But you’ll need to install an expensive battery backup to take full advantage of it. Hydrogen fuel cells may eventually work better for less money, but they’re not ready yet.
It will take some careful calculation to determine if the eventual savings are worth the initial outlay. Here are some factors to keep in mind.
- Your current electric bill
- The average price of electricity in your area
- How much sunlight and/or wind your house receives
- How much installation of a system will cost in your area
- The advantages and disadvantages of owning vs leasing the system
- What kind of incentives you can get from various levels of government
- How long you plan to stay in your current house
Installing your own solar or wind system will not pay for itself in utility savings nearly as quickly as a programmable thermostat or even a new refrigerator. If your calculations indicate that you will get your investment back in reasonable time, get several bids.
Saving energy when you driveThe best way to save energy on your car is not to own one at all. For most of us, that’s not a viable option.
Eventually, electric vehicles will drive gasoline-powered vehicles out of the market. Eventually, that is. Not any time soon. But here are some thoughts for using less gasoline:
Perhaps the best way is to reduce idling as much as possible. When you idle, you’re burning gas and getting zero miles per gallon. That’s money out the tail pipe, not to mention toxic gases and particulate matter.
Modern cars don’t need to warm up before you can drive them. It’s actually cheaper to turn the car off rather than idle for more than about 30 seconds. It’s probably not a good idea to turn it off at stoplights, but certainly turn it off for other times when you can’t keep moving.
And the best way to reduce idling? Skip the drive-thru. Go inside to get whatever you plan to buy.
If you have a choice, don’t drive during rush hour. Traffic gets backed up when the road gets clogged with more commuters than it can handle. There’s no need to add to it if you’re not commuting
Try to combine more than one errand every time you leave home. And pick the order of them that results in the shortest combined driving distance.
Watch your speed. Above about 60 miles per hour, wind resistance makes it more and more difficult for your car to push through it. Unless you are going a long distance, the amount of time you’ll save is negligible, but the extra gas you use has a big financial and environmental cost.
Don’t use your car as storage. Every bit of excess weight lowers your gas mileage. So keep your trunk and back seat empty except for whatever you either use regularly or need for a particular trip.
Saving energy when you shop
The instruction to combine errands especially applies to shopping in stores. In addition, avoid going somewhere to pick up only one item. Wait until you need several things from a particular store, if possible, before you use the gas to go there.
Likewise, when you shop online, wait till you have a good-sized shipment to order. You’re saving the energy used by the shipping companies. For example, if you order one item every day, by the end of the week, up to seven delivery trucks have had to come to your home. The packaging you have to get rid of adds up, too. If you order all the same items at one time, that’s one delivery and much less packaging. Saving energy in someone else’s gas tank counts for as much as saving it in your own car.
And do not sign up for Amazon Prime or otherwise choose two-day delivery or faster. The convenience comes with a steep environmental cost. For openers, shipping companies can fill their trucks to capacity for standard shipping. Fast shipping requires trucks to go out with room for plenty more items. And use more of them to ship the same weight.
It also makes it more likely that some of the materials had to come by air instead of the more eco-friendly truck or rail. After all, if the nearest warehouse doesn’t have one of your items, speed requires that it come from a greater distance in a hurry.
I hope this post has given you fresh ideas for saving energy at home. You can most easily adopt a more sustainable lifestyle by changing one or two new habits at a time. Judicious purchase of new appliances costs more, but they don’t require changes in habits. They just save energy while you’re thinking of something else.