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Smart Ways To Cut Energy Costs At Home

Elizabeth Alterman, |Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 13 Jun 2011 | 9:59 AM ET

Those costly winter heating bills might be out of sight momentarily, but they are never really out of mind.

If the thought of opening an electric bill this summer has you sweating even more than the heat itself, consider some ways to cut costs while simultaneously shrinking your carbon footprint.

Choosing energy-efficient products, making a few small repairs and adjusting some behavior can help consumers keep dollars from pouring out their often-drafty windows.

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Applying Efficiency

Those familiar ENERGY STARlabels might be blue, but the products they represent have been helping consumers go green, and save green, since 1992.

A joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, and the U.S. Department of Energy, ENERGY STAR offers thousands of models on products in 60 different categories for the home and office.

Delivering the same or better performance as comparable models, the products use less energy which helps consumers save money and protect the environment, says Maria Vargas, ENERGY STAR’s brand manager.

In 2010 alone, with the help of ENERGY STAR products, Americans saved $18 billion and greenhouse-gas-emissions equivalent to that of 33 million cars, according to the program.

“I think there’s a little bit of a cognitive disconnect for many consumers,” says Vargas. “I don’t think most consumers realize that their home causes twice the greenhouse gas emissions as the average car.”

The annual energy bill for a typical single-family home is approximately $2,200, according to ENERGY STAR, with nearly half that amount going toward heating and cooling costs.

“I think the biggest change we can potentially make for people is to get them to rethink how they heat and cool their home and the efficiencies they can derive from paying attention to that,” says Vargas.

One of the most important things consumers can do to reduce their bills and become more energy efficient is to utilize a programmable thermostat, she says. ENERGY STAR no longer offers a label on the product because its mere installation does not guarantee energy savings.

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“It can be huge in terms of saving energy but only if you program it and use it,” she says. With the help of a programmable thermostat used correctly, consumers can save approximately $180 annually, Vargas notes.

Phillip Gigante, an attorney from Airmont, New York, agrees with Vargas and says that after expanding his home from its original 2,500 square feet to 4,400 square feet, he has seen very little change in his heating bill thanks, in part, to using a programmable thermostat.

“I reran all the plumbing to turn the house from one-zone heat to three-zone heat, and the current programmable thermostats allow me to schedule when the heat comes on and shuts off,” says Gigante. “Now the parts of the house we don’t usually stay in aren’t unnecessarily heated.”

Gigante also credits a few other important improvements with making his home, built in 1962, more comfortable and energy efficient.

“During our renovations, we replaced all our insulation,” he says. “It’s not that old insulation is bad, but they used to use a lot thinner insulation before than they do now. Most important is to insulate is the attic. We had three-inch insulation up there, now it’s over one foot thick,” says Gigante.

Energy and You - A CNBC Special Report
Energy and You - A CNBC Special Report

Replacing old windows also helped. “Now all of our windows are double pane with Low-E (Low-emissivity) glass.”

Low-E coatings on glazing or glass control heat transfer through windows with insulated glazing. Windows manufactured with Low-E coatings typically cost about 10–15 percent more than regular windows, but they reduce energy loss by as much as 30–50 percent, according to the DOE.

“We know that the average home has enough leaks and cracks in its exterior and parts of the inside workings of your home that it’s the equivalent to leaving a window open," says Vargas. If you don’t seal up those cracks, even though you have the most efficient HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) unit on the planet, it’s just leaking out of your house like a sieve.”

Source: U.S. Dept. of Energy

Out With the Old, In With the New

When replacing worn-out appliances, particularly heating and cooling systems that are over 15 years old, Vargas encourages consumers to look for the ENERGY STAR label.

Former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, who served as administrator of the EPA from January 2001-May 2003, also recommends seeking out the blue label when looking to replace “something as big as a refrigerator or as small as a light bulb.”

“People need to understand that the cumulative impact of their individual behavior can make a difference,” says Whitman. “Those figures [2010’s statistics] show you how much people save the environment over the useful time of the appliance. People tend to say ‘What difference will it make if I use ENERGY STAR? One person is not a big deal.’ Look, if you do it and your neighbor does it and your neighbor’s neighbor does it, then all of a sudden this is the impact you have.”

Whitman says initially there may have been some resistance to purchasing ENERGY STAR products because shoppers believed they were sacrificing quality for energy efficiency.

“People thought they were giving up something,” explains Whitman. “My ENERGY STAR appliances are better than any I’ve had before. They’re efficient, they’re quiet, they’re quick, they’re all the things that you want in a product. People get good quality for the money they spend on them.”

For Gigante, when it came time to replace his refrigerator, he sought out a high-efficiency model.

“The fridge that replaced my old fridge uses half the electricity,” he says.

Unplug and Save

The average American household has 24 consumer electronics products, which includes three televisions, two DVD players or recorders, at least one digital camera, one desktop computer and two cell phones, among others, according to the Consumer Electronics Association,.

In the average home, 75 percent of the electricity used to power those gadgets is consumed while the products are turned off. This is also known as “vampire” loss because energy is being sucked out of consumers home while not providing any useful function.

According to ENERGY STAR, the average U.S. household spends $100 per year to power devices while they are off or in standby mode. On a national basis, standby power accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours of annual U.S. electricity consumption and more than $10 billion in annual energy costs.

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This can be avoided by unplugging the appliance or using a power strip and using the switch on the power strip to cut all power to the appliance, ENERGY STAR suggests.

When you finish charging your iPhone or your iPad unplug the charger from the wall — don’t just unplug the device, unplug the charger or otherwise it’s drawing power,” says Whitman. “These are things you can do that you don’t have to sacrifice anything.”

Tax Credit

For those who may have been left out in the cold by not taking advantage of the 2009-2010 tax credits, the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 extends the tax credits for energy efficiency into 2011, but at less-generous levels.

The levels revert back to those in effect in 2006 and 2007, which were 10 percent of the cost of the improvement, up to $500, with a $200 max for windows, with most pertaining to an existing primary residence.

Energy and You - A CNBC Special Report
Energy and You - A CNBC Special Report

For a complete list of available tax credits, visitENERGY STAR’s website.

By making some changes in both product choices and lifestyle habits, the summer electrical bills don’t need to have you breaking out in a sweat. When things heat up this summer, save energy and save money — there’s nothing cooler than that.

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