Ways to Save Money

23 Creative Ways to Slash Your Utility Bills

September 17, 2015
by Scott Alan Turner

Most financial websites ask you to list your home as an asset. And while it may be a financial asset, as homeowners, we all know homes create many expenses as well.

In the hot and humid South, my neighbors routinely see monthly bills of $500 or more in the summer. My well-insulated, air-tight home rarely costs me more than $300 per month.

Here are 23 energy-saving ways to make your home less of a financial burden and more of an asset.

Some are fast, free and easy, while others take a little more work or investment — and even if you rent, you can use some of these tips to cut down your monthly utility bill.

1. Set Hot Water Heaters to 115–120 Degrees

Hot water heaters are generally set to 140 degrees. While this helps keep bacteria at bay, it also can be very hot to the touch and waste energy.

If you have a normal water heater, consider moving the temperature down to 120, which will still inhibit bacteria growth but save money. If you have an instant water heater that doesn’t need to store water all the time, try moving the high temp to 115, which is still hot but uses less energy.

If you have a traditional water heater, consider adding a water heater blanket to your unit as well.

2. Use Fans to Your Advantage

Ceiling fans are a no-brainer when it’s warm outside. They move air around your home and can make a room feel several degrees cooler. Turn them on while running your air conditioner at a warmer temperature, and you’ll save money.

Did you know you can use ceiling fans in cold climates, too? If you live where winter lasts forever, use the reversal switch to change the blades’ direction of rotation. In the winter, fans should draw air up into the room versus blowing air down on you.

Usually, this means turning counter-clockwise in the summer, and clockwise in the winter. Here’s a one-minute video that shows you how to check your fan.

3. Use Thermostat Properly

We live in the age of the programmable thermostat. Use it!

Save money by setting the AC to 85 while you’re gone during the day and to 78 when you’re at home. Winter temperature settings should be around 68 degrees while you’re home and 58 or less while you’re away or sleeping. These settings can save you up to 10% on your heating and cooling — an average of $173 per year.

While you’re at it, turn the fan setting to Auto, which will stop the fan from working when the unit isn’t heating or cooling. By moving to Auto mode, you can save $15 to $25 per month.

Nest thermostats learn your habits automatically and while they can be pricy at $249, check to see whether your utility provider will give you a free or discounted unit.

4. Get or Do an Energy Audit

If you’re not comfortable checking your own home for potential energy wasters, many HVAC companies will offer a free energy audit of your home.

Of course, they’re hoping to be hired for work they suggest. Go with a reputable company and get an expert’s opinion on insulation, air loss, heat gain and the like in your home. Or consider a DIY energy audit.

5. See Where the Sun Shines

Sunlight can be a major heat source in the summer. Simple and affordable solutions include light-blocking curtains, blinds and window film. If you’re going to be in the house long enough to see a return on the investment, you might also consider solar screens, or planting trees in front of west- or south-facing windows.

If you’re thinking of buying a house, note whether it has windows facing west and south. A great-looking home may be either expensive to cool or extremely warm during the summer months.

6. Get an HVAC Service Contract

Hire a professional HVAC maintenance company to prepare your AC unit for the summer and your furnace for the winter. Professional attention keeps your system running at peak performance to save you money, and service companies usually give you discounts on parts if anything breaks.

I got this recommendation from my wife’s Uncle Tom, who worked for an air conditioning company for 20 years. Even though he no longer works in the industry, he still has a yearly service contract. He explains that having your system tuned up every six months to run at peak performance is as important as changing a car’s oil and checking the tire pressure.

Prices vary by region and can range from $15 to $400 per year, depending on the number of HVAC units you have.

I’ve had to replace a $3,000 unit. The 10% I got off parts paid for my service plan. In the years my units don’t break, the money I save on having my system run at optimum efficiently is probably covering the service contract. In addition, the routine maintenance is prolonging my system’s life, saving me money down the road.

7. Give Your AC Some Breathing Space

Many homeowners associations require AC units to be screened by shrubbery, but you don’t want the bushes getting too close. Make sure the shrubs aren’t choking your system and making it work harder.

Here are a few guidelines based on my own experience:

  • Provide at least one foot of clearance all around the unit
  • Trim any bushes touching the unit
  • Remove any leaves and dirt around the unit
  • If there’s significant mud or dirt inside the unit, have it professionally serviced

8. Remember to Replace Air Filters

Dirty air filters, just like shrubs, make your system work harder than it needs to. Set an email alert to remind you to change your filters every three months, or at least every six.

Newer filters are good at catching tiny particles, but this means they clog and restrict air sooner than older filter models. Air filters have ratings from 1 to 16; the higher the number, the more and smaller particles the filter will catch. However, the higher the number, the more the airflow is restricted and the harder the system has to work.

Never replace a filter on your system with a higher-rated filter than the system is designed for. Doing so may damage your system or increase energy use.

9. Clean Your Vents

Make sure your vents are free of dust and obstructions. Vents clogged with tons of dust, or blocked by furniture or piles of items in front of them, make the HVAC work harder to move air around the house.

10. Check and Fix Windows

Sealing the cracks and leaks in your house can save you 5-10% on your energy costs each year.

If the caulking shrinks and gives you a 1/32-inch gap around a single window that measures 24 by 36 inches, that’s the equivalent of a 6.5-square-inch hole in your wall. That’s huge! Consider how many windows you have and how much heat and energy you could be losing through leaks.

To determine if your windows are leaking, close all your windows, doors and, if you have a fireplace, the flue damper in your chimney. Move a stick of incense around each window to see if there’s air flow. If there is, you’ve got a leak!

Weatherstripping is an easy and cost-effective way to save money on energy costs and improve comfort by reducing drafts. It’s something any homeowner can do. Peel-and-stick weatherstripping is easy and useful for sealing drafts:

  • Remove any dirt and grease from the window jambs or sash.
  • Dry the areas with a rag.
  • Cut the weather strip to the right length
  • Peel off the back.
  • Press the sticky part to the surface.

Now check your windows from the outside:

  • Look for any cracked or damaged caulking around the windows where the casing meets the house, and around the window frame.
  • Scrape and clean away any damaged caulking.
  • Apply a fresh bead of paintable acrylic latex to reseal the window.

11. Childproof and Seal Your Outlets

The electrical outlet boxes in some houses don’t have any insulation behind them, and basically function like a hole in your wall. Outlets located on exterior walls can be like miniature vacuums, transferring air from the inside to the outside.

On a windy day, hold some incense or a match in front of an outlet to see if there’s any air movement. If there is, install socket sealers to improve energy efficiency.

All you have to do is remove your outlet cover with a screwdriver, put on the outlet sealer and put the cover back on. Easy! The second step is to put in those plastic childproof outlet plugs to fully block airflow.

12. Repair Leaky Ductwork

Over time, the joints and seals in the ductwork can dry out and deteriorate. Hire a professional to inspect your ducts or do it yourself. Look for dust-free areas, which mean air is leaking out. If you want a DIY fix, check out YouTube for “How to patch ductwork.”

13. Insulate Sinks on Exterior Walls

If you have a sink, toilet, cable or phone line in an external wall, chances are they’re uninsulated behind the wall. Warm and cool air can escape from these exterior openings.

Buy some expanding foam insulation and spray it into every crevice you can find in your exterior walls. Spray the foam where the bathroom sink’s drain goes into the wall. Also, spray where the water lines come out of your house.

14. Check for Door Leaks

Door sweeps can get old and start leaking air. Do an incense or match test to see if air’s leaking under your exterior doors. If so, replace your door sweep as soon as possible. YouTube can help you want to DIY it.

If it’s a nice day, take off your current door sweep and take it to the home improvement store so you can buy the correct replacement.

15. Insulate the Hole in Your Attic

Your attic is usually covered with insulation except for the access point, either a hatch or a pull-down door with stairs. Your heat and air conditioning may escape to the attic through the simple plywood hatch door.

If you just have a hatch, add a gasket around the opening and attach some rigid foam insulation to the top of the hatch. If you have pull-down stairs, have an attic tent with a zipper to seal this off when not in use.

16. Ensure You Have the Proper Attic Insulation

Pop into your attic. Do you see the support beams? If so, have an HVAC company come in and blow in some more insulation or install some yourself.

Use higher R-value insulation, such as spray foam, on exterior walls and in cathedral ceilings to get more insulation with less thickness. You can also check with your state about tax incentives for making your home more energy efficient.

17. Watch the Cracks

Homes in areas with shifting soil can get cracked foundations, walls and window frames.

If you see a crack, place a piece of tape on the end and mark it with the date. If you see the crack expanding past the tape, you know the situation is getting worse and you can catch problems before they become more serious.

18. Hang Your Laundry

Go old school and hang your laundry outside or on racks in your house. Dryers are super convenient, but even energy-efficient models use lots of power to generate motion and heat. Hanging your laundry can help you save $80 to $250 a year, depending on the size of your family.

I bought a bunch of plastic hangers to hang up all my shirts, shorts and pants. Since I have to hang up my clothes anyway, I just pull them out of the washing machine and put them on the hangers to dry. Boom! Now they dry in my closet — for free.

19. Only Use the Oven in the Morning

In the morning, the outside temperature is cooler and your AC isn’t running as hard (or at all). Heating up the kitchen won’t necessarily cause the AC to kick on, so if you’re going to do any baking, now’s the ideal time to do it.

In the evening, as outdoor temperatures are at their peak, using the oven will exacerbate an already warm interior and the AC will have to run into the night to bring the temperature back down.

If you’re going to cook a hot dinner, consider using your grill, Crockpot, toaster oven or microwave instead. It may not save you tons of cash, but it will keep your kitchen cooler in the summer and make eating dinner a more pleasant experience.

20. Reduce Hot Showers in the Summer

You’ve just fixed all your windows and need a shower. In the summer, run your exhaust fan while showering and for a few minutes afterward to help remove warm, wet air from the house. If you can bear it, taking a quick, cool shower is even better.

Both of these strategies ease the load on your AC units, which is especially helpful in homes with lots of family members.

21. Consider Updating Your Appliances

If you’re still using that old washer and dryer your parents gave you when you went to college, consider moving to a more water- and energy-efficient set.

Buying new appliances is, of course, expensive, but if you’re using outdated equipment, a newer model can save quite a bit in energy costs, water use and even time.

22. Go LED

Incandescent light bulbs make a cheerful, warm light, but give off a ton of heat compared to light.

New LED lights can mimic the cheerful light of incandescents much better than other energy efficient lights like CFLs. LEDs use only 10%–15% of the energy as normal bulbs, but they can be expensive. Here’s a look at when it pays to swap out your light bulbs.

23. Find a Homeowner’s Checklist and Use It

You’ll find plenty of yearly, monthly or quarterly home inspection lists online. Find one you like and set an email reminder to run through it. You can stop many small issues before they become major problems, and you’ll keep your house running as efficiently as possible.

Your Turn: Have you tried any of these strategies? How much have they helped you save?

Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!

Scott Alan Turner has taught tens-of-thousands of architects about green building and now teaches people to become financial rock stars. Download his free eBook Save $1,000 in One Week or follow him on Twitter @scottalanturner.

by Scott Alan Turner
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

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