Ideas that lead to real energy efficiency

If you want ten quick home energy saving ideas to skim a few pennies from your household energy bills, there are plenty of websites with simple (and sometimes simplistic) tips to help you out. But if you’re serious about achieving big savings, you need to understand the methodology behind making your house energy efficient.

Along with the home energy saving ideas, you need commitment and motivation. And you need to be aggressive about the savings you pursue.

What makes my home energy saving ideas different from the standard tips? For one thing, my home energy saving ideas are about a method for helping you find and eliminate waste in your home. Instead of just offering a few suggestions, I give you a way to figure out what will save you the most energy. That puts you in charge.

What it takes to achieve the highest home energy savings

You’ll find more than a top 10 list of home energy saving ideas on my website, See the sidebar links for home energy saving ideas on specific areas like heating, cooling, lighting etc. But before you plunge in to tackle individual areas, or go looking for the best home energy saving idea, let’s consider the attitude you’ll need to truly succeed.

Here’s a somewhat unconventional list of home energy saving ideas: seven ways to think differently about saving energy in your home. Each is covered in more detail below.

  • Understand the methodology: measure your usage, break it down, cut the waste, repeat!
  • Be committed: how to ensure you follow through
  • Be aggressive: if energy cost five times what it does now, what would you do differently?
  • Make sacrifices: you don’t have to suffer to save – unless you want to save substantially
  • Plan ahead: don’t just jump in! Plan your approach.
  • Motivate yourself: do something creative with the money you save.
  • Go further: when you think you’ve done everything you can, think again.

Energy saving idea #1: Understand the energy saving methodology

To maximize your home energy savings, apply this simple methodology: measure your usage, break it down, cut the waste, then repeat the whole process.

You can use my formal system to build your own energy saving plan. Make sure you check that page out before going too far down the energy-saving route – it will make your results much more successful (and you’ll know whether or not you’ve succeeded). In any case…

If you don’t measure your energy usage up front (before you rush into applying the first energy saving tip), you won’t know whether the changes you make are of any value. There are three ways you can measure energy usage in your home, in order of most general to most detailed:

Measurement technique #1: Read your utility bills. Your electricity bill should include your total kilowatt hours consumed (kWh) and may include the average kWh per day. Your natural gas bill should include a measurement in one or both of CCF (hundreds of cubic feet) or M3 (cubic meters), and again will show total amount consumed, and if you’re lucky, the average amount per day. If you heat with oil, you should have the amount in gallons on your bill, and you’ll have to estimate daily usage based on the last time you ordered oil. If your bills don’t show the amount per day, just divide the total consumption by the number of days in the billing period. Don’t use the money you paid as your measure of usage (or your measure of savings). Especially for gas and oil, prices can fluctuate a lot over the course of a few months, so you may think you’ve saved money as you proceed, while in fact you’ve only benefited from dropping energy prices. Or you may think your efforts have been wasted because your utility bill stays just as high as before – but perhaps you’ve saved big and sheltered yourself from a major price increase!

And be aware of the difference between estimated and actual readings. If your last bill has an estimated reading, go outside (or downstairs, or wherever the meter is) and read the meter yourself. Compare your actual reading with the estimated reading. Quite often, when I do this, I find my utility company has way overestimated my electricity or gas usage. You’ll find this happens a lot especially once you start saving energy, because the utility is estimating based on your past usage, not based on your newfound enthusiasm for cutting waste.

Measurement technique #2: Read your meters on a daily basis. Preferably at the same time each day, jot down the numbers on your electrical and/or gas meter. (This doesn’t really work well for those who heat with oil – sorry!)

If your meter is digital or has number cogs like a car odometer, reading is a cinch. If your meter has dials with a spinning hand in each, for each dial note the number that the dial is either right on, or has just passed. For instance a dial whose hand is between 7 and 8 counts as 7 (and one between 9 and 0 counts as 9).

Once you’ve noted your daily usage, subtract yesterday’s reading from today’s to get your daily consumption. Put this in a separate column in your notes (or your spreadsheet if you’re so inclined). This will help you see what progress you are making – but don’t get hung up on the occasional spike. A roast chicken or a batch of cookies can really throw your electrical or gas reading off, depending on what your stove runs on.

Measurement technique #3: Measure the usage of individual electricity-using devices. Use an electrical consumption meter like the Kill A Watt meter, which plugs into your wall socket and measures the watt consumption and kilowatt-hour consumption of any device you plug into it. What if you want to measure something that can’t be measured with such a meter? Let’s say you want to know how much electricity your dishwasher uses for one complete cycle. Try turning off everything else in your house from the fuse or circuit breaker panel (even your fridge and freezer can probably last an hour or two without power). Read your main electrical meter at the start and end of the dishwasher cycle, and calculate the kilowatt hours used from there. (And don’t forget to switch everything else back on afterwards!)

Once you’ve measured your usage, in as detailed a fashion as possible, break it down into essential, optional, and wasteful usage. For example, your refrigerator is probably essential, baking bread is probably optional (after all, you can buy bread too), and leaving the basement lights on all night is wasteful. One of the keys to major energy savings is to understand both the amount of energy you’re using and how useful is the work that energy is doing for you. A bathroom nightlight running 24×7 might seem wasteful, if there’s enough light pollution where you live to make a late-night stumble to the washroom manageable without it. But if the nightlight is a luminescent flat panel such as the “Moonlight” nightlight, which uses only uses 0.08 watts, you’re not going to save much by getting rid of it. (On the other hand, if it’s a 3-watt incandescent bulb you could save 25 kWh per year by switching to a luminescent nightlight).

Finally, cut the wasteful usage wherever possible, and cut the optional usage where it’s not too inconvenient. (But remember, be willing to make sacrifices.) And as for the essential, remember that while a working refrigerator may be essential, a 10-year-old refrigerator whose temperature settings are too low, will waste a ton of electricity when compared to a brand-new, ENERGY STAR qualified refrigerator whose fridge and freezer temperatures are set correctly.

Energy saving idea #2: Be committed: how to ensure you follow through

If you have children, they can become your greatest allies in achieving big energy savings. (In fact, after a while, it’ll be them chewing you out for leaving the lights on, and not the other way around.) Once you have measured your monthly or daily or individual device usage, set some goals for savings. Explain to your kids why it’s important to conserve energy (more family money to do fun stuff, less pollution, fight global warming, whatever motivates them). Don’t just ask them to help you save. Ask them to remind you whenever they see you wasting energy (nothing excites kids like being given authority).

Track your usage visually with a graph, so everyone can see the progress your household is making. If you track daily, notice any spikes or dips and try to figure out what caused them.

And commit to yourself (or to your family) what good thing you’ll do if you achieve your goal. A small reward can be a powerful motivator.

Energy saving idea #3: Be aggressive. Energy could cost a whole lot more next year.

I’ve seen too many people tackle energy savings half-heartedly, because their energy is so cheap it doesn’t seem worth their time to save. This is especially true of major purchases like a new stove or refrigerator, new furnace or air conditioning unit. Why should I pay an extra $1,200 for a furnace that is only 10% more efficient? I look at my heating bill and see I pay $1,000 per year in natural gas, so that extra 10% efficiency will only save me $100 a year, right? Is the extra $1,200 worth it?

The fact is, this kind of back-of-the-envelope calculation misses two key points. First, energy costs keep going up! So factor an unbelievable increase (like oil going from $60 to $120 in a year) into your calculations. Or assume natural gas prices will climb 20% per year, not 3%. Second, current energy prices don’t factor in the environmental cost of using the energy. By being more aggressive in your attempts to save – by making economically irrational decisions, like buying that 94% efficient furnace, you are in effect factoring in those additional environmental costs into your calculation, which makes the most energy saving idea feel right for the pocketbook too.

Imagine that energy costs twice or five times what it does today. Peak oil enthusiasts would even say this is a realistic proposition. People who bought low or mid-efficiency furnaces in the 90’s, figuring natural gas was only going to rise at the same rate as inflation, would be much better off economically today if they’d assumed a 10% or 20% increase per year.

Energy saving idea #4: Make sacrifices. Waste is not a human right

To truly save, you need to be willing to give up a bit of luxury, or take on minor inconveniences. You can cut your electricity use by 5% or 10% by following the standard tips on changing to better lightbulbs, setting your AC up by 1 degree, and so on. But if you take the attitude that your idea of comfort is not negotiable, you won’t save much.

On the other hand, if you’ve had the eye-opening experience of travelling to developing countries (or even places like Europe or Japan) to see real energy conservation in action, you’ll probably be more willing to adopt more stringent home energy saving ideas and reduce your comfort level a bit in exchange for the savings that brings. A couple of examples:

  • In Italy in 1983, I visited friends who (A) never turned the light on in a room during the day, even when they went into it, unless they were going to stay there, and (B) turned on their hot water heater once a week for bathing.
  • In the Costa Rica home I’m visiting as I write this, lights are not turned on during the day. Period. There’s plenty of natural light. (And there’s no hot water heater except in the electric shower heads.)

Energy saving idea #5: Plan ahead. Don’t just jump right in.

Rather than just jump in and try out the first home energy saving idea you find, plan your approach. Understand the methodology, measure your usage, figure out the big opportunities, and plan how you’ll tackle them. Prioritize your actions, set a target savings level and a deadline, and try to achieve it. Watch the trends on your consumption chart, and adjust if you’re off target.

Energy saving idea #6: Motivate yourself. Do something worthwhile with the savings.

Promise yourself (or your family) that you’ll do something worthwhile with the money you save. As you implement the energy saving ideas you select, your energy usage will drop. Do something fun with the extra money. It can be a token gesture (especially if your current motivation is that you have to save money because you can’t afford your bills as they are now). Or you can make it something bigger. A promise to use the energy savings in a productive or worthwhile way makes it much easier to put in the hard work needed to truly conserve, and makes those little sacrifices easier too. Here are some examples of how a family can motivate itself to conserve energy:

  • Commit to spending half the saved money on a night out at a restaurant, and donating half to a worthwhile cause. If you are paying $60 a month for electricity now and can cut your usage by 33% (which is perfectly doable) you’ll have enough in a year to donate $120 to charity and $120 for a night or two on the town.
  • If it’s just yourself you have to motivate, and you’re truly dedicated to conserving as much as possible, commit to rolling the savings back into further energy efficiency upgrades.
  • If you’re considering a switch to green electricity (electricity generated from sources other than coal, nuclear, or large-scale hydroelectric power), but the cost is too high, promise yourself to switch to a green supplier as soon as you can afford to. When would that be? When you’ve brought your consumption down low enough that you’ll be paying no more for the new higher-priced green electricity than you were paying for the old consumption level with the lower-priced dirty supplier.

Energy saving idea #7: Go further. You can always save more.

When you think you’ve done everything you can, think again. Unless you live in a zero-energy home you can do more to save energy. For instance you can take on the home energy saving ideas that at first didn’t seem to offer enough savings to justify the cost. The world has huge environmental problems to face. We should never give up trying to do more to solve them!

Use this site to find the best home energy saving ideas

This site is all about home energy saving ideas. Elsewhere in the Basics section there’s information on energy saving benefits (in case you still aren’t sure it’s worthwhile), how to build an energy saving plan; and an energy saving checklist you can print off to make sure you’ve covered the key areas that will save you energy. Later sections provide home energy saving ideas in specific areas such as heating, cooling, and hot water.

Don’t be satisfied with trying a few home energy saving ideas and feeling you’ve done your bit. We can all do so much more. But in case you really only want a list of the best home energy saving ideas, here’s my list.

My top-ten energy saving ideas

This is not anything like your conventional top ten energy saving ideas list. It’s based on my own experience, which among other things has allowed me to cut my household electricity usage in half and household gas usage by at least a third.

  1. Use low-tech methods to heat, cool, and light your home. Close blinds and windows at night in the winter, and during the day in hot summer weather. Take advantage of south facing windows on cool days to let in solar energy, and of open windows and window fans on summer nights to let in the cooler night air. Use my Caribbean friend’s rule of thumb for lighting: if the sun is up, the lights are off. The best way to save money on energy is to not use it. The second best way is to get energy for free!
  2. Get a home energy audit. There’s no better way to find out where you’re wasting energy. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get money back to help cover the cost of the recommended upgrades.
  3. Measure your usage yourself. Watch the electricity meter and the gas meter. (If you heat with oil, this is a lot more difficult – you don’t want to be lowering a dipstick into the oil tank every day!) Use a Kill-A-Watt meter or other electricity consumption meter to find out how much each device is using. Chart your usage with a spreadsheet or a hand-drawn graph.
  4. Insulate! If you heat or air condition for more than a few days a year, extra insulation will pay for itself if appropriately installed.
  5. Seal air leaks. My house had air leaks equivalent to a 14×14 inch hole when I had my first blower door test (a key part of a typical energy efficiency audit). I caulked all the leaks, installed new, energy efficient windows, added weather stripping to doors, and had foam insulation blown into the ground floor walls (which not only increased the R-value of the walls from 1 to 6, but massively cut down on drafts from cracks and holes in the brick mortar). A few weeks later, I had a follow-up blower door test, and the air leaks worked out to only a 6×6 inch hole. My air leakage dropped by more than a factor of 5. (You don’t want to get too much lower than that! You still need to breathe after all!)
  6. Stop all the tiny electrical leakages and eliminate them. Get rid of the phantom loads like the black brick DC converters scattered through your house. Put any computer equipment, including network connections like cable or DSL modem and router, on power bars, and only turn the power bars on when you need the equipment to be on. Always unplug instant-on devices like TVs, or devices with lit-up clocks, like coffee makers, except when you actually need them.
  7. Find the biggest energy hog in your house and tackle that. Chances are that hog is one of:
    • Heating system, if you have poor insulation (see 4 above) or air leaks (see 5 above), or an old, inefficient, or poorly maintained furnace. Or if you heat with electricity.
    • Cooling system, if you have poor insulation, air leaks, or problems with your air conditioning unit, and you run the unit more than a few weeks a year.
    • Refrigeration, if you have more than one fridge (e.g. an old, basement beer fridge), or a very old fridge, or one that always seems to be running, or one that keeps your food too cold. (Once my son accidentally turned the freezer dial on our bottom-freezer fridge down so low it went down to -29C or -20F, and stayed there long enough to seriously spike our electrical usage.) Or you may have a chest or upright freezer you don’t use much and might not really need. If it isn’t nearly full, try to use up what’s in that freezer so you can unplug the freezer.
  8. Reduce your dependence on a narrow temperature range for comfort. Our ancestors lived through ice ages and hot periods without central HVAC systems. We can too. It’s a noble deed to sacrifice some of your own comfort now, so that you reduce your environmental impact and help prevent a much greater level of discomfort for everyone in the future when human-induced global warming really kicks into high gear.
  9. If part of your motivation for saving energy is to better the environment or because you want to live a greener lifestyle, switch to a green electricity provider. If you’ve already tackled some of the above steps before you switch, even with the premium charged for clean electricity you should find your electrical bills stay below the ones you had before you switched.
  10. Spend some time thinking, on your own or with friends, about how you use energy in your home, and come up with an idea of your own. Sometimes the biggest savings come not when you follow some hollow advice that’s been regurgitated on website after website, but when you use your own experience to improve your own situation.

There you have my top ten. But please don’t just take an idea or two from there and stop the task of saving energy. Read the section above on what it takes to achieve the highest energy savings, and go all the way!

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