Here are 16 things you can do as fall approaches to save energy (and money) over the chilly season. Many of these are free or inexpensive, while others will more than pay for themselves over time.
Adjust your sprinkler timer
When the sun stops beating down on your grass and plants, it’s time to dial back the daily output on your sprinklers. Many sprinkler timers have a “seasonal adjustment” setting, where you can reduce the normal program by a percentage. I cut mine by 30% when the temperature dips and make adjustments based on the weather and how my plants and lawn look.
You might also consider a smart sprinkler controller, which usually runs around $130 or so but may be eligible for a rebate from your water provider. The smart controllers use either Internet data or ground sensors you link up to them to determine when and how much to water based on the plants in each zone.
Optimize your water heater
There are several things you should check out when it comes to water heaters.
Reduce the temperature – The first thing to look at is the temperature knob, which shows how hot the water inside is when the heater is just sitting there. The higher the setting, the more often the heater fires up to warm the water to the desired temperature.
If yours isn’t on the lowest setting, then reduce the temperature and seeing how it works for you. If it isn’t hot enough, raise it by half a setting and try again until you find a temperature that works for you.
Get a water heater blanket – You can also purchase a water heater blanket to insulate the heater and prevent all that heat from radiating out into your utility room. This is especially important if your utility room has an outside-air vent for combustion, which often brings winter air into the room. While you’re at it, get some hot water pipe insulation to keep the heat from seeping out of the exposed pipes coming out of the water heater.
Got a water circulation pump? – Some homes have a circulation pump, especially larger ones where the hot water has a long way to travel. These pumps cycle water through the system so that hot water comes out of the tap as soon as you turn it on. If the pump is running constantly, as hot water cycles through the system it loses heat along the way, bringing cooler water back to the heater, which fires up to reheat the water to the right temperature. This can cost much more in gas than it saves in water. Many pumps have a timer built in, and you can set them to only run during the hours you’re home and would use hot water.
Alternately, you can get a WeMo Smart Plug and plug the pump into it. You can then set it to turn on when you normally take a shower and control it with a smartphone app or an Amazon Echo. (I’ve paired mine with IFTTT so that when I say “Alexa, turn on the shower” it starts the circulator pump.) Cutting down the time the pump runs can save a pile of money in heating costs.
Change the ceiling fan direction
There’s a little switch on every ceiling fan that reverses the fan blade direction. It should turn counter-clockwise in summer and clockwise in winter to be most effective.
Seal up air leaks
It’s easiest to do this on a particularly windy day, but you can do it any time. There are several ways to check for air leaks around your doors and windows. You can just use your hand, or some smoke in a bottle to look for wind.
Once you find a leak, use weather stripping to seal around the top and sides of doors. For leaks on the bottom of the door, you may either need to replace the door sweep or adjust the threshold. For window leaks, you may need to caulk around the edges.
Another place to look for air leaks is around light switches and electrical outlets. It’s not uncommon for there to be little or no insulation around the electrical boxes in walls, which makes them an easy place for cool air to sneak in. You can buy foam insulation covers for both light switches and electrical outlets to seal up the leak.
Look for poorly insulated spots
This is one that can lead to more costly changes, but it’s good to know about. Use a laser infrared thermometer to check both your walls and ceiling for cool spots, especially around the edges of the home, to see where you may be missing insulation. Putting in attic insulation is a pretty straightforward and, depending on how much you need, fairly inexpensive. Of course, if you find a cool spot behind drywall, that can be a lot more hassle.
Change the air filter in your furnace
Did you know a clogged air filter can cost you 15% more in energy costs? Or that it can cause damage to your furnace because of the extra work the motor has to do to pull air through the system? Buy decent air filters (not the dirt cheap ones) and change them when recommended by the manufacturer. It will save you money in both the short and long run.
Use a programmable thermostat
There’s no need to keep your home at a constant temperature all day long. By using a programmable thermostat, you can set it so your home is warm when you’re there, cooler when you’re not, and somewhere in between while you’re sleeping.
These thermostats are typically easy to install. The one thing you may need to watch out for is that some require a C wire, which provides them with constant power. This is especially true for Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats — which are totally awesome!
A bonus with the Wi-Fi thermostats is you can set them to alert you when the temperature gets above or below a certain threshold. So if your furnace goes out while you’re on vacation, you can find out in time to get it fixed rather than come home to frozen or cracked pipes. This is especially useful for northerners who travel south for the winter and leave their homes unoccupied during that time.
Of course, none of this helps if you don’t use it properly.
Replace incandescent bulbs with LED
As the days get shorter, you’re going to turn on lights for a lot longer. In many cases, it’s worth replacing your most-used lights with energy-efficient LED bulbs. It may not make sense to replace bulbs in closets and such, but definitely main living and dining areas, and perhaps bedrooms, as well.
The cost of LED bulbs has come down significantly, and many electric companies will either offer a mail-in rebate or even work with local stores to offer an instant rebate to entice people to buy these energy-efficient bulbs. Check your local membership warehouse, which usually have really good deals.
Here’s how much each type of bulb would cost to purchase and operate over a 25,000-hour lifespan (about 23 years at three hours per day):
|Approximate cost per bulb||$1||$2||$8 or less|
|Average lifespan||1,200 hours||8,000 hours||25,000 hours|
|No. of bulbs needed for 25,000 hours of use||21||3||1|
|Total purchase price of bulbs over 23 years||$21||$6||$8|
|Total cost of electricity used (25,000 hours at $0.12 per kWh)||$180||$42||$30|
|Total operational cost over 23 years||$201||$48||$38|
Add a whole-house humidifier
This is definitely region-specific, but if you live in a dry climate you may want to add a whole-house humidifier. Having adequate humidity helps protect the wood in your home from shrinking and cracking, but it also affects your perception of temperature.
If you’ve ever gotten on an airplane in, say, Phoenix and landed in Atlanta, you know the stark difference between dry heat and wet heat. Humidity can allow us to feel more comfortable at a lower temperature, which means a whole-house humidifier can help you turn down the thermostat a few degrees without sacrificing comfort.
I’ve personally used the Aprilaire 500 M in both my last home and my new one. It’s a relatively simple unit that attaches to your ductwork near the furnace. Whenever there’s a call for heat, the unit sends water to a filter, where air from the return picks it up and moves it through the home. A side benefit is that the improved air cuts down on bloody noses, dry skin and cracked lips common during the fall and winter.
Lower the temperature
It’s obvious, but you can also lower the temperature in your home. Even a few degrees makes a difference in the bills.
In addition, some newer furnaces also have a circulation setting, which randomly turns the blower motor on a lower setting to help even out the temperature across the home between heating cycles. This is especially helpful if you have cool and warm spots that form while the furnace is off.
Close vents in unused rooms
If your basement is more storage than living area, you probably don’t need it to be as balmy as your family room or bedrooms. Close the vents in guest rooms, basements, or other infrequently used areas to keep more of the hot air going to places where it will be appreciated. You can always open a vent later if you know that room is going to get some use, like a guest bedroom around Thanksgiving.
Consider small space heaters
Space heaters are typically not considered energy-conscious appliances. However, it’s most likely a lot cheaper to heat just one room to a comfortable level than to heat a whole house there. If you like your bedroom warm at night, get a small electric space heater, close the door and heat just that room. You can turn the thermostat way down at night and still be comfortable.
Get energy-saving window treatments
There are several ways to conserve energy with window treatments.
Cellular shades create a barrier between the cool air from the window and the warm air in the room. I’ve seen these keep the space by a window several degrees warmer.
Thick curtains also help keep in heat when covering the window.
Not everything requires spending big coin. Break out the warm clothes in the house. Have a housecoat or hoodie to wear around. Put small blankets in sitting areas. Wear heavy socks.
Open doors and windows when the outside temperature is comfortable, rather than having the air conditioner or furnace kick on to make up a few degrees. Open the shades, blinds and drapes in windows that get sun to help bring in the warmth, and close them when it gets dark to trap heat in.
If your home has older, inefficient windows, you can purchase a plastic seal kit to dampen the heat loss. They don’t look pretty, but they keep the house warm.
Finally, drink hot beverages — tea, hot chocolate, coffee, broth. Get some decaffeinated drinks for nighttime.
Some things NOT to do
You should never use an outdoor heating source for warmth, such as a propane space heater or barbecue grill. These can produce deadly carbon monoxide, and it’s not uncommon to read about deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning from people who were using these items as heaters indoors or even in tents.
For the same reason, you should never warm your car up in a closed garage. This can lead to carbon monoxide buildup in the garage and could seep into the house. It’s advisable to have at least one working carbon monoxide detector on each floor of your home.
What other energy-saving tips do you have for fall (or winter) weather?
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