Mini-Money Challenge: Wrestle More Money Out Of Your Largest Appliances

Once I was visiting my in-laws in Central California. We were driving through what used to be Ag Land but is now, inexplicably, where people who work in San Francisco live. I say inexplicably because this area is about a 90 minute to two hour drive from San Francisco depending on traffic. People explain why this makes sense by describing the non-affordability of a home closer to The City. Still, 3 to 4 hours of commute every day. In a car! Driving! It makes me shudder just to think of it.

Anyway, there we were, cruising down a swath of asphalt at 85 miles an hour, 4-inches from the car in front of us (because that’s how people in California roll), when Governor Schwarzenegger’s unmistakable voice comes on the car stereo.

“Peee-pul of Caluhfornia,” says Ahhhnold, “Keep your haus at 78-dugrees!”

Well, you should have seen my righteous indignation: “That’s the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life!” I start ranting. “Why would anyone need to heat their home to 78-degrees? We keep ours at 62 and just throw on a sweater when it’s cold! Doesn’t he realize how much energy it wastes to heat your home to that temp?!”

And then everyone in the car who was from California laughed and laughed at me as they explained that in California, you don’t heat your home to 78-degrees, you cool your home to 78-degrees. Governor Schwarzenegger was talking about setting your air conditioning higher, not your heater.



An energy efficient home is a cheaper home.

You have to adapt energy and money saving strategies to where you are, but for almost everyone the three biggest money and energy users in a home are:

  1. Central Air Conditioning
  2. Hot Water Heater
  3. Furnace

Where I live, in the land of No Air Conditioning (it’s true, the vast majority of Seattle homes are built without AC. Ours is newer and kinda fancy-pants and still, no AC) we can ignore that first item, but most of you in the country you can’t. I’m not sure what’s typical in Canada, Australia, Europe and areas less familiar to me. If you have something other than forced-air electric heat, like radiant, you may have to modify this advice to fit your situation too.

So, your Mini-Money Challenge for today is to tackle the biggest energy and money hogs in your house, wrestle those beasts to the ground and rip some of your money back from their hungry mouths.

Central Air Conditioning

Even the hottest parts of the US are cooling off now, so turn your AC off or adjust it so that it runs less by bumping the temperature you are trying to maintain up. There are all kinds of sneaky tricks about how to time your AC so that you “trap” a cold air bubble in the house and have to run the unit a lot less.

Maybe some of my warm-weather readers can chime in in the comments and let us know their best tips for minimal AC use. I know my in-laws save massive amounts of money in AC over their neighbors every month because they planted trees in their yard that have grown to shade their home through the worst of the Central California 100+ degree summers.

Hot Water Heater

If you have to mix in cold water for most of your “hot water” activities then your water heater is set too hot. If you have young kids in the house you should be particularly wary of overheated water because scaldings can happen quickly. From a money savings perspective, reducing your water heater terp from a freaky hot 150-degree temp to an only quite hot 120-degree temp can save you 12% on your relevant energy bill(gas or electric).

If you have an older tank, put that on the short list of things to save up to upgrade (maybe even to solar hot water!). Older tanks are not very well insulated and so it takes a lot more energy and money to keep them at a temp. In the meantime, as soon as No Spend Month October is over, take some of your big savings and buy an inexpensive (less than $20) Hot Water Heater Blanket, an insulating wrap that can reduce energy loss by 25% to 45%.


I suspect that most people are already doing a lot to optimize their heating. The basics are simple: turn your maintenance temp down and spend less money and energy heating things. Bundle up so you stay warm even at slightly cooler indoor temps. Look, I’m just going to say it: if you do not live in a tropical or semi-tropical area and you heat your house in winter to a temperature that allows you to comfortably wear little tank tops and short-shorts, you need to knock that off for real.

Spend a minute and check your thermostat – if it’s reasonably modern you should be able to program the heat to come on based on both the time of day, day of the week and temperature. If you do not have a programable thermostat, put that (along with a water heater blanket) on the short list of investments you are going to make with all the money you save this month.

This allows you to fine tune your heating for when you really need it. For us, the heat is basically turned off (set to 55) from about April until around October. I am just starting to notice the house getting a bit chilly, so we will set our thermostat to start heating the house at around 5:00 am so that is warm (64 degrees or so – we have raised our “maintenance” temp because our son turns blue when he gets too cold) when we wake up. This initial blast of heat will tend to keep us going through the day, and if it’s sunny our big, South-facing windows will do a lot to capture passive solar energy.

However, because I am home all day with Blue Boy, we don’t turn off our heat completely during the day. Families where everyone leaves for work and school and then reconvenes in the evening will want to shut off the heat when they are out of the house and then program another “bump” in temp before typical back-home time. If you are feeling really hardcore about saving big bucks on heating, you might consider the “Heat Yourself, Not the House” plan as advocated and described on And if and when it comes time to replace your furnace make sure to look at efficiency when you buy.

One final furnace thing: check your filter. Is it time to replace it or clean it? Maintaining your furnace’s filter reduces how hard the furnace has to work to pump warm air around and keeps your indoor air quality better.

Do It Right Now

So if you are at home, go turn up (or turn off) your AC and turn down your heat and water heater temps down. Check your filter and swap it out or hose it off as necessary. It will probably take you less time to do all these things than it took your to read this post. If you are out and about, do this when you get home. Don’t wait to wrestle your money back from those energy hogs.

What do you do to minimize HVAC and hot water expenses? Anything I missed? Share your tips in the comments and help us all save energy and money.


  1. says

    We live in Missouri and have a whole-house fan (sometimes called an attic fan, although that’s really something different).

    On days when the outside temp is the same or cooler than the inside air, with fairly low humidity, I open the windows just an inch or so and turn on the whole house fan. It pulls cool outside air in, and moves hot inside air out via the attic. A true “attic fan” moves the hot air out of the the attic to the outdoors. These work well on mild days, and especially well in the evening, overnight and early morning hours. In fact, most nights we have turn it off because it cools too well. This is a big energy saver over running the air conditioner, although if the outside air is humid, the a/c is a more comfortable choice, even if it’s set high (76 to 78 degrees).

  2. says

    Your story reminds me of one of my dad’s favorite stories about moving from chilly San Francisco to beautiful Davis in Central California. His first summer there, he would always bring a sweater with him to work… just in case it got cold. It took him quite a while to figure out why everyone was looking at him funny. (For those who haven’t experienced the joy of a central California summer: It’s because it never, ever, ever gets cold in the summer.)

    As for tips on how to keep down your A/C use in hotter climates, here’s what I’ve got:
    – Fans, fans, fans. They use way less energy than A/C so you can bump up the thermostat without suffering.
    – If you’ve got a two-story with two A/C units (surprisingly common here in Arizona), try to limit yourself to staying downstairs so you only have to use one A/C.
    – Shade the west and south sides of your house with trees and awnings.

  3. Homebrew Husband says

    My folks (the in-laws in the above post) planed a few Eucalyptus nicholii – and the’ve been absolute beasts for helping keep the heat down. Fast growing, drought tolerant, and so far hearty: They absolutely shot up, too, and helped get some shade on what was a new-build development house when they moved in – nothing but mud, grass, and some desultorily planted front yard twigs for landscaping. I’ll heartily recommend those as a house shading tree if you are in the right climate to need such things (and to keep a euchalyptus happy…I’m looking at you, Claudette!).

  4. says

    Annie’s high temps of 76-78 would be a super-luxury here at the homestead. I’m in TX and we frequently see long stretches of over 100 degrees in summer cooling to 80s at night. Our thermostat is set for 80 from June to September, then off completely until it gets too cold to stand it, then for “winter” (which is a relative term) we sweater up at about 65 daytime and put down comforters on for night (the thermostat is programmable so we decide when we turn it on and we leave it that way all season ). We turn it off again in the spring and ride it out until June when it gets too hot to think.

    Ceiling fans are key as is dressing appropriately for the weather.

  5. says

    If you have forced-air heat or a/c, check that your ductwork is well-sealed. I was shocked to discover in our new house that the breeze in the utility room is staunch enough to fly a kite when the a/c turned on. It was colder in there than upstairs! I spent a LOT of time with duct tape and the gale has been tamed to a light breeze.

    • says

      my brother has a home in a senior community. he was furious over how high his heating bill was and everyone just laughed at him… until he found out the heating duct was ruptured… it was not only wasting heat, but potentially poisoning everyone with carbon monoxide.

  6. Anne says

    book your furnace maintenance and cleaning in the off-peak-season for your area — if you sign up for less-busy times, some companies will knock a little off the bill. Also ask them if they will knock a little off the bill if you sign up for next year’s maint / cleaning when you get this year’s done.

  7. says

    I live in an apartment, so there’s no AC period. There’s basic heating that we can increase by turning on the electric fan in the heater (for which we pay for the electricity), but we never really do because it’s horrifically inefficient. But, in the spirit of actually doing something that might be budget-friendly, I’m going to go see if I can get my overstuffed freezer running a bit more efficiently and do some research on space heaters for the winter, which I imagine will do a lot more than the weird radiators that are positioned directly in front of the leaky windows.

  8. Maggie says

    I rent, so changes to the hot water heater and furnace aren’t really in my power. It also doesn’t help that both are located in my basement neighbor’s apartment, and he’s pretty much a hermit. When I lived in New Hampshire, our heat was electric, and my roommate and I got used to wearing layers indoors because we were poor grad students and couldn’t afford $200/month electric bills in the winter. Here in Nebraska my heat is gas, so the cost is way less, but I’m still in the habit of wearing layers and keeping the temp down. Plus my apartment is poorly insulated, and I don’t feel like paying more just to heat the outdoors in the winter!

    I’m at work during the day, so I keep the apartment temp quite a bit lower during the day, with spikes in the evening and early morning when I’m home and/or crawling out of my nice warm bed. When I leave for the holidays I turn the temp down to the upper 40’s, which is warm enough to protect pipes and houseplants, but won’t run my bill up or heat an empty apartment. My cat travels with me for the major holidays, so I don’t have to worry about him being too cold.

  9. says

    When I was growing up, “insulation” was the big energy-saving mantra. I’ve heard that the buzz is now all about “seal the leaks!” It makes sense if you think about a thermos — it’s not the insulation so much as the lid that keeps the coffee hot. During summer days, we seal the house up tight. At night when the temps are lower, we open up the house and turn on fans. In our area, that keeps our home 10-15 degrees cooler than the outside. We don’t have AC at all, but that attention to doors and windows, together with our whole-house fan, seems to mostly do the trick for us.

  10. says

    My partner has just made a real time energy usage device that sits in our meter box and sends data to his computer. I’m sure we’ll get some good info from it that will help us understand and change our usages over time. We have split system heating/cooling in our living area and wall panel heater (electric) in the children’s rooms… I had that heater going all winter in the baby’s room and I guess it added a fair amount to our powerbill. Our power prices have risen by 20% in our state (Tasmania) and a lot of people are struggling.

  11. Laura R says

    Be careful if you switch your water heater out for a new tank model. Our started leaking, and we went to replace it and couldn’t get the same size because the newer more insulated model wouldn’t fit through the “door” of our utility room – we ended up with 2 smaller tanks. The good part is, that unless we have company, we only need the one tank for our needs, so we have the circuit breaker on the other turned off. Would have loved to go tankless, but for the flow rate we need, electric only ones can’t handle it more efficiently than the tank style.

    We had an ancient heat pump and it was so inefficient (estimated 6 SEER) that we would set it to 60 in the winter and supplement with our wood stove insert. It bit the dust last spring, and we replaced it with a newer 21 SEER system. Now for less money, we can have the temp set to 65 (or higher).

  12. Kallie says

    We live in the central valley of CA, AKA the pressure cooker, we frequently see temps in the triple digits, but it does cool at night and we have low humidity. Over the 20 years we’ve lived in our house we’ve done a variety of things to make it more energy efficient. Our builder had a choice of things to do to reach minimum energy efficiency standards when it was built, so some thing they chose not to do. We have a tri level home with vaulted ceilings and with a single a/c system there can be a dramatic difference in temps from 1 room to another. I hired a professional to try to find ways to make the hottest in the summer (my bedroom) and the coldest in the winter (frontroom/hubbies office) more comfortable. Here is a list of things we have done in stages to reduce our energy costs.

    Solar screens were our first investment, we started with the south and west facing windows and within a few years had the whole house covered. Large covered deck on the back of the house which faces south, the origianl deck had wisteria growing over it and it was amazing how much cooler it kept the house, after 15+ years it was time to replace the wood and we about died when we removed the shade, we very quickly paid to have another shade structure put up. Thick curtains on the windows not blinds, lined material is far more insulating than slats. Programmable thermostat, this is very easy to install yourself and they are not very expensive, less than $100. Ours has 4 time slots per day and weekday/weekend options. Whole house fan, which works well with one of those dual position thermometers, I have a sensor outside the front of my house and another outside the back of my house, I can see if the temp is cooler outside than inside so I know which windows to open to pull the coolest air into the house with the whole house fan. Attic fan, this was another inexpensive DIY project, when the temp in the attic gets above 105 it starts venting the air, out of the attic and drawing slightly cooler air in from under the eaves. Shade for the a/c condenser, this is where the cooling happens, our is on the west side of the house and gets full sun when we need it to be working, so we put up some lattice around it to shade it, make sure it has enough room to keep air circulating.

    Changes suggested by the professional. As I mentioned my bedroom has nearly impossible to cool, I would have to crank the a/c really low to be able to sleep at night. The solutions, we added another return in the bedroom and a 2nd vent, this made a huge difference. For the rest of the house we replaced some of the registers to direct the airflow more effectively. The most important thing change he told us to do was to fix the vents on the condenser. If ou look at the unit there are rows of metal slots, this all need to be straight to maximize efficiency, for some reason over 50% of ours were smashed down. We got an estimate to have a pro do it, it was outrageous because there is no quick or easy way to do it. We spent weeks taking turns for 15-20 min at a time running a butter knife through each slot to straighten it out. So if you ever have a unit replaced, refuse any that has the vents smashed, and make sure not to store things too closely to the unit so they don’t get smashed.

    A note on fans, they can make a room feel cooler, not actually become cooler unless they are moving air from a cooler location, so don’t leave them on in empty rooms. Most ceiling fans can change direction, one pulls the air up the other forces the air down, the direction should be changed with the season.

    • Kallie says

      I almost forgot about heating, it’s hard to think about getting warmer when the temps are still nearing 100. We rarely use our forced air heater, we installed a cast iron pellet stove in the cold front room. Generaly my hubby turns it on in the morning and I turn it off a few hours later and if I keep the bedroom doors shut the house stays warm enough for us to be comfy the rest of the day.

      I also forgot when our friend helped us install the additional return and vent, he sealed all the ducting which hadn’t been done very well by the builder.

  13. MrsWJAA says

    When we first moved into our last home, we learned that we could save quite a bit on our electric by doing the following:
    – since we were both away during the day and only took showers /washed dishes at night, we turned off the breaker to the hot water heater, then turned it on about 2 hours before we needed it and turned it off when we were finished… plenty of hot water and the heater only ran for about 3 hours total per day that we got showers (every other day-every two days in the winter, and every day in the summer). on the off days, we’d just boil a pot of water for the dishes and rinse in cold.
    – instead of using central air/heat, we got an energy efficient window unit (a/c) for the living room and the bedroom, and a thermostat adjustable tower heater that we moved as needed, and just kept cool/warm the rooms that we were in… electric bill ran about $70/mo winter, $60/mo. spring, and never more than $120/mo in the summer.. and this was in a ’70s model mobile home with poor insulation and gaps between the floor and outer wall that you could see the ground through.
    -We also saved a bit by using our small counter rotisery oven and our microwave in place of our stove oven whenever we could.. especially in the summer.. it didn’t have nearly the amount of space to heat to cook our small amount of food, and it didn’t heat the entire house as badly as the regular oven. Plus, it had a timer that would shut off the oven at the time you set it for, so we didn’t worry about the food burning if we were busy doing something else:)

  14. brenda from ar says

    Late to the party, but have a few tricks.

    In winter, mist water on the non-gorgeous view windows and cut-to-fit bubble wrap sticks to the damp glass. It’s like a little insulating blanket that still lets light in. On sun-facing windows, pin black woven fabric to the back of curtains. In full sun, I can get up to a 17 degree temp rise from below window to the top and airflow will almost float a feather. If bubblewrap is on window, I still get a 13 degree rise. A tiny ceramic heater keeps the bathroom nice and adds a few degrees to the attached bedroom/office, two rooms can be shut off (doors and vents), the balance is kept cool to me (64-66). Warm layers are worn, and baking is really nice in the winter.

    During part of the Spring, open windows during the day to gather heat, close in the afternoon. Later, open windows at night to gather cool, close them sometime in the morning. Reverse this in the Fall.

    In Summer, set temp to 78-80, except sometimes a tad lower when vacuuming. Set up turkey roaster on old microwave cart outside back door for baking. Also, do crockpot cooking on cart – keeps heat outside. And that’s all for now.

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