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.
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:
- Central Air Conditioning
- Hot Water Heater
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 Permies.com. 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.