Last year, President Obama declared October Energy Action Month. His proclamation called for reducing the country’s dependence on foreign oil, investing in new technologies, and — here’s where you come in — harnessing the “creativity, drive, and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people.” OK, so you might not be inventing a new type of solar panel or developing sustainable biofuels, but you can still do your part by conserving in three of the most energy-draining areas of your home: the kitchen, bath, and laundry room.
The most obvious thing the three rooms have in common is water. New Englanders may not think they need to conserve water because there are rarely significant droughts in the area. But, says Brian Swett, chief of environment and energy for the city of Boston, delivering potable water and treating waste water is very energy intensive; it accounts for 3 to 4 percent of the nation’s electrical consumption. “If it stays cold,” he says, “that’s one thing, but if you’re converting it to hot water, then you’re adding even more energy consumption to it.”
Consumers spend $400 to $600 a year on water-heating costs, says Monica Tawfik, manager of sales processing at National Grid in Waltham. You can save on that bill by using less hot water, by insulating your hot water tank if it’s an older model, and by turning the tank’s temperature down to a comfortable 120 degrees; any higher than that and most people will just add cold anyway. Finally, the next time you have to replace your water heater, look into getting a more efficient system. National Grid offers rebates from $300 to $1,500 for energy-efficient tankless and solar water heating systems as well as traditional units.
Another way to save in all three rooms is to change your light bulbs. Compact fluorescent bulbs are more efficient than traditional incandescent ones, but state of the art is LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs. They heat to only 107 degrees Fahrenheit — compared with 167 degrees for fluorescents and a whopping 327 for halogen — which keeps them from warming air that you might then need to cool with an air conditioner or fan. Also, according to the US Department of Energy, they use a quarter of the energy of your old bulbs and last 25 times longer. As with most things that are energy-efficient, the bulbs cost more upfront — a single Cree 60-watt-equivalent bulb is $12.97 at homedepot.com, for example, as opposed to $4.37 for a six-pack of comparable incandescent bulbs — but they cost significantly less in the long run, particularly in high-traffic areas. “The kitchen is the family gathering area,” says Swett. “The lights are on more often there, so make sure you have really efficient lighting.” And to maximize your savings, don’t forget to turn the lights off when you’re not using them.
Appliances, too, are a huge energy drain, accounting for about 13 percent of the average American household’s total. Nearly all sold since 1996 have a government-designated Energy Star rating and also a yellow EnergyGuide sticker, which shows where the appliance falls on the efficiency continuum and estimates its yearly operating cost. “Most products today will have an Energy Star rating,” says Thomas Kelly, president of TRK Design Co. in Marblehead. “The products wouldn’t be attractive to consumers if they didn’t.” To see which Energy Star brands are the most efficient without doing the legwork, go to toptenusa.org; it evaluates dishwashers, refrigerators, freezers, clothes washers, water heaters, and more and lists the 10 greenest. The US Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Energy Star program, says government ratings for clothes dryers are coming soon, but the agency does not rate ovens because, according to an EPA spokeswoman, they have no “substantial differentiation” in performance.
Still, there is good news in that category. Induction cooktops have hit the market in a big way in recent years — so much so that you can even buy countertop versions. Under their flat, easy-to-clean surface are copper coils that work electromagnetically to heat only the pan you’re using, so that 90 percent of every dollar you spend on power actually goes to cooking — which also takes less time than on a traditional stove, further upping the conservation ante. Steam ovens, long a staple of restaurant kitchens, are also becoming popular for home use. “You can cook just about anything in a steam oven in 11 minutes,” says Kelly. The cost of countertop versions is equivalent to that of microwaves. Finally, if you’re planning to replace a freestanding range, consider one with a double oven, which allows you to heat a smaller space when you’re making smaller meals, and convection heat, which uses a fan to circulate hot air, decreasing cooking time. Continued...