In this week's installment of USA TODAY's Taming your budget-busting bills series we look at how to lower your energy costs and save on your electricity bill.
Electric bills are kind of a mystery. You always remember to turn off the lights before you leave, so why is your bill still sky high?
The average household spends about $112 a month on energy bills and prices are steadily rising, according to the Energy Information Administration.
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The first step to demystifying your electricity bill, and hopefully reducing it, is to take stock of where you use the most energy.
"Cutting energy waste results in energy savings, but it also translates into money savings," said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition that promotes energy efficiency.
You can find a professional energy auditor to help you assess your home's energy use, potentially for free, through your electric company or the Department of Energy’s website. If you follow their efficiency upgrade recommendations, you could shave 5% to 30% off your energy bill.
Free and easy lifestyle changes can add up
Heating and cooling takes up the largest chunk of your monthly energy bill, but cutting back doesn't have to mean being uncomfortable.
Callahan recommends cleaning your heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) unit every 30 days to keep the system running efficiently. “If you’ve got clogged or dirty filters, you’re just using more energy to push that air through,” she said.
Keeping the blinds open in the winter and closed in the summer can also reduce the burden on your HVAC system, she added.
Using a ceiling fan instead of your air conditioner can keep temperatures and costs low in the summer.
These three steps combined can save you anywhere from $62 to $118 per year, Energy Impact Illinois estimates.
Water heaters are typically large energy consumers and Callahan suggests lowering the temperature on your water heater from the standard 140°F to 120°F.
Washing your clothes in cold water can cut costs since about 90% of the electricity consumed by washing machines is used to heat the water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that can save the average household up to $40 per year. Air drying your clothes can further reduce energy consumption and save you money.
A typical American home has 40 products that are constantly drawing power, even if they're not in use. This is responsible for 10% of your electricity use, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Energy vampires, like your phone charger, computer and coffeemaker, can cost the average household $100 a year, according to the Energy Deparment, and should always be unplugged when not in use.
“An easy way to do this and make sure it all gets done is to have a power strip,” said Callahan. Power strips make it easy to unplug everything at once, and smart power strips automatically cut power to devices that are in standby mode.
If you're diligent, you can cut your standby power consumption by 30%, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reports.
Although you probably only interact with your utility company when it's time to pay the bill, Dr. Iain Walker, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, recommends checking its website for savings opportunities.
Some utility companies offer rebate programs and off-peak rates which can be up to 30% cheaper, Walker said. "There's a lot of good stuff out there," he said.
Customers can capitalize on this by "load shifting," or saving energy-intensive activities until the rates are low.
Long-term investments: Bigger savings
Behavioral changes do add up, but you have to alter your home to really make a difference in energy consumption, Walker said. Long-term savings come from bigger investments, like getting new windows or proper insulation.
If you're planning on upgrading your appliances, many companies and states offer rebates that make it cheaper to purchase energy saving technology, like LED bulbs or Energy Star certified appliances.
"The more you spend, the more you save," he said.
• Seal leaks, doors and windows. Homeowners should start by buying cheap caulk and weatherstripping, Callahan says. This can reduce energy use by at 15% to 30% on your heating and cooling costs each year, the Department of Energy estimates.
"Those cracks and leaks can be the equivalent of a 3-foot-by-3-foot window open all the time," Callahan said.
• Buy a programmable thermostat. For as little as $20, you can automatically set your thermostat back 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day. Doing so can save up to 10% on your heating and cooling costs, according to the Department of Energy.
"That’s a great way to make sure that you’re not wasting energy when no one’s home except the goldfish," she said.
• Install or add insulation. Insulation can cut your costs but estimated savings vary depending on your location and fuel type.
"There are many utility programs out there that will give you a pretty good rebate if you add insulation to your home," Walker said.
Both experts recommend switching to LED bulbs, which last much longer and are 90% more efficient than traditional bulbs.
Replacing your five most used lights with Energy Star approved LED bulbs can save you $75 per year.
"Don't throw out good equipment, but if you’re in the market or the systems are getting old, buy the most efficient items," said Callahan.
Energy efficient appliances sometimes cost more upfront, but can save you money in the long run.