Ask the Expert: How do I reduce summer utility bills?

| by Teena Hammond
Ask the Expert: How do I reduce summer utility bills?

Reducing the high cost of summer utility bills is at the top of seemingly everyone's to-do list this year.

We wanted to find out a few creative tips on how to slash costs, so we asked our Approved Contributing Experts, also known as ACE's, to respond to our question on how to save on utility bills this season.

Luis ImeryLuis Imery, principal of The Imery Group:

Well, summer is here and the nice spring weather that you had for cooling your homes with natural ventilation is gone. Now the HVAC system in your home is kicking in to keep it comfortable. Then you get your first electric bill, and you start wondering how energy-efficient your home really is.

As a home owner you have basically two approaches to save on your utility bills:

The do it yourself home energy audit —

To do this, you'd basically go around your house and do a visual assessment of the thermal barrier/building envelope. Check for air leaks, insulation, lighting and appliances, including the heating and cooling system. Here you are really guessing which weatherization project would give you most bang for your buck:

  • Air leaks. You can caulk and seal holes in exterior walls, as well as around door and window exterior trim. Add weather stripping to any door that accesses an unconditioned space, such a garage or attic. Mastic and duct tape any leaks on your forced air system duct.
  • Insulation. For insulation issues, you might want to enhance your insulation first in the attic, then the crawlspace, and, finally, the walls. Depending on the age of your home, you will find that it has been compromised or that you are not even meeting code.
  • Lighting.You can choose to replace all your lights with CFL, dimmers, and some sensors. And last, the high-ticket items are replacing appliances and heating and cooling equipment with Energy Star-qualified products.

Professional home energy audit

To do this, you'd hire a certified HERS Rater or BPI building analyst to conduct an energy audit following some strict protocols. The end result is that you will get a report from your rater that has considered the as-is condition of your home, has done an energy model and has prioritized in order of relevance the most cost-effective weatherization projects for your home.

In my opinion, the latter approach is the most cost-effective on the long run. You might have to pay a bit more upfront for a professional audit, but the guessing work is gone. Today, many utility companies are providing rebates for both the audits and weatherization projects, making it even more affordable. So before you do anything, I encourage you to go online to your utility company's website and find out about their energy saving program.

Heather Ferrier
Heather Ferrier, marketing manager for Ferrier Custom Homes
With the summer season lurking around the corner (it's already 90+ degrees in Texas), it's a good time to revisit some of the simple, low-cost elements we can incorporate into our daily lives that have the potential to make our environmental footprint and utility bills a bit smaller — one small step at a time.

Native Landscaping: Being sensitive to what grows well in your climate can save you big down the road on watering costs. Unsure of what is considered "adapted" for your region? Ask your local nursery for recommendations.

Watering:When it comes to watering your thirsty lawn and plants, avoid doing so in the heat of the day. Evaporation will account for a large percentage of the water, and will render your good intentions less effective. Instead, try watering earlier in the morning or later in the evening to yield the best results (and to cut down on your water bill.)

Energy Saver Cycles: We've all seen them on our clothes washer, dishwasher, etc., but may not have given them a try. In general, these cycles use less water and energy, and still clean your clothes and dishes swimmingly. There have been great improvements with newer models, so don't write them off if you tried them five or 10 years ago and weren't happy with the results. Go ahead and give them a try with your next load and see the results for yourself.

Thermostats: As daunting as the instruction manuals may or may not be, if your thermostat has a programming function, give it a try. Adjusting your temperature settings by only a couple of degrees will make a difference on your electric bill. And what better time of day to capture these savings than when no one is home? Programming your thermostat to raise/lower the temperature while your home is vacant will make energy savings a no-brainer.

Air Filter: It is especially important to check your air filter(s) during high-use months (summer/winter). At a minimum, filters should be changed every three months for optimal efficiency. A good rule of thumb is that if it looks dirty, change it. A dirty filter will slow down air flow and make your system work harder to heat/cool your home, which is wasted energy. A clean filter will also prevent dust and debris from building up in your system, which could lead to costly maintenance and repairs.

Tom Smith
Tom Smith, director of marketing for Anua
Homeowners with decentralized wastewater treatment systems can save on their utility bill year round by using a peat fiber biofilter rather than an aerobic treatment unit.

The peat fiber biofilter will have monthly electric costs of $0.90 versus $1.50 for a typical recirculation media filter with a 10 amp pump. A typical aerobic treatment system will cost $18.30 per month in electric usage costs assuming a 3 amp blower and electricity at $0.11 per kW/h.

Over the 15-year life of the peat in the peat fiber biofilter, the homeowner will save $3,132 ($3,294 - $162) or $208.80 per year.

Peat fiber biofilters do not need any blowers or pumps. They are naturally odor free. Treated effluent emerges from the modules and disperses either into a gravel pad directly below the modules or is collected for dispersal by other methods, including gravel trenches, low-pressure pumping, drip irrigation or other conventional disposal methods.

Additionally, unlike ATUs, peat biofilters do not need to be pumped on a regular basis. As such, peat biofilters are a sustainable, energy saving solution for home, office and community developments.

Mark Sanders
Mark Sanders, Sloan Valve Co. product manager for water reuse
During the summer, two big consumers of fresh water are irrigation and car washing. My suggestion for summer utility bill savings involves using rain barrels to drip irrigate flower beds and taking your car to a local car wash that uses recycled water in its process.

Rain barrels have come a long way since the rustic, homemade style. Rain barrels are attractive and easy to install. I recommend that a drip hose be put on the outlet so that you can control the flow and evaporation as temperatures rise.

Getting outside in shorts and bathing suits to wash the car is a great way to spend a few hot afternoon hours. However, much of the water runs down the sidewalk, into the street, and is wasted. In some parts of the country this is called "fugitive water" because it is not being used for its intended purpose. Many local car washes now advertise that they use recycled water in their process. I recommend that we help promote water reuse and save on fresh water during a time of high need.

Topics: Appliances, Energy Audits, Heating & Cooling, Landscaping, Lighting, Water Saving Devices

Companies: Anua

Teena Hammond
Teena Hammond has published more than 2,000 articles in People and W magazines, Women's Wear Daily, and in dozens of newspapers and books. She also wrote a home improvement, remodeling and decor column that ran in Gannett newspapers nationwide. She's interested in all things green and would love to hear from you with your story ideas.

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