How to Save Energy at Home:
Tips for Saving Energy at Home from a Construction Engineer
For four years, I worked as a construction engineer designing Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems, and plumbing systems. Every day I had to consider the energy and heat going into a building, and how to get it out. This knowledge led to learning simple ways to save on my home energy costs that you might not have come across before. Read on to learn a few of them!
Our Road Map
As a former engineer, I like to break things down by individual systems and tackle them one at a time. There are several systems in your home that are most responsible for your home energy consumption.
These are your air-conditioning and heating system, your hot water and water heating system, and your large appliances. These three systems together account for a majority of your energy use, and reducing their power consumption is the best way to save energy.
Homes are energy sinks: they use far more energy than they produce, leading to a lot of negative impacts on the environment. Our goal should be to re-balance the equation for home energy usage, and this can be done two ways:
- We find ways for homes to generate energy; and
- We reduce their energy consumption.
And since most of us aren’t energy scientists, yet most of us have a place to call home, we will be focussing on option #2 and go over ways we can reduce our energy use at home.
There are many ways in which you can reduce your home energy usage. Just to name a few, you can use more energy-efficient appliances and use natural light instead of light bulbs. You can try to use more cold water and take shorter showers, and/or reduce the use of your air-conditioner.
To make this more simple, I will focus on each of the major systems individually and will provide simple ways to reduce your energy consumption, in ways ranging from home improvement to increasing energy efficiency.
System 1: Air Conditioning
If you have more energy going into your home than leaving it, you will have a buildup of energy that could result in a temperature increase. The purpose of an air conditioning system is to use a lot of energy to control the temperature inside of your home. Basically, your A/C has to use an amount of energy equivalent to the heat going into your home. This is not an efficient model for energy conservation and works directly against nature. So how can you reduce your heating and cooling costs? Here are a few ways:
1. Use a Programmable Thermostat
Instead of using a single temperature set point on your thermostat, vary it throughout the day. For example, if you are gone most of the day during the week, have your thermostat automatically adjust your set point to a higher temperature.
Don’t have an automatic setting on your thermostat? Just remember to turn it up or down before you leave for the day! Might be a good time to put those sticky notes to use.
After all, you do not need to keep your home at a comfortable temperature when you’re not there. The purpose of programming your thermostat is to reduce the operating time of your air conditioning system. This means less run time for your fan and dramatic savings on your energy bill.
From a personal example, I brought my electricity bill down from $120 to $85 per month just by programming my thermostat to vary throughout the day!
2. Change Your Air Filter
A dirty air filter means the fan in the air conditioning system has to push harder to circulate the air. From a mechanical perspective, this requires the fan to use more energy to push the air through the dirt and grime that has accumulated in your filter.
If you live in an apartment, you can ask your maintenance staff to do this. Otherwise, replace it yourself once every three months.
It will be small savings, but what we are trying to do here is generate small savings from using less energy in many different places, and allowing all the resulting savings to accumulate.
Changing your air filters will help your A/C run more efficiently.
3. Use Blackout Curtains
Windows are great for natural lighting and dreamy views. But the caveat to this is the (solar) energy that can get through them—much more energy than any other place in your home.
Installing blackout curtains, and using them when you are not home, dramatically reduces the heat and sunlight going into your home. That means your air conditioner isn’t constantly fighting the intense sun in the battle to keep your home reasonably cool.
Giving the system a break puts you on the right side of the energy conservation equation.
4. Reduce Air Leaks
Where possible, reduce the air going into or out of your home. This option is not as practicable in an apartment as a home, but if you can limit the airflow from outside, your energy consumption will go down.
Your A/C is cooling two sources of air: outdoor air that is used for ventilation, and recirculating indoor air. If you are cooling your air, and that cool air escapes into your warmer surroundings, then you have essentially wasted the energy you put in to cool it.
Reducing air leaks, either by using caulk at joints around windows, keeping windows and doors closed, and installing weather stripping around your doors, can all be significant energy savers.
Of course, if you are not using your air-conditioning, this won’t apply to you since air circulation from outside to inside may be your primary cooling method.
System 2: Water Heating
Water is very expensive to heat, much more so than air. Going back to physics, water is about 1,000 times denser than air. This means you need at least 1,000 times the amount of energy to heat one cubic foot of water as one cubic foot of air.
Some water heaters use natural gas, which is more efficient than electricity, to heat your water. But most water heaters, especially in apartments, are electric. The next few tips will help you reduce the cost of heating water (largely by reducing your use of that hot water) and will considerably reduce your utility bills as a result.
1. Use Full Loads in Your Washing Machine
Everyone needs to wash clothes, so why not make it an opportunity to help reduce your energy usage and costs? Fewer loads of laundry means less hot water usage. All of the water in your clothes washer simply goes down the drain, so the fewer loads, the better.
Despite what you’ve been taught, whites and colors can be safely washed together if you wash them with cooler water. With the colder temperatures, you won’t have to worry about the colors bleeding, so save some hot water by embracing this mix.
For any kind of lightly soiled clothing, cooler water will get the job done. So even if you’re separating colors, you won’t need to use the hot water setting for all your loads (especially those with just your day-to-day wear to wash off).
2. Use Energy-Efficient Faucets
Other major users of hot water are your plumbing fixtures, specifically your sinks and shower. Low flow showerheads and faucets will reduce your hot water usage, and reduce the energy demand of your water heater.
Don’t worry, they still get the job done, and you likely won’t notice much of a difference. Plus, these fixtures can reduce your water usage by up to 60%!
Another helpful suggestion is to just use these items less. Simply reduce your time in the shower and be more careful about leaving the hot water running while you wash dishes. A shower timer and some daily diligence will go a long way.
3. Consider Replacing Your Water Heater
If you haven’t replaced your water heater in a while, it’s worth considering making the leap. While the price for a new water heater can initially be pretty high, you’ll be able to make up the difference in energy-savings over time if that’s an investment you can make.
Due to mineral deposits found in the water of most local water supplies, water heater performance deteriorates with time. Scale buildup on the water heating element reduces the rate of heat transfer to the water, meaning that less of the energy going into your heater is going to warming water, greatly reducing energy efficiency.
A new water heater has none of these problems, so the upfront cost of replacing your outdated or long-used water heater will be offset by the reduction in wasted energy.
Additionally, great strides have been made in appliance technology, so a new water heater will have a high energy star rating and will help you save more money on energy costs and your water heating bills throughout its lifespan than its older counterpart.
System 3: Power Outlets
Your air conditioning and water heating systems are utilities, and they are hard-wired into your electrical system. The other systems in your home, however, operate using power outlets that you can directly control (great news for your energy conservation!). Here are some tips to reduce your energy consumption from your power outlets.
1. Use Modern Power Strips
A lot of energy is sent to devices that are plugged in, but not in use. In this regard, however, power strips have come a long way. Now, many are designed with technology to minimize energy waste.
A power strip will allow you to control devices that are on standby, and prevent the usage of electricity by chargers, small appliances like toasters, and other devices while you are not using them.
2. Watch Your Lightbulbs
When you go to purchase light bulbs, you’ll see energy efficient options, but that may not make much of an impression if you don’t know what actually makes them energy efficient. With this tip, I wanted to let you know that this “energy efficient” title has a legitimate explanation to help you save!
Artificial light is one of the most inefficient uses of electricity. It involves the conversion of valuable electricity into worthless heat waste used to produce light. Switching from incandescent bulbs, which convert 90% of energy into heat, with more energy-efficient LED bulbs or CFLs helps a lot.
You can also minimize the amount of time you are using artificial lights. Natural light is free, incandescent light is expensive.
3. Stop Electricity Vampires
This tip is simple: do not plug in electronic devices you are not using or charging. “Electricity vampires” are the devices that often stay plugged in, and therefore use energy, even when they aren’t being used. Sounds scary, right?
No need to fear! Just take a second right now to think: is your toaster, blender, bedside lamp, plugged in right now? Do they need to be? Take a sec and unplug, these vampires are much easier to deal with than the other kinds…
A cell phone charger plugged into the wall while not in use is draining energy…yes, even when not plugged into a phone.
And so is a laptop! Computers and electronic devices do not need to be on “standby” when you are not using them. If you want to make the most of your saving, be sure to shut them down when not in use.
System 4: Home Appliances
Your home features many large appliances that are hard-wired into your electrical system, and can not simply be switched off. These include your dishwasher, dryer, oven, and refrigerator. You have to watch your activities more closely to save on energy usage by these devices. But, rest assured, the following tips should help.
1. Minimize Dishwasher Usage
Modern soap and water go a long way. Most dishes, silverware, and cups can be cleaned sufficiently with a rinse and a bit of soap. I know—but I don’t want to!
Well, you will most likely run your dishes underwater anyway to knock off solid bits before loading the dishwasher. If you have time and commitment to saving energy and money, you can take this rinse to the next step for a light wash and save on a load of dishes or two in the long run.
Unless you are dealing with baked-on grease, or hard to get stains, the dishwasher can waste a lot of hot water and electricity.
Still not convinced? A good middle ground is to only run your dishwasher when it’s COMPLETELY full. Only running your dishwasher when it’s completely full will at least minimize the amount of times you use it. This means it’s time to put your latent tetris skills to work to get the max use from your dishwasher.
2. Avoid Leaving Out Refrigerated Items
It may seem like old advice your parents gave you, but leaving that jug of milk out can be a problem. A refrigerator’s one job is to cool the air inside of it, and it uses the energy-intensive refrigeration cycle to accomplish this important task.
Putting warm items in the fridge causes the air to warm, meaning your fridge has to work harder to stay cool. Help it out by quickly replacing items after use and letting your food cool down naturally before you put it into the fridge. Besides, when was the last time your refrigerator asked for any favors?
3. Use that Ceiling Fan
This might seem counter-intuitive, but there is a technical reason behind it. Your ceiling fan isn’t just for decoration—it actually probably uses the least energy of any fan system in your home! This includes your air-conditioner, which has to have a relatively powerful fan, and your bathroom fan as well.
Your ceiling fan improves the mixing of hot and cool air in your space. This more efficient mixing means your thermostat will be reading the temperature from cooler mixed air, rather than the warmer, stale air that it picks up without any circulation.
This will reduce the energy consumption of your A/C system, making your fan an appliance that actually saves you money while running.
4. Clean the Lint Trap
This is a mistake I made personally for a long time. I would run loads of laundry through two, maybe three cycles because they simply would not dry. The culprit? A stuffed lint trap.
Similar to cleaning your air filters, cleaning your lint trap means your dryer does not have to work as hard, and will not have to run as long to keep your clothes dry. This energy-saving tip will save you money and time and as an added bonus, cut down the number of times you have to wear damp pants to work.
Typically, your lint trap will be readily marked and easily accessible. But, if you are having trouble finding it, look in your manual (everyone keeps appliance user manuals, right?), or more likely, it’s worth the simple online search.
Less Energy, More Savings!
Reducing your home energy usage is a great way to help the environment and your wallet at the same time. In addition to minimizing our impact on the oceans and the earth, recycling and composting the waste we produce, and shopping responsibly, saving energy is an important part of sustainable living.
Unlike other energy-saving guidebooks, I wanted to break down this list of tips by each system because when you understand the system, you can understand and identify the inefficiencies and energy drains.
Now you are set to take an organized and systematic approach to reduce your energy use and reduce your energy consumption!
Ken Briggs is a San Antonio-based entrepreneur, marketer, writer, and community organizer. Ken grew up in the Dallas area and holds a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University. Currently, he is CMO of the tech startup Decentralized Web Technologies, serves on the SA2020 Ambassador Committee, and is a member of the World Affairs Council of San Antonio
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