My home energy bills keep going up — and I don't imagine I'm alone. But in addition to the usual solutions like "turn down your thermostat" and "switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs — or better yet, LEDs", I've discovered some high-tech tools that help save energy — and money.
The Department of Energy estimates that a home energy audit can cut your bills by as much as 30%. But a professional audit can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. So what can you do on your own?
First, do a visual inspection of your crawl spaces. When I had a professional energy auditor come to my house, the biggest efficiency loss they found was from heating ducts that had separated. In many homes, they find areas in the attic or under the floor that aren't insulated at all. Nothing that you can't discover and fix for yourself.
But I promised high tech tips. So here you go:
Infrared Thermal Leak Detector
An infrared thermal leak detector costs $40 and will find leaky, drafty areas that could use some new caulk or weather stripping, or even identify hidden "soft spots" in your insulation — places where insulation is missing or has settled in your walls or in other hard-to-see areas. Sure, you could walk around and feel for cool spots with you hand, but a good gadget is way more fun — and more accurate. This tool also works for hot spots in the summer; places where a lack of insulation allows air-conditioned cool air to leak out.
Your electric bill can tell you that your costs are going up, but it can't tell you which appliances are really to blame. Plug the "Kill-A-Watt" in between your appliances and the wall to find out how much each of your devices is really costing you. Then you can compare that number to published numbers for new appliances, to figure out how much you could save by upgrading to a more energy-efficient model.
Using the Kill-A-Watt, I found that my 15 year-old fridge uses about two kWh per day. A new one would use about half that. If I replaced my fridge today, I could save about 40 bucks a year. For me, that's too long a payback period, but you could easily discover that you'd save 100 bucks a year — then it starts making sense.
Even more than your refrigerator, heating and cooling probably take the biggest chunk out of your home energy dollar. While better insulation is almost always worth the money, here's a much cheaper idea: With a programmable thermostat, you can set your heater or air conditioner to take a break when you're asleep or out of the house, and turn back on just before you get home. A bare-bones model costs about $25; you can install it yourself; and it could pay for itself in a single month. The new NEST programmable thermostat, designed by the original designer of the iPod, is a bit pricier. But you can control it from a smart phone, and it even programs itself.
Smart Power Strips
Leaving your home entertainment system devices on all the time can add up to $67 a year of wasted energy. The energy-saving Smart Strip senses when you turn off your TV, and will simultaneously shut off your peripherals.
And I know I should turn off the power strip under the desk to thwart the vampire energy suckers, or at Christmas I know I should go out and turn off the lights, but I often don't. Enter the remote control power strip. Click, and it cuts the juice.
Brad Marshland contributed to this story. Special thanks to Filmsight Productions for additional footage.
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