Energy bill too high? It might be time to consider the physics behind your energy use. The scientific attributes of heat and energy mean particular appliances and factors affect your utility bills disproportionately.
If this all sounds like high school science class, don’t fall asleep; this lesson can save you money. The Energy Department estimates that the typical family spends around $2,200 per year on utilities. It also estimates that you can lower your energy bill by as much as 25% — that’s $550 — with a commitment to reducing your usage.
Reduce your summer and winter energy bills
You know what happens when you leave a hot cup of coffee in the snow: It gets cold. A physicist would point out that heat flows spontaneously from hotter to cooler objects until equilibrium is reached, i.e., until they are the same temperature.
This process is happening around your house all the time. It’s 20 degrees outside and 70 degrees inside; left alone, your house will lose heat until it’s just as cold inside as out. To maintain the temperature difference, you’ll either need to stop the heat from leaving (insulation) or add more heat to your house (your heater). It’s the same principle in summer but in reverse: Keep the heat from coming in or remove the heat from your house (air conditioning).
Home heating and cooling are often the biggest culprits behind hefty utility bills — and the best places to look for cost-cutting opportunities. The more that heat stays where it’s supposed to, the less energy you need to move it where you want it to be.
With that in mind, you can do the following:
- Make sure your fridge and freezer are well-sealed
- Check seals around your windows and doors
- Seal leaky heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts
- Insulate outlets and light switches
- Insulate your water heater and its hot-water pipes
- Set your fridge to 38 degrees and your freezer to 5 degrees. The warmer the setting, the less work the fridge and freezer have to do to maintain the temperature. Of course, you still want them to be cold enough to keep your food fresh.
- Set your thermostat a couple of degrees lower in the winter and higher in the summer
- Upgrade your home insulation
- Install double-pane windows
- Plant shade trees outside your house to reduce heating by summer sunlight
Wherever there’s a difference in temperature, you’ll likely want to keep it that way. In some cases though, you should flip the principle on its head. For example, you’ll want to open your blinds in winter so the sunlight can help heat your home.
Less water means less power
If you think back to high school chemistry, you might remember something about water having a high “specific heat.” This means water can absorb relatively significant amounts of heat without its temperature rising by much.
This property is helpful if you want to, say, cool down a nuclear power plant. It’s less helpful when you need to apply a significant amount of energy just to boil water for your tea.
It comes as no surprise then that the Energy Department estimates water heating to be the second-largest expense in powering your home, making up 14% to 18% of your power bill.
So as mentioned earlier, if you use energy to heat water, you’ll want that water to stay hot. You’ll also want to reduce your home’s demand for hot water in the first place.
Here are a few things you can do:
- Shorten your shower time, using a waterproof timer in your shower to alert you
- Wash your clothes in cold water
- Fix leaky pipes
- Install efficient shower heads that maintain water pressure while using less hot water
- Install an efficient dishwasher; most of a dishwasher’s energy use is from heating water
- Install an efficient water heater and lower its temperature to 120 degrees; usually, it’s set at 140 degrees
When you consume power, do it wisely
If you’re going to use power, make sure you use it well.
The upfront investment for new, more efficient appliances can be high, but you also can wring efficiency easily out of other things around the house. If you do shell out for more efficient appliances, buy the ones that run most often, like the fridge, HVAC system, water heater, dehumidifier, television, washer and dryer.
One big item to check on is whether your utility provider offers discounted rates on power during certain times of the day. If you can move energy-intensive chores, such as laundry, to low demand or off-peak times, prices on energy can be 5% to 25% lower.
Other ways to find efficiency:
- Check your HVAC air filters regularly — once a month if you’re serious about it — and replace them if they’re dirty
- Clean and maintain your refrigerator coils
- Install a programmable thermostat to manage your home’s temperature even when you’re out
- Replace your burnt-out lightbulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent or LED bulbs
- Install motion detectors for outdoor lights instead of leaving them on all night
- Install dimmer switches on your lights so you can brighten the room only as much as you need
Some electronic gadgets don’t turn off; they go into “standby” mode while still requiring a trickle of power that can add up over devices and time. These are usually — but not exclusively — items with a remote control because the remote sensor needs power while waiting for your input. Plug these electronics into a smart power strip, which cuts off the current when the devices aren’t in use.
You also can see if a local company or utility will give your house a full energy audit — sometimes for free. It can help you with the supplies and strategies necessary for a more efficient home.
Check out the Energy Department’s in-depth Energy Saver Guide.NerdWallet members save money by lowering their cell phone, cable and internet bills. See how much you could save as a NerdWallet member.
Stephen Layton is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.