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Energy efficiency: What it is and how to be more energy-efficient

Energy efficiency means conserving energy in two different ways: using less energy and using existing energy more effectively. Like time and money, energy can be stretched or wasted, depending on your choices. By keeping energy efficiency in mind, you can cut back on your use of electricity, oil, natural gas, coal, and other resources without altering your quality of life substantially.

Why Be Energy Efficient?

If you’re like most Americans, you’re paying hundreds of dollars a year more than you should to heat and cool your home, drive your car, and maintain your lawn and garden. But you don’t necessarily have to give up your personal comforts and preferences to practice energy efficiency in your home and car. All you have to do is make a few smart changes to cut back on unnecessary energy use.

Practical Benefits of Energy Efficiency

By reducing the amount of energy you use, you can:

  • Save money
  • Help the environment
  • Contribute to public health

Save Money

The most immediate way you’ll benefit from implementing an energy efficiency plan in your home is by saving money. You’ll save some money right away, and some over a period of months or years.

According to a University of Michigan study, the average American homeowner can reduce his or her bills by up to 65% by becoming energy efficient. Depending on how much your home utility bills are costing you now, that could mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars of savings in just a few years.

  • Reduce up-front costs for utility bills: After you initiate energy-saving tips around your house, you should notice a difference on your first energy bill. Larger-scale changes cost money up front—but over longer periods of time, these changes will pay for themselves, and the additional savings will go right in your pocket. You can also save additional money through rebates and tax credits when you make energy-saving home improvements.
  • Tax incentives: The Energy Policy Act of 2005 entitles you to a tax credit (not a tax deduction, but money credited directly to your tax return) for energy-efficient improvements to your home. You can take a tax credit of up to 10% of the cost of eligible windows, skylights, exterior doors, insulation, furnaces, water heaters, and ductwork.
  • Rebates: Depending on where you live, your state may offer rebates for purchases of energy-efficient appliances, certain kinds of home improvements, or the replacement of inefficient heating or cooling units. Contact your state’s tax office to learn more.

Help the Environment

As the population of the United States continues to grow, so does our energy use. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, are burned to produce electricity as well as to heat and cool our homes. These resources are nonrenewable (meaning they will run out one day) and contribute to serious environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, global warming, and toxin distribution.

The average household in the United States produces about 60 tons of carbon dioxide, a major global warming gas, every year—almost twice what a similar European family produces. About 52% of electricity in the United States is generated by burning coal, which produces sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain), arsenic (which poisons drinking water), and ozone (which causes haze). Burning natural gas and oil also contributes to global warming, local air pollution, and toxins in lakes, streams, and rivers. By using alternative forms of energy and curbing your power usage in even the smallest ways, you can contribute to a healthier planet for yourself and generations to come.

Contribute to Public Health

According to the World Health Organization, more than 100,000 people die from diseases associated with emissions produced during the creation of electricity. Smog, which is created from the emissions of power plants and from the tailpipes of cars, leads to lung inflammation, higher rates of asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. It affects the lungs of children more significantly than those of adults. Mercury from coal-burning power plants, which contributes to neurological and other health problems, has been found in fish, birds, and mammals, including humans (and in human breast milk).

By using less energy, you contribute directly to cleaner air and water in both your local community and, because air travels long distances, other parts of the world.

Get Started Being Energy Efficient

Once you’re ready to take action, the next step is to find ways to start making energy efficiency a reality in your life.

Get Familiar with ENERGY STAR

ENERGY STAR is a program that was developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy in 1992 to reduce carbon emissions and conserve energy by helping consumers and business owners identify and choose energy-efficient products and practices. When you see the tell-tale blue ENERGY STAR label on appliances, building products, electronics, and other items for the household, you know that they meet the strict standards set by ENERGY STAR.

Determine How Much Energy Your Home Uses

The first step toward making energy-efficient changes is to understand the amount of energy your home and car use. The ENERGY STAR program’s website (www.energystar.gov) is an easy tool for figuring out how much energy you use. Just click on the button that says “Home Energy Yardstick” under the “Home Improvement” heading, and you’ll be directed to an online calculator that takes into account your location and the kind of fuel that your home uses. Make sure you have 12 months’ worth of bills to look at. (If you’re buying a new house, consider asking for the utility bills from the previous owners to help get an idea of how much energy the house uses.)

Determine How Much Energy Your Car Uses

Use the equation below to calculate the amount of money that your car is costing you in gas and oil each year:

  1. Miles you drive per year ÷ fuel economy of your car (miles per gallon) = S (Example: 10,000 miles driven per year driven ÷ 30 miles per gallon = 333 gallons of gas used)
  2. S × average price of gas per gallon = R (Example: 333 gallons gas used × $3.00 = $999 dollars per year in gas)
  3. Oil changes per year × price per oil change = Y
  4. R + Y = the amount you spend annually on gas and oil

Prioritize Your Energy-Efficient Changes

Knowing which changes to make first and which can wait will help you maximize your energy savings without breaking the bank. Once you take into account the ages of your appliances and other units, the frequency with which you use them, and the size of your current budget, you’ll be in a more informed position to start prioritizing.

  • Replace old appliances, water heaters, and furnaces first: New units tend to be much more efficient than older ones. For example, a furnace from the 1970s might have 50–60% efficiency, whereas one bought in recent years could have up to 97% efficiency.
  • Determine which units you use most often: There’s no sense in replacing a dishwasher that you use only occasionally, even if it’s an energy waster. But if your air conditioner is old and you keep it on all summer, it’s best to replace it.
  • Figure out what you can afford now: Don’t forget to consider rebates, savings on your utility bills, and money in your bank accounts.

Seasonal Energy-Efficient Changes

Some energy-efficient changes make more sense in certain seasons than they do in others. For example, it makes more sense to replace your furnace or windows in September, when winter is approaching, than it does in March, when warm weather is on its way. Buying a new air conditioner right before the weather gets hot would be more sensible than doing so in January.

Begin by making a list of the items you think should be replaced. Then rank them in order of which ones should be purchased first based on the time of year.

Low- or No-Cost Energy-Efficient Changes

Some changes are easy to make and cost nothing, or almost nothing, to implement.

  • Turn off the switch: The fastest, easiest, and least expensive way to start saving money on your energy bills is to turn off lights when you’re not using them and to shut down your computer or TV if you’ll be away from it for more than a few minutes. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take more energy to turn a light or a computer on and off a couple times than it does to keep it running for hours. That idea is based on outdated technologies. These days, it’s cheaper to turn the power off and on as needed—there are even products designed for this kind of use. According to ENERGY STAR, you can save $25–$75 per year by activating power management features on your desktop PC. Consumer Reports®, a leading consumer information organization, indicates that by putting your computer to “sleep” for 12 hours per day, you can save about $44 per year—and 576 pounds of carbon emissions.
  • Turn your temperature up or down: Adjusting your thermostat just a few degrees lower in the winter and higher in the summer will save you more money than you may think. Consider wearing an extra layer in the winter instead of turning up the heat, and supplementing your air conditioning with portable fans in the summer.
  • Install a programmable digital thermostat: Switching to a programmable digital thermostat takes just a few minutes and usually costs less than $50, depending on what kind of thermostat you buy. By setting your thermostat so that your home is cooler during the winter, when you’re away, and when you’re asleep, and warmer during the summer and when you’re home, you’ll save hundreds of dollars a year. As a bonus, you’ll always wake up and return to a comfortable house.
  • Insulate: Do you feel a cold draft coming from under the door or a window that won’t close properly? Such openings cost you money in lost heat. Stuff holes with cloth, or use duct tape or sticky tape to block the breeze. Windows and doors are the places through which a house loses most of its heat.
  • Use storm doors and windows: Don’t keep your storm doors and windows in the basement every winter—use them year-round. They help insulate your house, making it cozier and cheaper to heat.
  • Seal windows with plastic: You can find plastic for home sealing at most home improvement stores. Using plastic is even more effective than stopping up a drafty window during the cooler months. Easy to install, this extra layer of insulation (formed by the air that’s trapped between your window and the plastic) is a great alternative if you don’t have storm windows—and another protective layer between you and the elements, even if you do.
  • Use window treatments: Close curtains and blinds at night in the winter (when it’s coldest) and during the day in the summer (to keep the sun out). Those extra layers will keep the heat in during cold months and out during warm ones. On winter days, open draperies to take advantage of the sun’s natural heat.

Signs That Your Home Is Not Energy Efficient

Do you think that your home is already energy efficient? If you have any of these common problems, you could be wasting precious energy:

  • Drafty rooms: Unsealed windows and doors let cold air in and warm air out.
  • Cold floors: A chill underfoot could be a sign that there isn’t enough insulation under the floors.
  • Damp basement: This can come from moisture migrating through your house’s foundation.
  • Musty/moldy smells: This can arise from water leaks.
  • Dry air: This may mean that warmer, more humid air is leaking out of the house.
  • Icicles: This can mean that warm air is leaking into the space under the roof and melting snow, which refreezes as it runs off the roof.
  • Dust: Ductwork might not be sealed properly.
  • Temperature differences between rooms: This can mean that one room is less insulated than another.
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