The New Home Ec: Saving Electricity Every Day

It is difficult to feel responsible about something that’s relatively cheap, that you can’t see, don’t understand and take for granted. When I realized how ignorant I was about the way things work, I thought of my high school days, when girls had to take Home Economics, and learn to cook and sew, while the boys took Shop, and learned about things like electricity and plumbing. I’ve decided that this is the time in my life for a new kind of Home Economics.

Personal change is not the same as social change—and that’s what we need. Lots of political energy right now is aimed at a large-scale overhaul. But as individuals, we can still make a surprising difference in cutting carbon emissions, starting at home. Read on for some easy ways to save money on your electric bill.

Turn down the thermostat on your hot water heater. We generally make the water much hotter than is necessary; think about how much cold water you have to add to the mix to get a temperature comfortable for your skin. If appropriate, have a timer installed on the hot water heater too; most of us have pretty regular patterns of hot water use and don’t need the heater working all day long.

Wash your clothes in cold water. And use a non-polluting cold-water detergent. It really does work just as well.

Buy a drying rack. Use it in the bathroom for hanging those wet clothes. After the spin cycle on your new front loader, laundry isn’t that wet anyway. I tried using a clothesline but got turned off by the souvenirs left behind by birds. By the way, that lint in your dryer means your clothes are getting thinner. (At least throw it outside for the birds and mice to use in making their nests.)

Shut off your freezer. One day I realized that I had half an appliance running full force for one box of frozen peas and a pint of ice cream. Why? If you don’t depend heavily on frozen foods, shut off the freezer. (And just buy ice next time your friends come for Whiskey Sours.)

Buy more efficient appliances. If your appliances are old—more than 25 years—and you can afford it, the energy savings will be large. Find out about rebates and tax breaks.

Change HVAC filters regularly. Maintain the equipment you have diligently—get to know it, and care for it. Learn your way around your basement. Ask your plumber or your electrician to explain what you have; I’ve found that people are delighted that you are interested enough in their work to want to understand it.

Turn down the heat. Wear those sweaters that are piled up in the closet. And tuck small blankets around your legs when you are curled up with a book.

Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. The quality of light has improved radically in the last few years, so if you gave up on CFLs a while back, try again.

Turn off the lights when you aren’t in a room. And if you can’t get family members to remember, or cooperate, install motion detectors to do the job.

Turn off the lights when you are in a room. Try candlelit family dinners every night. You’ll be astonished at how calming—and bonding—it is. Your children might even use their restaurant voices at home.

Install efficient flow showerheads. You can cut hot water consumption by 40% or more simply by replacing your showerhead. And time your showers. Even more important: time your teenagers’ showers.

Turn everything off when you don’t need it. And watch closely. The single largest new source of electricity use in your home is all the electronic gadgets that don’t turn off, but instead stand by. Plug these into a power strip and turn it off when you’re done for the day.

Insulation, insulation, insulation. If you do one remodeling project this year, inject new insulation into your walls or replace the old stuff in your attic. Why let your precious hot or cool air leak away?

For more tips about how each one of us cans save energy, go to the EPA's Climate Change Action Steps.

10 Responses

Comment from Stephen Bushway
November 6th, 2009 at 3:35 pm

When I was doing energy audits and had access to low flow shower heads I used one dutifully for a few years and lived with un-satisfying showers. One day I realized that, with a good flowing shower, I'd get the job done quicker, be more inclined to shut off the water between soaping up and rinsing, and feel more satisfied and refreshed at the end. The assumptions were all true and I've never looked back. I eat by candle light but when I take a shower, I want to feel some water running over my bod, not some kind of mini-pressure washer on me.
Thanks for reading. Hope you were listening.

Comment from jeanathome
November 6th, 2009 at 5:44 pm

Thanks for all the suggestions. Some we've already started doing . . . others we'll give a try.

About hot water heaters . . . we've gone one step futher and installed an instant hot water heater in place of the old hot water tank. Now we only heat water when we need it.

Because both our old and new hot water heaters are gas, the only electricity we use is to start the heater. However, our natural gas usage plummeted when we did this conversion.

Comment from Don
November 6th, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Stephen, try a different shower head, I don't think they are all the same. We have a 1.6 gpm showerhead by Hans Grohe. It gives a very satisfying shower and the low flow rate helps our tankless water heater keep up despite the cold incoming water temp in the winter.

Comment from Judy
November 6th, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Please do not recommend using dryer lint for bird nesting material. This is not recommended by many experts, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
See http://bit.ly/4Eeida and http://bit.ly/20QWsV among other sources.

Otherwise a great article!

Comment from gogreen24
November 7th, 2009 at 2:02 am

While I have all florescent lights, low flow showerheads, electrical gadgets plugged into power strips, my most satisfying move was to sign up for 100% renewable energy from my power company.

Comment from Ravi Kumar Bezwada
November 7th, 2009 at 4:20 am

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Comment from dlsunshine
November 7th, 2009 at 4:54 am

Although many of these suggestions are helpful, we need to remember that energy is NOT CHEAP. Here in Appalachia, we have lost mountains, health, and lives due to coal mining and burning, and to uranium enrichment for nuclear plants. Producing electricity is destroying the planet and killing us. People may feel better when conserving energy at home, but please remember the true costs of coal and nuclear power. We must transition into truly renewable forms of energy now.

A word about florescent light bulbs – they contain mercury and most people don't know they need to be disposed of as toxic waste. Most will go into landfills. Worse, if they break in your home, they need to be cleaned up like a toxic site. They also affect brain wave function and hormone production. They are not a good answer to this problem. Many are made in China and they have no regulations regarding the amount of mercury in each bulb. Please say NO to CFLs!

Comment from MamaBearNJ
November 7th, 2009 at 7:46 am

Since getting a showerhead that I can take down off the wall and aim at the area I'm trying to wash, I take much quicker showers, which must be saving water. I wonder if this would work for others.

Comment from Steve
November 7th, 2009 at 2:14 pm

The advice to turn down the water heater also ends up making showers much simpler. If you get the water heater adjusted just right, you don't need any cold water at all. This allows one to turn the water off mid-shower and scrub down thoroughly, then turn it back on to rinse, without having to fiddle with the hot and cold to adjust the temperature. Works particularly well in the summer, when the last thing one wants in the house is more heat and humidity.

In response to dlsunshine's comment, I wish folks who scare people away from CFLs would give their sources. People have been using fluorescents for decades–and thermometers and thermostats, both of which have many times more mercury than CFLs. CFLs reduce the amount of mercury in the environment, since their efficiency reduces the amount of mercury being broadcast by power plants. Brainwave function and hormone production affected by CFLs? Is this connection proven and acknowledged by a majority of researchers?

Comment from Benjamin
November 7th, 2009 at 6:06 pm

LED lights are on the verge of overtaking CFLs for energy saving. They are even more efficient than the CFLs and come on to full brightness instantly. To produce the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb, a CFL uses less than 25 percent of the electricity and an LED bulb as little as 10 percent. The downside at this time are their lower available power and higher price.

However, there are a few models available that will put out an amount of light sufficient for some purposes and not too expensive. (A few months ago I found a 40 watt equivalent at the hardware store for less than $10.) It isn't too soon to buy a few now for low light purposes, especially for locations where you leave them on a lot.

I am already fully converted to CFLs but if I had no CFLs at all I would probably just buy a few for heavily used areas and put off occasional-use locations for a year or two until the LEDs became brighter and less expensive. (Then swap the LEDs for the CFLs and move the old CFLs to the occasional-use areas.)

I wouldn't want to invest heavily in CFLs now because they will be obsolete long before they burn out.

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