Ways to improve energy efficiency at home

Source unknown. Image shows heat loss from the old (right) part of the building compared to the newer section with improved thermal transmittance characteristics.

We can’t do without electricity, gasoline, or natural gas. It takes energy to cook our food, run tools and toys, heat our homes, and get from one place to another. Energy efficiency means using energy and not wasting it.

Energy efficiency matters. Even our cleanest technologies have bad environmental effects:

  • Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It burns cleaner than coal, but it still burns, releasing pollutants into the air.
  • Solar power relies on mining a wide variety of minerals, some of them uncommon. Mining anything has environmental consequences. Take a single element, lithium. It’s not a long-term solution for energy storage, but it’s the best we have now. We need it for a lot more than energy. The more we use for batteries, the more costs will rise for medicine and other uses. 
  • Wind power comes from bigger and bigger turbines. The blades are gigantic. Transporting them is a costly, difficult process that requires a lot of fuel. It ties up traffic and damages roads. Blades are not reusable or recyclable.  So when a turbine reaches the end of its useful  life, it becomes an environmental headache.
  • Electric vehicles don’t use gas, but they use lithium. And some of the electricity needed to charge the batteries still comes from coal-fired plants.

The less energy we use, the less we have to generate. And the fewer or smaller generating installations we need to provide it. Which means the less environmental impact it has. 

Here are just a few tips for energy efficiency at home:

Light bulbs

LED light bulb diagram. Energy efficiency
LED light bulb

I know. So many articles and posts about energy efficiency at home talk about replacing incandescent light bulbs that it’s old news. You can’t buy the old energy-hog incandescent lights anymore. Chances are if you bought up a bunch of them before they went off the market, they’ve blown out. 

Many of us replaced our incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFL) years ago. They use much less energy than incandescent bulbs. And they’ll last a long time. But it can take a long time for them to get as bright as they can.

And remember––any fluorescent bulbs operate by sending current through a vapor that includes mercury. When they burn out, or if they break, they become a hazardous waste. Don’t put them out with your regular trash.

The best bulbs for energy efficiency now are light emitting diode bulbs (LED). Light emitting diodes themselves are very small. To make a lightbulb requires combining many of them.

At the time when the incandescents came off the market, it was impossible to find LEDs brighter than the equivalent of an old 60-watt bulb. That’s too dim to read by. They were also outrageously expensive.

Now, fortunately, you can find 100-watt equivalent LEDs, and even three-way LEDs. They are more reasonable in price, turn on at full brightness, and last even longer than CFLs. They use even less energy, too.

Turn stuff off––and unplug energy vampires 

Back when everyone used incandescent bulbs, homeowners could save a lot of cash by turning them off. Or waste a lot by leaving lights burning in every room.

With LEDs, turning them off doesn’t save nearly as much energy or money, but it still doesn’t make sense to have lights on that no one is using. And we have plenty more to remember to turn off for energy efficiency at home, too.

The TV, for example. Why have it on if no one is watching?

And fans. They help keep us cool in the summertime. But only when someone’s in the same room. They don’t help pets keep cool, either. So turn them off when no one is in the room.

We have lots of chargers and other appliances now that have those big oversized plugs. Even when you turn them off, they still use electricity. So unplug them and/or plug them into a power strip and turn it off when you’re not using them.

Don’t preheat the oven

Nearly every recipe, or the instructions on frozen foods that go in the oven, will tell you to preheat the oven. It’s a waste of time and money. Set it for the right temperature and put the food in it. Set a timer to tell you when it’s finished. If the recipe gives a range of times, set it at the high end. 

In several minutes, your oven will tell you it has reached the set temperature. By that time, your food has already started to cook. And when the timer goes off, it’s done. And don’t forget to turn the oven off! You accomplish nothing by waiting for it to heat up.

Unless you’re baking pastries. Sometimes, preheating matters more than energy efficiency.

Use a programmable thermostat

programmable thermostat. Energy efficiency at home
Adjusting a home thermostat to save energy
Advanced Telemetry via Flickr

Modern building codes require programmable thermostats. When I had to have someone come out and service mine, though, it no longer worked as a programmable thermostat when he left. I had to call him back to restore my settings.

He told me that most of his customers don’t want to be bothered learning to program it. They must not care about energy efficiency at home. He hadn’t noticed I was actually using mine as programmable and set it as manual. Now really. It’s not that hard! 

Take a few minutes to tell it when everyone is asleep or gone from the house and choose different temperatures depending on whether anyone is at home. On mine, I can choose one set of temperatures for heating and another for cooling I set it on “auto.” That way, I don’t have to manually switch from furnace to air conditioner in the spring and fall when the weather can’t make up its mind.

Then I don’t have to  think about it until I go on vacation. Then I can set an economical vacation temperature and tell the thermostat when I’ll be back. 

Don’t use two-day shipping or quicker

And it’s not just the energy we use at home that we need to conserve. We can too easily waste the energy we cause others to use.

Whether to shop in a store or online is pretty much a wash in terms of energy use. Provided, that is, you use standard shipping. All the trucks used to move your purchases from the warehouse to your door will be fully  loaded and take the most efficient routes.

Quick shipping, on the other hand, requires trucks to leave the warehouse before they’re completely full. If the nearest warehouse doesn’t have what you ordered, the company has to ship it from a more distant one instead of waiting. And maybe by air instead of truck. Therefore, quick shipping uses (and wastes) much more energy.

Minimize idling

Speaking of transportation, be mindful of energy efficiency in your own driving. Unless you are extraordinarily on top of it, you can find additional ways to save gas.

Did you know that if you’re going to be idling for more than ten seconds, it’s cheaper and better for the car to turn it off and restart when it’s time to move again? 

It might not be a good idea to shut the engine off at a stoplight.  But it certainly is if you’re waiting for a train. And probably if you’re stuck in a traffic jam. 

But the biggest waster of gas while idling is probably the drive-thru window. And you’re breathing everyone else’s exhaust, too.  Park and go in the store. It probably won’t take any more time.

These are only a few basic tips. Read How to Save Energy with Window Treatments and other pages on this site for more of them—and other information about energy. 

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The Visual Handbook of Energy Conser-
vation: A Comprehensive Guide to Reducing Energy Use at Home / Charlie Wing
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