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Bright ideas that save energy and money

Slice your utility bills without sacrificing comfort

Published: August 2013
Illustration: Troy Doolittle/TOPDOG Illustration

Forget the media room and the whirlpool tub. Energy efficiency tops the list of home features that today’s savvy consumers want. And they’re willing to pay for it—an extra $7,100 for a home that will reduce annual energy costs by $1,000, according to a recent report from the National Association of Home Builders.

But you don’t have to buy a new house to reap the latest energy savings. Our expert tips could cut your energy bills in half. Simply screwing in one of our top LED lightbulbs will save you more than $125 in electricity bills over its life.

We’ve also included some “energy savers” to skip, because the surge in energy efficiency has spawned a plethora of bogus claims, questionable come-ons, and outright scams. Here’s where to begin.

Get an energy audit

Home-performance contractors, as they’re known, will do a blower-door test and use infrared cameras to pinpoint air leaks, assess your heating and cooling equipment, and even review your utility bills. They can also detect safety hazards, such as indoor air pollutants and carbon monoxide leaks. Energy audits usually cost $250 to $800, depending on the size of your home. But state and utility rebates apply. In New York, for example, utilities offer free audits to most homeowners.

Watch out for: Fly-by-night companies—“blow and go” is the industry term—who charge a hefty fee for an audit, promise major upgrades, then disappear. Choose a contractor certified by the Building Performance Institute. They’re required to do an audit before and after any work to guarantee results.

Plug air leaks

Many homes have small leaks in the foundation, walls, ceilings, and roof that let out as much heated air in the winter (and cool air in the summer) as an open window.

You can do some air-sealing tasks yourself such as plugging leaks around windows, doors, and electrical outlets with caulk, expandable sealant, and weather stripping. Insulating and sealing ductwork, found in homes with forced-air heating and cooling, is best left to the pros, but it could lower your energy bills by about $400 a year. And rebates can save you more on the cost of the job; go to dsireusa.org for details.

Watch out for: Window manufacturers that give you the hard sell. Last year the Federal Trade Commission ordered five companies to stop promising inflated, 40 to 50 percent savings on utility bills with their replacement windows. Savings of 7 to 15 percent are more realistic. Our tests have found that energy-efficient windows could take about 20 years to pay for themselves.

Make technology work for you

Call it the Watt Watchers Effect: Consumers who see how much energy they’re using and what it’s costing them end up consuming about 7 percent less than those who simply get a bill. Almost 40 utility companies have created or plan to create a “green button” on their website that allows customers to easily view their energy-use info. Go to greenbuttondata.org to see whether your utility participates.

Wi-Fi-enabled, programmable thermostats, including several thermostats that scored well in Consumer Reports’ tests, also make energy use more transparent and convenient. That’s on top of the 10 percent savings they deliver by automatically adjusting your home’s temperature when you’re away or asleep. The Nest Learning Thermostat, $250 (shown), programs itself based on your habits and preferences. The Venstar ColorTouch, $170, Honeywell Prestige, $250, and Ecobee, $300, were easy to use.

Watch out for: Utilities that promise big energy savings with a smart meter. You’ll save only if the utility also offers time-of-use rates, which let you control costs by running appliances during less expensive off-peak hours. Only about 2 percent of U.S. households currently have that option.

Upgrade your appliances

Swapping out a 15-year-old refrigerator for an energy-efficient refrigerator could lower your annual electric bill by $60. A high-efficiency top- or front-loading clothes washer might save you another $130. What’s more, a recent study by two leading consumer advocacy groups found that most energy-saving appliances outperform less-efficient models without costing more at the store, when adjusted for inflation. Along with industry and government data, the study analyzed decades of Consumer Reports' Ratings. Our latest tests bear that out.

Watch out for: Misleading energy claims about smart appliances. Wi-Fi-enabled models offer certain conveniences, such as the ability to check the status of your laundry from your smart phone, but they won’t lower utility bills unless time-of-use rates apply, as some manufacturers admit.

Get a hybrid water heater

If your electric water heater is near the end of its life—13 years is average—switching to a hybrid heater could lower your water-heating bills by $350 a year. They meld a standard electric water heater with a heat pump that captures warmth from the air. Those we’ve tested could lower bills by about 60 percent compared with an electric heater. (You should stick with gas if your heater uses that relatively cheap fuel.) With the $300 federal tax credit you’ll get through the end of the year, a hybrid heater can pay for itself in about five years. But they’re usually taller and must be installed in a room that’s at least 12x12 feet with a 7-foot ceiling to capture enough heat from the air. And if there isn’t a floor drain nearby, you’ll need to add a condensate pump to divert water.

Watch out for: Tankless water heaters sold with promises of big savings and endless hot water. Our tests found they’re expensive to buy and install, and limitations on hot-water flow rates could be a problem in large households.

Give LEDs a look

The latest thing in lightbulbs, LEDs improve on compact fluorescent bulbs in many ways, including longer life, enhanced light quality, and better dimming. (Rear our new report, "Best Energy-Saving Lightbulbs.")

The downside is cost—about $18 to $35 for a 60-watt replacement LED bulb vs. $1.25 to $1.50 for a similar CFL. Even at those prices, LEDs will lower your electrical bills. And some manufacturers predict that prices will drop to $10 by next year and less than $5 in a couple of years.

Plus, LEDs should only get better, thanks in part to the California Quality LED Lamp Specification, a voluntary measure designed to guarantee better color accuracy and drive innovation. To qualify for utility rebates in that state, a bulb needs a Color Rendering Index (CRI) of 90, compared with Energy Star’s requirement of 80 CRI.

Watch out for: Dim bulbs. For all their promise, not all LEDs are up to snuff. For the best and worst performers, see our latest lightbulb Ratings. And remember not all bulbs are right for all fixtures, so check our room-by-room lightbulb guide.

Consider alternative energy sources

More consumers are looking beyond fossil fuels to heat and cool their homes, taking advantage of the renewable-energy tax credits that extend through 2016. Geothermal heat pumps are now installed in about 50,000 U.S. homes each year. Those systems use the earth’s relatively constant temperature to provide heating, cooling, and hot water. Costing $17,000 on average, they’re pricey to install, though the Energy Department puts the payback period at a brisk 5 to 10 years.

Solar is another alternative. Even higher up-front costs—$20,000 or more for photovoltaic roof panels—have created a market for solar leasing. You rent the system from a provider and pay a fixed monthly fee that’s supposed to be lower than your current electric bill.

Watch out for: Unbelievable offers. Get a bid from at least three licensed and insured contractors. If leasing, make sure you’re guaranteed a minimum amount of power at a fixed rate for the term of the contract. SolarCity, the nation’s largest full-service solar provider, promises a refund if their system falls short. Reputable companies will also cover any damage to your property during installation as well as ongoing repairs and maintenance, which could be substantial. And be sure that the contract clearly lists your options if you move before it expires, usually after 15 or 20 years. Leases are usually transferable to new owners. The company may let you pay to have the system reinstalled on your new home.

   

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