Baby, it’s cold outside.
And once the temperature drops, those utility bills start to rise—which can leave you and your bank account caught off guard.
The energy-savvy among us may already have a leg up on some power-saving moves, such as sealing the cracks around our doors or lowering our thermostats. But there’s a lot more you can do to offset that painful spike in utility costs—and it won’t involve expensive appliance upgrades or using TaskRabbit to find someone to make retrofits around the house.
We tapped experts to provide seven easy-on-the-wallet tips that will help lower your home’s energy use this winter with minimal effort from you—and you may even be able to use a few of them to save green all year-round.
1. Keep Your Hot Water Heater Cozy
Snuggling up with a good, warm blanket once the cold streak hits is likely a part of your winter ritual—and it’s also a good idea for your hot water heater, too.
Kerry Urbaniak, lead electronics instructor at the Ecotech Institute in Aurora, Colo., suggests wrapping a special insulating blanket around your water heater to minimize the amount of heat that escapes from it. “Depending on your [energy-usage] habits, you can get a 20% increase in savings by putting a wrap on it,” he says.
Luckily, water heater insulating blankets run in the $20 to $30 range, and you may be able to get discounts or rebates from your utility that help lower the cost further. Some utilities may even offer to install them for you at little to no extra cost (although you can find DIY instructions here).
Urbaniak also suggests keeping the appliance’s temperature setting at 120 degrees, which should be high enough to meet a typical household’s hot-water needs while also minimizing heat loss. “For every degree you set it above 120, you’re losing efficiency,” he adds.
And don’t shut your hot water heater off if you’re leaving town for the holidays. Rather, just turn the temperature down: “It’s costlier to let it cool down completely and then have to heat it back up again,” Urbaniak says.
2. Pay Attention to Your Pan Size
How many times have you stuck a tiny pot on a giant stove burner because it happened to be the only one without a dirty dish lying on top of it?
You may be inclined to stop that bad habit once you realize how much energy you’ve been wasting: According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a six-inch pan placed on an eight-inch burner wastes more than 40% of the heat produced—so try to match your pot or pan size as closely as possible to the size of the heating element.
Cleanliness is also an energy-efficiency virtue when it comes to your stove: Wipe up splashes and spills on your reflector pans because they’ll better reflect heat when they shine, according to Kurt Blumenau, a spokesperson for PPL Electric Utilities, based in Allentown, Pa.
One other quick kitchen tip? Whenever possible, use a crock pot, pressure cooker or microwave to make your meal—all three use less wattage than an oven or stove. “Slow cookers and microwaves can cut as much as 50% of energy consumption, compared to other appliances like ranges or ovens,” says Lise Dirlam, a faculty instructor also with the Ecotech Institute.
3. Go Dark—With Your Curtains
You already know that window drafts are bad news for your energy bill—but did you know that the color of your curtains could also make a difference?
“Dark curtains help absorb sunlight and can take a passive solar approach,” says Urbaniak. He adds that in the winter, more light is also likely to enter your house because all the leaves that may normally block the sun’s rays have fallen to the ground.
Urbaniak uses this tip for his own home. He has louvered blinds installed on his sliding glass doors for privacy, but because they don’t provide much insulation, he covers them with dark drapes for the winter months.
4. Avoid a Deep Freeze in Your Fridge
We know, you like your water pitcher icy cold. But by keeping your refrigerator at icicle-forming temps, you’re paying for more chill than you need: According to the Department of Energy, the optimal temperature to keep your fridge is between 36 and 38 degrees, while your freezer should be between 0 and 5 degrees.
Urbaniak adds that it’s worthwhile to take a vacuum to the refrigerator’s coils to get rid of the dust and grime that can build on this oft-forgotten spot. “When the coils are clogged, heat doesn’t transfer as fast, so the motor has to work harder—which wastes energy and depletes the life of the fridge,” he says.
5. Give Your Radiators Room to Breathe
Forget feng shui. There’s another type of energy flow to keep in mind when it comes to your furnishings: “Make sure none of your furniture is blocking the radiator or the vents in the floor,” Urbaniak says. “If you interfere with the heat source, it will have to work harder.”
Also, if you’re thinking of painting a radiator to make it more aesthetically pleasing, you might want to think twice. “If there’s paint on it, it acts as an insulator—leaving it bare metal makes it more efficient,” Dirlam says.
If your heat comes through registers, you can also conserve energy by closing the ones in the rooms you’re not actively using. For example, if no one is in the bedrooms during the day, you can keep them closed until it’s time to sleep, suggests Urbaniak.
6. Create Better Light Bulb Moments
Even if you haven’t swapped out those old incandescents, you can still get more bang from your lighting buck with some careful placement: Positioning your lamps in corners will better illuminate your space because both walls will reflect the light back into the room, says Jorge Mastropietro, AIA, founder of JMA, a New York-based architecture firm with experience in low-energy passive design.
And don’t forget to dust off those bulbs—dirt can absorb as much as 50% of the light, according to Blumenau.
Ultimately, though, when your old bulbs burn out, you’ll want to upgrade to more energy-efficient versions for long-term cost savings. According to the Department of Energy, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) use only a quarter of the energy of incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer; Light emitting diodes (LED) bulbs use about 20% to 25% of incandescents and last up to 25 times longer.
7. Be Aggressive About Passive Energy
You’re likely already familiar with the notion that electricity-sucking “vampire” appliances are adding unnecessarily to your utility bill. But realistically, you can’t unplug all the tech in your house every day—so where should you be focusing your energy (pun intended)?
Here’s a hint: “Anything that can use a remote control is always drawing power,” Dirlam says. So while you may be loathe to unplug your big-screen TV or DVR every day (lest you lose the latest episode of your favorite hit show), you could probably stand to turn off your stereo equipment, speakers or DVD player, for instance.
An easy way to stop their passive energy use is to plug those energy suckers into the same power strip and then shut the power strip off each night, suggests Dirlam. Otherwise, she says, “they’re always on, even in standby mode.”