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15 painless ways to reduce your home’s energy use

For an average-sized Washington-area home, setting the thermostat at 68 degrees instead of 70 during the winter and 75 degrees instead of 73 during summer will save 12 percent to 16 percent per year on heating and cooling costs. (iStock) (Olivier Le Moal/iStock)
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Our homes rely more than ever on energy for heating, cooling, lighting, hot water and powering all of our gadgets.

The good news: Product innovations, improved construction techniques and better habits have reduced average residential energy consumption so much that, overall, it’s remained flat for the last 25 years, even while our population and the number of homes have grown, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Despite significant efficiency gains, most of our abodes still unnecessarily waste a lot of energy, contributing to pollution and climate change while sucking away our money.

You don’t have to throw down tens of thousands of dollars for a solar energy system, a geothermal heat pump or a complete green-oriented remodel to sharply reduce your home’s energy usage. Often, the combined effects of making inexpensive improvements, adopting better habits and buying better products can do the trick.

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Here are 15 changes you can make around your home that are free or nearly free but will result in lower utility bills. At Checkbook.org, you’ll also find a discussion of upgrades that require some upfront spending but quickly pay for themselves in lower utility bills (for example, the cost-benefits of replacing kaput furnaces and appliances with efficient models). You’ll also find advice on how to buy systems and renovations that minimize what you pull off the grid but come at steep prices.

Much of Checkbook’s advice on saving energy draws on information from our evaluations and ratings of heating and air-conditioning contractors, window suppliers, insulation installers, energy auditors, appliance stores and more. Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s full report on saving energy, as well as all of Checkbook’s ratings of local service providers, free until April 30 via Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/energy.

Check for leaks

Start by assessing how your home passively wastes energy. Most homes have holes, cracks and gaps that let cold air in and warm air out in the winter — and do the reverse in the summer. One little leak might not seem like much, but the cumulative effect of several can add up to the equivalent of leaving open a small window.

If you feel drafts in the winter, that’s an obvious sign of leaks. If you consistently feel chilled between furnace cycles, that’s another sign.

A good energy auditor can track down leaks for you, but you can sleuth out major ones on your own. Turn off your furnace on a cool, very windy day; shut all windows and doors, turn on all exhaust fans that blow air outside, such as bathroom fans or stove vents; light an incense stick and move around your house, watching where smoke is blown to identify drafts.

Most leaks occur where different building materials meet — brick and wood siding; foundation and walls; and between the chimney and siding. Other common problem areas are around windows and doors; mail slots; points of entry for electrical and gas lines, cable/Internet wiring and phone lines; outdoor water faucets; where vents pass through walls; cracks or gaps in siding, stucco, masonry and all foundation materials; and around window air-conditioning units.

Use caulk to seal any cracks or gaps measuring less than a quarter-inch wide and polyurethane foam sealant for larger ones.

To minimize leakage around doors and windows, install weather-stripping. Open-cell foams are inexpensive and relatively inefficient but easy to apply and suitable for low-traffic areas. Vinyl is more expensive and lasts longer. Metals last for years and provide a decorative element for older homes. Also add sweeps to the bottoms of all exterior doors to seal gaps there.

Prevent drafts around power outlets and light switches located inside exterior walls by adding insulating receptacle gaskets, which cost less than $5 each.

If you have window air-conditioning units, remove them during the winter or insulate them from the outside with a cover ($20 to $60). During summer, install units so they fit tightly within windows.

Deal with ductwork

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, leaky ducts can add 20 percent or more to a home’s heating bill. Check for holes or gaps in exposed ductwork in any unfinished attic, crawlspace and basement.Seal them with mastic tape or HVAC foil tape. Also seal gaps where ductwork connects to registers.

Insulate poorly located pipes and ducts

If you have a crawlspace or unheated basement, check whether any furnace ductwork or pipes that supply hot water run through it. Wrap pipes in foam insulating sleeves; ask HVAC contractors for advice on the best way to insulate ductwork.

Fix fireplace flues

Chimneys are designed to pull smoke upward and out of homes. As long as the temperature outside is different than inside your house, this draft continues, pulls out air that you paid to heat or cool and wastes one to three percent of your bills.

When you’re not using a fireplace, make sure to tightly close its flue damper. Still, even closed flues are notoriously leaky; seal yours completely with a chimney plug — basically a balloon that inflates to fill up the space between the firebox and the damper.

Dial down the thermostat

This is an obvious strategy, and many of us refuse to leave our cozy-comfort zones, but you’ll realize big-time savings if you can handle a change in climate. If you — or your cohabitants — refuse to chill out, at least use a programmable thermostat.

For an average-sized Washington-area home, setting the thermostat at 68 degrees instead of 70 during the winter and 75 degrees instead of 73 during summer will save 12 percent to 16 percent per year on heating and cooling costs.

Lose inefficient lighting

Somehow, lightbulbs have become part of our culture wars. But using efficient LED or CFL lights instead of incandescents will save an average U.S. household about 35 percent off their lighting costs each year.

For most uses, you’ll want bulb-shaped, A-type LEDs. But they sometimes don’t cast light evenly in all directions, so look for omnidirectional bulbs for lamps or shaded light fixtures. Can or recessed lights are best fitted with cone-shaped reflector models that only cast downlights.

Pull some plugs

Most plugged-in devices consume electricity even when not in use. An average family of four in Washington will spend $250 or more each year to power their TVs, computers, chargers and other assorted tech and small appliances. So yank the cord to that VCR and other electronics you rarely, if ever, use anymore. Check the settings for other tech to see if they have low-power standby options. An even better option is to buy smart power strips, which automatically cut off juice to stuff plugged into them if they haven’t been used in a while or allow you to do so remotely via WiFi connection to your phone or computer.

Replace HVAC filters

A dirty filter makes your system work harder than it should, reducing performance and energy efficiency. Plus it could spread dust. This chore won’t save much energy — probably less than two percent of heating and cooling costs — but is an important maintenance task regardless of green considerations.

Check your filter monthly until you see how quickly it gets dirty at different times of the year. When a filter has a matting of dirt, it’s time to replace it (usually four to six times a year).

Get rid of extra fridges and freezers

Many of us have extra refrigerators or freezers sitting in garages or basements to handle overflow items. While it’s great to buy in bulk without having to play Tetris to fit everything into a single appliance, extra storage comes at a steep price — especially if your fridge or freezer annex is an old model: 10-year-old fridges cost about $75 a year to run; 25-year-old models about $100 a year and those indestructible 40-year-old ones can drain away more than $200 a year.

Let your water heater chill out

Lowering your water heater’s thermostat from 140 to 120 degrees will cut its energy use by three to five percent. Although 120 degrees is sufficiently hot enough to prevent bacterial growth, if someone in your household has a suppressed immune system or respiratory disease, keep it set at 140 to play it safe.

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Give windows the treatment

When it’s warm outside, close curtains and blinds to reduce heat from the sun. When it’s cold, open curtains on sun-facing windows for free warmth — but keep curtains closed to block drafts from windows that don’t get rays. Thermal shades provide the most benefit. Make sure curtains don’t block HVAC vents.

Turn out the lights!

Channel your father and constantly roam your home yelling “Who left this light on?” Annoying your family is a small price to pay to help the environment.

You can install motion-detecting switches that automatically turn off lights when no one is in the room — or if you sit still for too long. Occupancy sensors are less frustrating: They turn on lights when someone enters and then off again when they leave.

Wash clothes in cold water

According to Energy Star, as much as 90 percent of the energy used to wash clothes comes from heating water. In Consumer Reports’ tests, cold water sufficiently cleans most loads.

Reduce drying times

Use trial and error to figure out how long your model takes to dry loads so you don’t run it longer than necessary. Don’t do small loads, but don’t overstuff it either. If your dryer has a cool-down setting, enabling it will use remaining heat in the drum at the end of the cycle to finish drying clothes while expending very little energy. Before drying, use the highest spin setting on your washer to remove as much moisture as possible.

Option B: Go old school and buy drying racks or an outdoor clothesline for free evaporation and, during wintertime, your wet wardrobe will improve humidity.

Do dishes wisely

Consumer Reports’ tests indicate most newer dishwashers clean well if you skip a pre-rinse or scrub. Dishwashers also use less water than handwashing, which means your water heater uses less gas or juice. Just scrape off leftovers and load ’er up.

After your dishwasher finishes a load, open its door. The remaining heat inside will speed evaporation, rather than consuming electricity to generate heat to do that job.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s full home energy report, and all Checkbook’s ratings and advice, free until April 30 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/energy.

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