10 Ways to Save Energy and Reduce Utility Bills at Home

Whatever your motivation, improving the energy efficiency of your home will leave you feeling like a winner.

By Devon Thorsby, Editor, Real Estate |June 17, 2016, at 3:23 p.m.

10 Ways to Save Energy and Reduce Utility Bills at Home

Slideshow

Cut down to save for the environment and your wallet.

Couple building house outline

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Taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of your home doesn’t only help to reduce your impact on the environment, it can also significantly lower your monthly utility bills. When it comes to deciding what appliances to replace or what new systems to install, consider what will provide the best improvement compared to the cost. “The most important step is to understand where investment makes the most sense,” says Alex Wilson, co-author of “The Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings” and founder of BuildingGreen, an information and consulting company serving green design. Here are 10 things you can do to save energy and money in your home.

Consult a professional.

Consult a professional.

Home inspection checking exterior of home being sold. Inspector is using digital tablet to record results.

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Every home is different, from the way it’s built to how it wears down over the years. To figure out where your home is wasting the most energy, you can get a professional energy audit, which typically costs between $218 and $550, according to HomeAdvisor. Depending on the company performing the audit, how thorough you want the report and where you live, it can take one to five hours – or more. “It would be an in-depth assessment to look how tight the home is – where there’s air leakage in the home,” Wilson says. An audit can tell you where insulation may be less effective, or where windows need weather treatment to better keep harsh outdoor temperatures from disrupting your indoor heating and cooling.

Or run a report yourself.

Or run a report yourself.

Close up of woman using cell phone touch screen

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If you can’t undertake the cost of a professional audit, there are options like HomeSelfe, a free app and web service powered by utility information company Energy Datametrics. HomeSelfe shows you how to input information about your home, including the type of lightbulbs used and the age of your refrigerator, to tell you where you can make improvements, from simple fixes to replacing old appliances.

Find rebates and tax credits for an upgrade.

Find rebates and tax credits for an upgrade.

Close up detail of George Washington's portrait on the US One Dollar Note.

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Any new product or appliance can offer better efficiency, but a homeowner’s first concern is often the initial cost of the improvement. The federal government and many state and local governments offer tax credits for energy upgrades to homes, and many companies offer rebates on heating and cooling systems, new water heaters and more. “Most consumers don’t know they’re out there,” says Ameeta Jain, co-founder of HomeSelfe. You can find local tax breaks and rebates through a simple web search, or pull together a HomeSelfe report, which provides local rebate options to help you save.

Replace your shower head.

Replace your shower head.

Shower head

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It might seem almost too simple, but swapping out an old shower head will reduce the rate of water flow, dropping your water usage without forcing you to take shorter showers. “By reducing the flow rate by two-thirds or three-quarters, as would happen if you replace a 20-year-old shower head with a new one, it can pay for itself within a matter of months,” Wilson says. Older shower heads can create a mist as well that will cool quickly and force you to use more hot water, he adds. Popular shower heads from Toto, Delta and DreamSpa all have significantly lower water flow rates than those manufactured 20 years ago, while continuing to offer highly desired "rain" showers.

Unplug what's not in use.

Unplug what's not in use.

Close up of cords plugged into power strip

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Another easy fix is one we all consider but don’t necessarily do: When you’re out for the day, unplug fixtures or switch off power strips not in use. Jain says getting in the habit of unplugging things as you leave your home can help to reduce “vampire energy,” or the power used up by appliances that aren’t on but are constantly plugged in. “Then in the morning when we unplug our phone, laptop, iPad, just turn the power strip off and you’re saving energy,” she says. You can even turn off the power source at the wall by replacing your existing outlet with a remote control outlet. Insteon offers a remote control dual on/off outlet, allowing you to cut the power on each plug independent of the others, for about $65.

Insulate or vent the attic.

Insulate or vent the attic.

Attic with insulation

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Because they’re largely unfinished, attics often don’t get the same insulation the walls of the rest of the home do, and as a result they are either cold in winter or extremely hot in summer. “Air conditioning is always trying to cool the floor below the attic,” says Sabine H. Schoenberg, a Connecticut-based real estate agent. By insulating the floor of the attic or installing solar-powered vents to help warm air escape during the summer and keep cold air from coming in during winter, your heating, ventilating and air conditioning system won’t have to work as hard to regulate temperatures inside.

Replace old systems.

Replace old systems.

An air conditioning unit in a garden in Palm Beach, Florida.

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The older your air conditioniner or water heater is, the less likely it is to employ technology that helps to increase its efficiency. And with age any appliance will require more energy to function properly. The federal government's Energy Star website can calculate the savings an Energy Star refrigerator can have over an old model: A 20-cubic-foot fridge made in 2000 would cost approximately $170 per year to run in California, compared to $63 annually to power an Energy Star-certified model of the same size. But appliances may not be your first priority. “I would have to say the biggest energy suck is the HVAC,” Jain says. Replacing an underperforming system will cost you upfront, but it will help reduce your regular utility bills moving forward.

Put solar panels on the roof.

Put solar panels on the roof.

Engineer installing solar panel on rooftop with drill

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It’s becoming increasingly common for multiple homes in a neighborhood to have rooftop solar panels, and Wilson says it’s for good reason: “The cost of solar panels has come down so much that it now becomes a very real solution.” Solar energy marketplace EnergySage reports the price of solar panels has decreased by about 12 percent in the last year, and combined with tax credits, the average 5-kilowatt solar energy system would cost a homeowner about $13,000. Solar panels on your property can cut up to 30 percent off your electricity bill, according to EnergySage.

Landscape strategically.

Landscape strategically.

Planting tree backyard

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What’s outside your home can reduce the stress on your HVAC and make it easier – and cheaper – to maintain your ideal temperature inside. When you’re planning landscaping, take into account the parts of the home the sun shines on. “Plant shade trees, or if there’s a shed that’s being built, have it shade the west side of the house that heats up most in the afternoon,” Wilson says. For homes in colder climates, Wilson recommends planting trees or bushes close to the home to block out wind, which tends to make the home work harder to heat the interior.

Don't buy a product you can't trust.

Don't buy a product you can't trust.

Woman looking at a product at the hardware store.

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There are always new products claiming energy efficiency, but you should always do your own research to feel confident you’re taking the right steps. Schoenberg says one product she warns against are compact fluorescent lightbulbs, which are energy efficient but give off a fluorescent, blueish tint and contain trace amounts of mercury. “There’s not one good thing I can say about them,” Schoenberg says. Instead, she recommends light-emitting diode lightbulbs, which are still more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs. Individuals or companies soliciting door-to-door or on the phone may also insist on energy-saving products, such as a particular attic insulation or solar panels. Always do thorough research before agreeing to anything to avoid poor installation or even outright theft of your money.

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Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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