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Easy Lost-Cost Ways to Lower Home Utility Costs

Nov 25, 2015 12:05AM ● By Megy Karydes

As temperatures dip, many of us are beginning to notice our gas and electricity bills rise because we’re spending more time at home. We’ve covered our windows with plastic and adjusted the thermostat to keep our indoors at a comfortable temperature, but there is more we can do that is inexpensive, easy to do over a weekend and allows us to still be mindful of our environmental impact. It is possible to make our living spaces more energy efficient, even if we’re not rich or have tons of time on our hands.

Our experts, all of whom are grantees of the nonprofit Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF) (iseif.org), which works to inform and engage Illinois consumers in the transformation to a digital electric grid, enthusiastically agree. We can easily reduce our electric costs while helping the environment by taking stock of what we’re already doing and where gaps still exist.

“We’re so pleased to see how the array of approaches by our grantees to inform consumers is meeting the needs of a variety of market segments and really helping ordinary people to navigate big technological changes for their own benefit and for the benefit of the environment,” says ISEIF Program Director Clare Butterfield.

Here are their top recommendations:

Mind the Gaps  “Little steps make a big difference on your winter heating bills,” says Laura Goldberg, environmental outreach coordinator with the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) (CitizensUtilityBoard.org). “Hidden gaps around doors, windows and vents can waste up to 15 percent of your heating and cooling dollars, but a trip to your local hardware store can fix that.” Goldberg recommends using caulk (around $3 to $10 for a 10-ounce tube) or weatherstripping (typically $1.50 to $20 per 10 feet) to seal gaps around doors and windows.

She also recommends checking to see if the insulation is even with or below the attic floor joints to see if it’s time to put in new insulation. Another place to consider adding insulation is the water heater, which often sits in a cold basement. “You can buy a blanket for about $20 to $40, and make sure the heater is set at 120 degrees,” she says.

She reminds homeowners that utilities offer rebates for efficiency improvements and products such as attic and wall insulation and duct sealing, so it’s worth a visit to a utility provider’s website to learn more.

Maximize Already Warm Air  Most of us don’t consider two simple air circulation methods: air vents and ceiling fans. Close unused air vents in the off season and make sure to use ceiling fans properly, says Lorena Lopez, outreach coordinator with Faith in Place (FaithInPlace.org). “If you have central air, you can close vents in rooms you’re not using so that you’re not paying to cool them, and vice versa in the winter,” she explains.

To help circulate warm air, make sure ceiling fans are moving in the correct direction, an adjustment easily made on the wall switch or the fan itself. “Fans should run counter-clockwise in the summer and clockwise in the winter. Turn them off in unoccupied rooms,” she adds.

Check the Thermostat   “Set your thermostat to the lowest comfortable temperature and lower the temperature five to 10 degrees before going to bed and when leaving home for more than four hours,” recommends Anna Markowski, community projects manager, Building Performance Institute-certified building analyst and building envelope professional (ElevateEnergy.org). “If you have a forced air heating system, replace or clean your furnace filters once a month. This is an easy and affordable way to clean the air in your home while reducing your energy costs. When filters are clogged with dirt, the furnace must work harder to emit warm air. A new clean filter will have your furnace buzzing with efficiency,” she says.

Because heating and cooling can burn nearly half of a household’s energy budget, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, it’s important to get this part right, and it’s an area in which most of us have room to improve, according to several studies. Traditional thermostats are big money-wasters, and even programmable thermostats rely too much on humans to set them right,” says Goldberg. “But new smart thermostats cut down on the human error and save you more than $100 a year—and these artful devices look great on your wall!”

A smart thermostat is an innovative piece of technology that allows consumers to remotely control temperature settings from a smartphone or tablet—eliminating wasted gas and electricity costs when the home is empty. “The devices, which are equipped with motion sensors, even ‘learn’ your behavior over time to automatically adjust temperature settings without lifting a finger,” notes Goldberg. 

“Through May 2016, northern Illinois residents are eligible for up to $120 in utility rebates for purchasing and installing ecobee and Nest smart thermostats, cutting their price tag nearly in half,” she notes. “That means these devices could pay for themselves within one or two years and then go on to generate hundreds of dollars in savings on future bills.” For those interested in learning more about the rebates, Goldberg recommends visiting the Environmental Law & Policy Center website, elpc.org.

Slay the Energy Dragons  Another easy tip for significant savings is using electrical power strips, says Kristen Pratt, sustainability manager at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (NatureMuseum.org). “Many electronic devices, especially the ones with that ever-glowing little light, are constantly drawing electricity, even when powered down,” she says.

“You can always unplug devices when they aren’t in use, but technological options exist, as well,” says Pratt. “If you use a power strip, you can switch the strip off when you’re done using the electronic device, and that will effectively cut off the electricity. You could also use a ‘smart strip’ for systems like your home entertainment devices or home office. If you plug your TV into the master outlet of the smart strip, turning off the TV will trigger a cut to the power to everything else on the strip (e.g., the speaker system, Blu-Ray player, DVD player, etc.).” Smart strips cost from $25 and up.

Goldberg recommends contacting the electric utility company before heading to the local hardware store to make a purchase. “Many offer them for free, or at least with discounts or rebates,” she says.

The bottom line is that there are plenty of ways to improve the household bottom line when it comes to gas and electricity bills this winter season. Most hardware stores have knowledgeable staff that will he happy to assist homeowners with their purchases and also take back anything that can’t be properly installed.

 

Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based writer. Learn more about her at MegyKarydes.com.

 

Get Rebates on Smart Thermostats
with New Initiative

Residents of northern Illinois are eligible for rebates of up to $120 on Nest Learning thermostat and ecobee3 smart thermostats that retail for $249, for customers with WiFi, central air and a furnace. Tinyurl.com/SmartThermostatRebates contains general information about the smart thermostat rebates offered by Illinois utilities. Specific information about each utility’s rebate application process is available by clicking on the logos.
Smart thermostats are WiFi-enabled devices that allow residents to easily control the heating and air conditioning settings in a home via smartphones, tablets and computers. The technology is smart because it adapts to user behavior over time and generate energy savings automatically. Residents remain comfortable when home and reduce wasted money on heating and cooling energy while away at work or on vacation.
Participants must be a ComEd/Nicor Gas/Peoples Gas/North Shore Gas customer; purchase and self-install a qualifying smart thermostat before May 31, 2016; have a working WiFi connection in the home and have a compatible central air conditioner, heat pump and/or electric heating system. Self-installation rebates are $100 from ComEd and $20 from the gas utility. Rebates are also available when using a professional contractor for installation.

Some other thermostats can be programmed to fit a schedule and lifestyle, with different settings for evenings or weekends. Smart thermostats may also be programmed, but they learn when people like which temperatures in what rooms and will automatically adjust to make them comfortable and also allow monitoring and control of the temperature from anywhere, using a smartphone or other web-enabled device.