While the rich and famous may be able to afford expensive solar panel installations or hyperefficient $2 million homes, even those of us with (much) less money can make a dent in the amount of energy we consume. What follows is a small list of steps almost every one of us can and should take to reduce our energy use. Our particular motivation - to walk more lightly on the earth, to live more frugally, or to direct more money to humanitarian organizations rather than large utility companies - isnt as important as is making some change. While up-front costs for some of these steps can seem daunting, your investment will be recouped in later energy savings.
Putting the heating and cooling of your house aside for a moment, the next two biggest energy hogs in the average U.S. household are lights and the refrigerator.
Lights. The first real step for many of us is to change our mindset: Turn lights off as you leave a room. No exceptions. Never leave a room lit when you arent in it. Thats simple and free.
Then, replace your regular incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent ones. These can be purchased at some chain stores in packages of six or eight at a time. While such a pack of bulbs can cost around $10, they pay for themselves easily. The brighter compact florescent bulbs, with light output equivalent to 70 or 100 watt standard bulbs, will cost more but are still a good investment. The bulbs last virtually forever. The wattage is radically lower than that of regular incandescent bulbs, which actually put more of their energy consumption into heat than they do light. We have them in every light in our house except the inside refrigerator light - 40 bulbs in all. Your electric bill will drop noticeably if you replace the majority of your bulbs. Note that they take about 10 to 15 seconds to reach full brightness.
The worst lights are halogen torchiere floor lamps. These are lamps that use upward-pointing halogen bulbs. The lamps are cheap to buy ($15 or so) but typically cost two to three times that much in annual energy costs.
Refrigerator. If your refrigerator is more than 10 years old, you could donate it to a shelter or a family in need and buy a new energy-efficient one. Some fairly radical designs, like those made by Sun Frost, are very expensive. But mainstream stores such as Sears sell more affordable and quite efficient models. Look for the Energy Star logo, but note that this energy efficiency rating is based on comparing refrigerators of similar size, so dont buy larger than you need. Avoid side-by-side refrigerator/freezers, units with automatic icemakers, and through-the-door cold water dispensers. These all use 10-to-20 percent more energy than similarly sized models with the freezer on top and no icemaker or water dispenser.
Once those energy hogs are out of the way....
Insulation. If you have an attic that is used for storage (as opposed to living space), put lots of insulation in the attic floor. An insulation value of R-38 is now recommended, but even getting to R-30 would be great. Increasing the level of insulation from 2-to-3 inches (R-5) to 8-to-14 inches (R-30) can save $100 to $150 per year for every 1,200 square feet of ceiling area. This easily pays for itself in one winter if you live in a cold climate. (Here is an easy test: Look at houses after a snowfall. If everyone else has snow on their roof and yours is melting away, its likely because all your heat is going out through the roof!)
Replace all your old, single-pane windows. This is a big-ticket item and requires a fair amount of cash or a loan to accomplish. It is worth considering, however, because regarding heat loss a single-pane window has the same insulation value as an open window. All it does is stop the wind. Your house will feel warmer and you will consume a lot less with double-pane windows. Things to read up on are low-conductivity gas fill, thickness of the airspace between panes, and tinting. All of these features will increase efficiency but will also add substantially to the cost.
Turn down your hot water heater thermostat. If you have an electric one, put a $10 timer on it so that it is only on in the morning for the few hours when you need it most for showers. After that, the insulated tank will keep the water plenty hot for general use.
Buy a digital thermostat that turns on and off a few times a day. These are fairly inexpensive to buy and easy to install. These devices can be set to automatically turn on the heat just before you get up in the morning, turn it down when you leave for work, turn it back on as you come home, and turn it down as you go to bed. It means that you dont ever forget to turn it down. You should obviously turn the heat up only as high as you need it.
Keep your computer another year or two. Most people dont need a new computer as often as the industry pushes them on us. If you are going to buy one, dont buy all the bells and whistles. Do look for a large hard drive and lots of memory. That way you wont have to buy another one for a long time.
Switch to rechargeable batteries. NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) are best. Batteries are a major source of heavy metals that get into our food and water. Rechargeables cost more initially but will pay for themselves if you use them often.
If every American unplugged their TVs when not in use (or put them on a timer or power strip that they can easily turn off) we would save 9 billion - yes, billion - kilowatt-hours of energy. Modern TVs constantly draw power to keep the tube primed to turn on instantly. Hook your TV to a timer that gives it power when you first would normally use it and cuts power at night. (For instance, we watch the news and occasionally late-night TV. Our timer turns on power to the TV from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., cutting power for nearly 18 hours of the day.)
Dont wash your clothes in hot water. Or at least almost never. We have not used hot water for laundry for about 10 years and "our whites are still white." If you cant break that habit and are in the market for a new washing machine, buy a front-loading washer. While a front-loading washer can cost $500 more to purchase, you may realize annual savings of $100 or more in water and water heating bills because it uses much less water than a conventional unit.
You can make or buy "window quilts" that fit snugly in window frames. Heat loss at night is profound, even with replacement windows. Window quilts have insulation that slows, or almost stops, heat loss through the windows at night. You can be creative and make them works of art on the inside, the outside, or both.
Use the AC only when you are really uncomfortable. Dont demand that the air in your house be always refreshingly cool. Most people in the world cant afford that luxury. Use air conditioning only when it is miserably hot and humid. If you are going to buy an AC unit, check the energy ratings. Many older central air conditioners have seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) ratings of only 6 or 7. The national efficiency standard for central air conditioners now requires a minimum SEER of 10, and to qualify for an Energy Star label requires a SEER of 13 or higher.
Avoid buying electric gadgets. Buy a high-quality, hand-cranked eggbeater and a manual can opener. We get little enough exercise as it is!
Walk instead of driving. Combine errands. Buy a hybrid. So much can be said about car use, but to put it succinctly: Use it less.
There are other steps to take. Some take time, others money - start where you can. Whether for your spirituality and to simplify your lifestyle, for connection to the billions of people in the world who have less, or for the care of the air, water, and soil of our earth, make a change. Make a difference.
Scot DeGraf lives in Mount Rainier, Maryland, and is a technology coordinator, part-time teacher, and recycling advocate at a school in Washington, D.C.