Which Energy Hacks Actually Work? Which Don't?

Advice is plentiful about how to cut utility costs, but don't take them at face value.

Articles about how to save energy and water to cut your monthly costs and reduce your carbon footprint can be found all over the internet. When every family member was trapped at home because of the pandemic, many households turned to these tips in a scramble to find ways to cut costs. But unless you pay attention to the details, it’s possible that your “energy-saving” activities may push the needle in the wrong direction.

Here's what the building science says:

Thermostat Setbacks: Simply turning a thermostat up and down overnight or when at work oversimplifies the energy saving strategy, especially in this age of electric heat pumps.

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“Turning the thermostat up or down may save energy on mild days, because you’re not using as much energy and not playing catch up, but on cold or hot days it won’t save you energy,” says Andy Narducci, a service manager at Besco Air Inc. in Chicago. 

“Some folks believe they don't need to heat their home while they’re gone. They turn it down to 63 degrees and then when they get home, they bump it up to 72,” Narducci says. “Of course, now it’s doubling down. On a really hot day if you're turning your thermostat up to say 74 degrees, then down to 68 degrees when you get home it’s going to take a lot more energy, plus you’re going to be uncomfortable until it reaches your desired temperature.” 

“For an air conditioning system to properly function,” he adds, “it has to remove the humidity in the home before it can actually start to drop the temperature.”

Programmable thermostats are a great conservation strategy, says Narducci, because they will help temperatures stay constant while also keeping you comfortable. You can program it to gradually change the temperature. 

Reporters at Powerly.com found that even big furnace setbacks paid off over an 8-hour period. Their results: 

The data showed that houses that reduced the temperature of their home 1° compared to those that didn’t, saved 4.50% on energy. Those who had a setback of 2° over an 8-hour period saved 8.30% on energy. Houses with a 3° setback saved 10.90%. Homes with a 4° setback saved 12.90%. Individuals who implemented a 5° setback saved 14.50%. Those with a 6° setback saved 15.80%. People who chose a 7° setback saved 16.90%. A house that has an 8° setback saved 17.90%. And homes with a 9° setback saved a whopping 18.80% on energy.

Air Versus Water Heating: The situation gets even more complex with heat pump technology. As a general rule, most experts say you should not turn down a heat pump more than about 6 degrees in the evening when you go to bed. Heat pump systems are notorious for responding slowly. “Drastically changing the temperature forces the heat pump to run for a longer period of time to catch up,” Narducci explains.

Both forced air gas furnaces heat pumps move air to heat your home, not water. So when you  set them to 68 degrees, they will keep the indoor temperature at a consistent 68 degrees, he says. The second a forced air system or heat pump kicks off, the air stops coming out, unlike a boiler system, where hot water remains in the radiator pipes.

“With a forced hot water boiler, you are still going to get residual heat because the radiator or baseboards are still going to be hot and radiating heat,” Narducci adds. “For instance, I live in a top floor unit with a forced hot water boiler and rarely ever need to turn my heat on in the winter because I get residual heat from everyone below me since heat rises.”

He says that the best strategy for all systems is not to have large variances in the temperature settings. “High efficiency systems may give you more flexibility” he says. “But if you have an older system, it’s going to be more inefficient and will need to run for longer periods of time to keep up with extremely low or high temperatures, which will use more energy and cost more money.”

Water Tank Dos and Don’ts: Water heaters are generally the second largest energy suckers in the home. If you have a hybrid heat pump hot water heater such as the Rheem Proterra, for instance, some of them have energy saving modes built in. If you're using a conventional electric resistance tank, they're much "dumber." That's where you can add a smart timer such as Aquanta, that will "watch" how you use hot water and adjust the temperature of the tank to follow your lifestyle. This has limits however, and will only save you a certain percent of energy, typically much less than the heat pump model.

“Insulating your water tank is one easy and affordable way to reduce heat and energy loss,” says Bailey Carson, a home care expert at Angi. “Insulating your water tank keeps heat in, making your water tank more energy efficient. This is a great way to save power and money in the long run.”

However, some of the new hybrid heat pump water heaters, such as the Rheem Proterra, recommend against insulating, because they’re already insulated on the inside.

“Hybrid heat pump water heaters are bigger and more expensive than most other options, but they’re also the most energy efficient,” says Carson. “How much insulation your water heater needs, or if it needs it at all, will depend on the specific make and model of your water heater and its location. The best way to get the most out of your hybrid heat pump water heater is to talk to the pro installing the heater or, if it’s already installed, to call the company where you got it for their recommendations.”

One more way to save money and energy on your water heater is to set the temperature between 120 and 130 degrees.

“Many households set their water heaters too high, around 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a safety hazard and wastes energy,” says Carson.

Electronics: Hard Stop: Many sources recommend putting your laptop or TV to “sleep” when not in use. But this is only phase one of saving energy, since most devices have “phantom” modes that continue to draw power. 

The low-tech solution is to put them on a power strip and shut the whole strip off, but why not take advantage of smart tech such as Vivint, which allows you to remotely or automatically control anything that plugs into a wall including lights, garage doors, small appliances and electronics?. Using your smartphone, you can schedule any or all devices in your home to shut off at certain hours. 

Other systems such as Sense monitor your energy use so you can find out exactly how much power each item uses. Also, laptops, contrary to mythology, do not use more power to boot up than they do to be left on or plugged in. TVs typically stay partially on all the time. Don’t forget laser printers! These are big energy wasters.

 Dishwashers vs. Luddites: For those of you who painstakingly wash your dishes by hand while looking longingly at your dishwasher, you can stop now. You’re welcome. The truth is that washing dishes by hand doesn’t actually save water and energy unless you’re extremely careful and use tubs to soak and rinse rather than running the water. 

What does save energy is to only run your dishwasher with a full load. You can also choose a new model of dishwasher with short cycles and eco mode options such as this Whirlpool model that has a one-hour cycle and soil sensors to reduce energy use.

Fans and Fresh Air: Even though ceiling fans use electricity, they can be a big energy saver. A ceiling fan can make a room feel 10 degrees cooler while it uses 10% of the energy that a central air conditioner does, according to the US Natural Resource Defense Council

“Fans and air conditioning are an excellent pair, so I recommend using them together instead of choosing one over the other,” says Carson. “Fans don’t have much cooling power on their own, but they can be a great tool for circulating cool air generated by your air conditioning system. 

Generally, using fans allows you to raise your thermostat 4 degrees while still staying comfortable.”

But should you leave the ceiling fan running if no one is there? It depends. “Running your ceiling fan on a low setting can increase the air circulation in your home,” says Carson. “This can help your home stay at a more consistent temperature, which can help you feel more comfortable without constantly adjusting your AC. However, it’s a good idea to give your ceiling fan a break when you leave the room for long periods of time.”

Chilling your clothes: A commonly recommended washing machine hack is to use cold water. This one actually works. According to Consumer Reports, 90% of the electricity used for every load of wash is used to heat the water. If you’re worried that your clothes won’t get clean enough, don’t. Most detergents today are designed to work in cold water.

And of course, when weather permits, and temperament allows, you can always hang your clothes out to dry, especially large items such as sheets, towels and comforters. You’ll save energy, and reduce wear and tear on your equipment.

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Home Buyer Campaign Sponsors: Whirlpool, Vivint, myQ, Sonos and Jinko Solar . These companies take sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.