12 Low-Cost Ways to Save Energy — and Money — Now

Consumer Reports

Four out of 10 consumers are worried about money or the economy this holiday season, according to a poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. As a result, many are cutting back on gifts, travel and decorations. But here's an idea for a gift that keeps on giving: 12 energy retro-fits that quickly pay for themselves and that will save you money well after the holidays have come and gone.

Use an Incense Stick to Spot Air Leaks
Turn on your home’s exhaust fans (or wait for a windy day) and hold an incense stick near your windows, doors, and electrical outlets. If the smoke blows sideways, you’ve got a leak that should be plugged with weatherstripping, caulk, or expandable foam. The incense trick can slash your energy bills by hundreds each year while chasing away the chills.

Check Furnace Filters
Do it once a month during the heating system to keep your system at peak efficiency. Vacuum and wash reusable filters. And replace disposable filters; new ones cost about $25—much smarter than shivering and paying a pro $200 to $300 if a clogged filter shuts down your heat.

Install a Programmable Thermostat
About 25 million homes now have one—but more than 90 million don’t. That could be costing them big bucks, since programmable thermostats help slice up to 10 percent off your yearly heating bills by automatically turning down temperatures 10 to 15 degrees for 8 hours a day. Consider going for a full 15 degrees when you’re away.

Insulate Hot-Water Heaters and Pipes
Does your water heater feel warm to the touch? Keep more of that heat inside the heater by wrapping it in an insulating blanket—about $20 or less at home centers. You can wrap hot pipes that run from the heater with foam. Also consider lowering your water-heater temperature from 130 degrees to 120 for a total annual savings of roughly $100.

Put in a Low-Flow Showerhead
Water heating alone accounts for nearly 15 percent of your energy bill. Low-flow showerheads can trim your home’s water use by up to 50 percent. Better yet, our sensory experts found many low-flow showerheads that provide a pleasing shower experience while still meeting the toughest, two-gallon-per-minute standard.

Stop Pre-Rinsing Dishes
Our dishwasher tests show that you can skip this work detail with most of today’s dishwashers—and save about $75 and up to 6,500 gallons of water per household per year.

Insulate Your Attic Door
Yes, heat rises. That’s why you want to keep it from escaping into an unheated attic. Whether you have pull-down stairs, an attic door, or a hatch, insulate that access with fiberglass or rigid foam-board insulation and weather stripping. You’ll even find pre-made insulated attic-stair covers at home centers or online.

Switch to Smarter Lightbulbs
CFL and LED bulbs use about 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. That adds up to a savings of some $52 per bulb for CFLs and $65 to $400 per bulb for LEDs over the life of the bulb. Today’s cost much less and work much better than earlier versions. And since both types last far longer, you won’t have to change bulbs as often.

Make your TV more efficient
That’s right—today’s TVs can eat up just as much energy as refrigerators. If you have a set-top box, like most homes, consider trading it for one that meets Energy Star’s tougher new 3.0 specification. And if you buy a new TV, make sure it’s set to “home mode” which is more efficient than the retail mode typically used when sets are shipped. The $30 to $60 in yearly savings could pay for dinner—and a movie.

Toss Old Plasma TVs and Refrigerators
Some of the early plasma televisions we tested in 2004 could cost more than $200 per year to run. Old energy-hungry fridges are no bargain either. Many home centers offer free haul-away and recycling of old fridges—if you buy the new refrigerator from them, of course.

Unplug Video Games
These do more than just eat into your kids’ homework time: They also draw lots of power, even when they’re off or in standby mode. Simply pulling the plug can put some $125 a year back in your pocket.

Put Your Computer to Sleep
Save $75 or more per computer per year by using the standby or hibernate setting. Just be sure to turn it completely off if you take it on the road, to protect the hard drive.

Copyrighted 2011, Consumers Unionof U.S., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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