Summer is the peak season for the power grid, a time when air conditioners push up the energy demand — and cost — on the system and its users.
Consumers can find lots of ways to reduce energy consumption, said Stephanie McCorkle, communications director for the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit manager of the statewide energy grid.
"Asking people to use fans instead of air conditioners, to set their pool pumps to run during off-peak hours, to do their laundry after dinner — all those tips are still very valuable," McCorkle said. "It can reduce the strain on the grid and also reduce their bills."
Energy experts say you can lower your costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting back on everything from hot water to lighting and appliances. And don't forget so-called "vampire" or "phantom" loads — the standby electrical power that televisions, microwaves, computers and other appliances draw while plugged in unless fully switched off.
According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the typical American home has 40 products constantly drawing power, and those products — when not in use — represent 10 percent of residential energy consumption.
"We're the fast-food generation. We want everything now," said Tom Reddoch, executive director of energy use for the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit funded by the electric utility industry that conducts research on key issues facing the power industry.
"Any gadget you can turn on that goes into full-power mode immediately takes idling energy to initiate, and you'll pay the price. It guarantees you'll have a vampire presence."
According to the Energy Department, the average U.S. home spends about $2,200 on energy costs each year. Heating and cooling account for at least half of typical use, water heating up to 25 percent, appliances and home electronics about 20 percent and lighting about 15 percent.
Here are some tips for conserving energy — and saving money.
Set your thermostat between 78 and 80 degrees, or turn the system off when you're gone for more than four hours during the day. Consider installing a programmable thermostat that offers preprogrammed settings.
If buying a new air conditioner, look for a residential ductless heat pump system, which offers improved comfort, less noise and energy savings of 10 to 30 percent.
Don't keep your refrigerator or freezer too cold. Recommended temperatures are 37 to 40 degrees for the fresh food compartment and 5 degrees for the freezer section. A full refrigerator retains cold better than an empty one. If the refrigerator is nearly empty, store water-filled containers inside. The cold items will enable the refrigerator to recover more quickly after the door has been opened.
If buying a new refrigerator, look for one that's inverter-compressor powered. Unlike conventional compressor-powered units, the inverter compressor helps the refrigerator's system reach its ideal temperature quicker by running at a higher RPM for a shorter length of time.
Install compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which use at least 66 percent less energy and last 10 times longer than incandescent lightbulbs. They're most efficient when operated for two or more hours at a time — turning them on and off frequently can reduce their lifetime by 50 to 75 percent.
Also consider installing motion detectors, timers or dimmer switches. Turn off lights when not needed.
Flat-screen liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma television sets are more efficient than the older, backlit cathode ray tube sets they are replacing. But because these TV sets often are so large — as wide as 40, 60 and even 80 inches — they negate any efficiency gain. To reduce energy consumption, turn down the LCD's backlight.
For computers, set your machine's power management to turn off your monitor after 10 minutes when not in use and your hard discs after 20 minutes. Turn off your screen savers, which waste power by keeping your computer active. Laptop computers typically use less energy than desktop computers.
To avoid wasted standby power in your devices, consider a "smart" power strip, which automatically turns off power to devices when it senses they aren't in use. Remote-control power strips allow you to control any socket with the touch of a button.
You can reduce your water heating costs by lowering the thermostat setting on your water heater. Although some manufacturers set water heater thermostats at 140 degrees, most households don't need water hotter than 120.
If your water heater is more than 12 years old, consider replacing it with a new unit (the last two digits of the heater's serial number usually represent the year of manufacture). This year and next, the federal government is offering a tax credit of 30 percent of the cost of qualified water heaters, up to $1,500.
If your home has an electric water heater, you might consider buying a heat pump water heater. They use one-third to one-half as much electricity as a conventional electric water heater and can save the average household almost $300 a year.
Washers and dryers
About 90 percent of the energy used to wash clothes is from heating the water, so use cold water whenever possible. Front-loading washing machines cut water use by nearly 40 percent.
For dryers, do two or more loads in a row to take advantage of the heat remaining in the dryer after the first load. Consider hanging clothes outside on a clothesline when weather permits. And remember to clean the lint filter in the dryer after every load to improve air circulation.
If buying a new dryer, look for heat pump dryers. Unlike conventional drum-type models, these dryers don't let heat or moisture escape outside the dryer drum, so they dry garments more quickly.
Avoid rinsing before putting dishes in the washer, and run the dishwasher only when fully loaded.
If your dishwasher has an air-dry setting, use it instead of the heat-dry setting. That will cut the dishwasher's energy use 15 to 50 percent. If there is no air-dry setting, turn the dishwasher off after its final rinse and open the door. The dishes will dry without using electricity.
Operating the pump on the lowest speed — even though you have to operate it for a longer amount of time — saves a significant amount of energy. Keeping the filters clean means less resistance in the system and reduces energy needs.
Sources: Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, California Independent System Operator, California Energy Commission, Consumer Electronics Association, Department of Energy, Energy Star, Global Climate Center, Miele, Natural Resources Defense Council, Panasonic, PG&E/Flex Your Power