Energy efficiency experts say simple measures can cut energy consumption without sacrificing comfort or lifestyle. From sealing air leaks to unplugging cellphone chargers, these recommended improvements don't require big-ticket purchases like windows or air or heating systems (although those may be necessary in some cases).
Many energy-saving moves are so inexpensive, relatively speaking, that they quickly pay for themselves.
Unless you're living in an ultra-modern, ultra-energy-efficient home, the only way to reign in those utility bills is to first show your home a little love. Sealing air leaks — primarily gaps in construction — and upgrading insulation are the No. 1 ways to nip energy waste, says Scott Stefan, a home energy auditor for BrightHome Energy Solutions, based in Elmsford, N.Y.
"American homes are built for cheap energy and we are not in the cheap energy era anymore," he says. "Almost every home you go into is badly insulated and leaks a lot of air."
Air leaks, often found around foundations, pipes, recessed lights and chimneys, can be easily identified and sealed; many states have programs that contract with people like Stefan to help you find the source of the problems.
But even sealing your house nice and tight (while still leaving enough airflow for proper ventilation) won't really do the job if your insulation has stopped doing its job, Stefan says. Warm air can escape right through insulation that has been in place for 25 years or more.
"We all recognize that we have to replace our cars and computers, and people love to do that," he says. "But most people have really old insulation — and it's really beaten down and it's not doing them any good."
The cost of sealing leaks or updating insulation varies greatly depending on where you live and the complexity of the job. But "the energy you save from doing this work will more than cover the cost of the work itself," Stefan says.
Such steps tend to be considerably cheaper than, for instance, replacing leaky windows, another energy-saving step. That could run into the tens of thousands of dollars — although it often could be avoided simply by hanging storm windows in the winter, experts say.
Many state-run energy savings programs offer homeowners low-interest loans to help upgrade energy efficiency, Stefan says.
Another way to cut energy consumption is to unplug all those "energy vampires" that suck up electricity even when they're not being used, says Ken Collier, editor in chief at the Family Handyman.
A typical American home has 40 devices, including TVs, cellphone chargers and computers, that continually draw power even when they seem to be turned off, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. households spend approximately $100 per year — roughly 8 percent of household electricity costs — to power such devices while not in use. Collier says the expense could be closer to $70 a month.
The easiest way to eliminate those costs is to plug your devices into power strips and turn those power strips off when you wrap things up for the day, he says. Another good option is a product called Smart Strip, which looks like a regular power strip but automatically turns off equipment that it senses is not being used.
Using a programmable thermostat and switching to energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs also can yield substantial savings, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Today's appliances are 40 percent more efficient than those just 14 years old, Stefan says. That's especially important with big energy suckers like refrigerators, which typically use more energy than anything else in the house.
As for lightbulbs, Stefan says, only 6 percent of the electricity drawn by traditional bulbs is turned into light. The rest becomes heat.
"It is a very inefficient technology — and it should be. It was invented in the 1800s," he says.
Today's lightbulbs can provide energy savings of up to 75 percent and last 10 to 25 times longer than traditional bulbs, according to the Energy Department.
"This is not political or ideological," Stefan says. "It's plain old common sense."