Appliance shopping? Compare more than price
If you're shopping for new or replacement household appliances, you need to compare more than just the prices of different models. That low-price washer, water heater or refrigerator may be inexpensive because it will cost you more to operate. This is where you need to consider life-cycle costs -- the total cost of buying and using an appliance over its lifetime. A less expensive freezer may use more energy and wear out faster; over time, the costlier model could end up saving you money. How can you tell what's the best buy? Actually, it's not hard, thanks to the Energy Guide information that comes with new major appliances. Energy Guide labels show the estimated annual cost of operating the appliance, and rank its energy-efficiency. So for washers, dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators, and heating and cooling systems, check out those Energy Guide labels. Then you can compare price, features and all the other information and make a smart choice when you buy. If you can save $20 per year with a more energy efficient model, you should be willing to pay $50 or >00 more because you will save more in the long run.

Conserve water and energy with a few easy steps
Water heating accounts for the second highest use of energy in most homes, after space heating and cooling. Just keeping your family supplied with hot water for bathing, doing laundry and washing dishes can cost up to $400 per year. And in many communities, demands for water are outstripping supply, making water itself a scarce and valuable resource. Fortunately, it isn't hard to save water and money by using hot water more efficiently. Here are a few simple steps you can take:

  • Cut back the temperature on your water heater to 115 F. Many water heaters are set as high as 140 F. Because most dishwashers now will heat water to the temperature needed to ensure that dishes are sanitized, you can reduce the setting on your water heater. This not only saves energy but also helps the water heater last longer and reduces the risks of being scalded by hot water from your sink and tub faucets.
  • Insulate your water heater tank, especially if it's located in an unheated space such as garage or basement. This helps the water stay hot longer and reduces the amount of energy used.
  • Install low-flow showerheads and faucet controls. There are many types available at reasonable prices that provide the flow you need to shower and bathe without wasting water. Installing a simple aerator on an existing faucet will reduce the amount of water needed to provide a good, steady stream.

Good, old-fashioned fans! 
We've become so accustomed to air conditioning that sometimes we forget what came before -- those old-fashioned fans that helped keep our parents and grandparents cool during the hot summer months. Fans haven't outlived their usefulness! Ceiling fans are a popular addition to many homes, providing extra cooling power that makes it possible to be comfortable even when you set your air conditioning thermostat at a higher temperature. On days when you just need a bit of a breeze, instead of a deep freeze, or on pleasant nights, a ceiling fan alone can keep you nice and cool. But ceiling fans aren't the whole story. Small portable fans set at floor level can keep cold air, which sinks, moving up where you need it. Larger window fans can be used to pull cool air inside or draft hot air out, and may provide all the cooling power you need when the humidity is fairly low. And whole-house or attic fans have been around for years, doing an excellent job of cooling entire homes. So don't overlook the good old-fashioned fan each summer. In combination with your air conditioner or alone, fans can help you save energy and stay cool.

Holiday cooking
Those holiday dinners take a lot of energy to prepare -- the cook's energy as well as the energy to fuel the stove. So use both wisely. When you have several dishes to go into the oven, try to schedule your cooking so that you can cook more than one dish at a time. Often, a simple temperature change of a few degrees will allow you to put two casseroles in at once, using the oven's heat efficiently and resulting in the same great meal! Also, try not to open and close the oven door all the time. Every time the door is opened the oven loses heat and has to work harder to get back to the correct temperature. Use the oven window (make sure it's clean before you start cooking!) and the interior light to check on the meal as it cooks.

Is it time to retire your fridge?
Refrigerators are among the biggest energy-users in American homes. You might want to take a look at yours and decide if you should retire it in favor of a new, more efficient model. An old inefficient model can cost you more than >00 more per year to operate than a new one and puts more waste heat into your home, too, putting an extra strain on air conditioning. The good news is that the most efficient standard refrigerators are less expensive. The bad news is that many of the features consumers want, such as automatic icemakers and on-door ice and water dispensers, make refrigerators less efficient. You have to consider your family's needs to make the best choice. Some points to consider if you're refrigerator shopping:

  • Side-by-side refrigerator/freezers use more energy than top-freezer models.
  • It costs much less to buy and operate one large refrigerator than two small ones.
  • Piling things on top of the refrigerator can affect air circulation. Keep it clear.
  • Check the interior temperatures of your fridge and freezer with a separate thermometer. For maximum food safety and energy efficiency, the refrigerator should stay around 35-40 F, the freezer from 0-5 F.
  • Clean the condenser coils once a year to help the fridge run efficiently. Mount your refrigerator on a wheeled platform or slides to make access to the coils in the back simpler.

Running an efficient office: Computers and printers
not merely an efficient office. Electronic office equipment is the fastest-growing source of demand for electricity in the United States. Although commercial businesses account for most of that growth, the increasing use of home computers, fax machines and other office equipment also contributes to the growing demand. If you want to make the best use of electricity while taking care of your business -- whether it's a full-time job or just playing computer games with the kids -- keep these tips in mind:

  • Laptop computers are much more energy efficient than desktop models.
  • Energy use varies greatly among the types of computers on the market today. So if you're buying a new model, check out its energy consumption numbers. But generally, faster computers use more power than slow ones, and color monitors use more power than gray-scale.
  • It's much more efficient to operate peripherals -- such as CD-ROM drives, hard drives and modems -- when they're installed in the computer than to run external add-ons.
  • Laser printers use almost twice as much energy as inkjet and dot matrix printers. And with improvements in inkjet technology, the quality they produce is excellent, and they're much less expensive to purchase.

Taking a bath on water heating costs?
When it's cold outside, you may love to soak in a hot bath to beat the chill. But the U.S. Department of Energy says that the average bath consumes up to 25 gallons of hot water compared to the 10 gallons or less used during a five-minute shower. You can save even more by equipping your showers with low-flow showerheads. So before you sink into that hot bath, consider what it costs you to heat all that water -- you may decide that a shower will do just fine.

A simple step to a warmer home
Take a look around your rooms. Is furniture blocking your heat vents? Sometimes you just don't notice, but a chair, a couch, a bed or even a set of long drapes can cover a heat register and make a real difference in how warm the room feels. And with a forced-air furnace, blocking a supply or return vent can cause a pressure imbalance in the entire heating system that will disrupt the heat flow throughout your entire house. So check around, and if needed, rearrange your furniture to keep from blocking the vents. You'll notice the difference.

Don't let your cooling system rob you this winter!
Those window air conditioners may have helped you keep cool this past summer, but they can heat up your winter energy bills if you're not careful. Before heating season begins, check all around the top, bottom and sides of the window unit to determine if warm air will leak from your house and if cold air will seep inside. Ask at your local hardware store about air conditioner covers and other easy, inexpensive ways to stop air leaks.

Energy-free cooling? Yes!
There are ways to help feel more cool and comfortable without using energy at all. It's called "passive cooling," and it's a very old practice that can still work today. Passive cooling really involves keeping your home from getting hot to begin with, thus reducing the workload on your energy-powered cooling devices and systems. One of the best ways to provide passive cooling is to plant trees. Tall, mature shade trees block the sunlight from beating down on your roof and windows, especially on the western side of your house, and can reduce the temperature by 10-20 F. Keeping shades and curtains drawn on windows that take a lot of direct sunlight, especially from the south and west, can reduce the heat gain in your home by up to half. Exterior window awnings, porches and overhangs do an even better job of blocking heat than interior window coverings. The hottest place in your home is the attic. If it isn't properly ventilated, the attic will heat up as high as 130 F and some of that heat transfers to the interior of your home. Check your attic temperature on a hot day; if it's higher than 100 F, you need more ventilation. Controlling humidity will help keep you more comfortable, too. If your air conditioning system doesn't dehumidify the air as well as it should, consider adding a new unit to replace it or supplement it. Wait until cooler hours to do chores that add humidity to the air, such as washing and drying clothes, washing dishes, and cooking, and use ventilation fans in bathrooms and kitchens to help vent that extra moisture. The old standbys -- caulking, weather stripping, and insulation -- are just as important in the cooling season as in the winter. They help keep cool air inside and hot air from infiltrating. So before it gets too hot to get in the attic, check out these tips. You may find you'll be more comfortable and use less energy each summer.

Hot air rises -- and you lose heat
It's a basic principle -- hot air rises. And as it does, it can literally pull cold air inside your house. This "stack effect" can affect your comfort in ways that might surprise you. The first step, of course, is to plug those gaps that allow cold air to get into the house: by caulking, weather-stripping and insulating. But a step as simple as closing an interior door or two can also help. Stairways and halls act as natural "stacks," so shutting doors that lead into hallways or stairwells can prevent warm air from being pulled out of other rooms.

Rapid cycling: great on bikes, not on your furnace!
As the heating season sets in, and your heating system gets its first workout of the year, you may notice that it frequently cycles on and off. If this happens, you may have a problem with rapid cycling, which occurs when your electronic thermostat fights to keep your home at a very consistent temperature. Rapid cycling is especially common during the early, warmer days of the heating season, so pay attention to how often your furnace comes on and off. If your programmable thermostat is set to fire-up the furnace when it senses less than a one-degree temperature drop, the heating system may go on and off as frequently as every three minutes. Check the adjustments on your thermostat: if it's set to detect just one degree of temperature change, adjust it to 1.5 degrees or more. You probably won't feel the difference in comfort but you'll avoid higher energy costs and wear and tear on your heating system.

Time to service the AC!
When hot weather sets in, it's important to make sure your air conditioning system is in top shape for the job:

  • Have a qualified air conditioning service technician check out your system. Some routine maintenance, cleaning and a refrigerant check can make the difference between comfort and misery on hot days -- and save energy, too!
  • Check the ductwork for leaks, and seal them. Insulating ductwork that runs through hot spaces, such as the attic, will also help reduce the loss of cooled air and improve efficiency.
  • Clean or change the filter on your AC system monthly. The dirtier the filter, the less efficient the cooling performance.
  • Make sure your thermostat is working properly, too. If the thermostat is in an area that's exposed to direct sunlight or heat from other sources, it will send inaccurate readings to the AC system and force it to work harder than necessary. The cost of replacing or relocating the thermostat could be repaid easily in energy savings!

Time to turn on the fans?
Autumn may seem an unlikely time to think about using those ceiling fans but, in fact, when you turn on the heat, you should turn on the fans as well. Why? Because hot air rises. By switching the direction of your fan so that it pushes the warmer air near the ceiling downward, you'll get that heated air where it's most needed. Check your ceiling fans for a simple, small switch that reverses the blade's direction. If the switch is at the top of the slot, press it downward. Now your fan will move warm air down from the ceiling, and help keep you more comfortable this winter.

Check that insulation one more time
Expecting your house to stay warm in winter without adequate insulation is like believing you can go outside in the snow without a coat and remain comfortable. It's just not reasonable! Ask a professional about the recommended insulation levels and then check your insulation. And keep a few tips in mind:

  • Make sure that you have enough insulation over the kitchen cabinets and around the walls of your shower and tub; and be sure that the attic is properly ventilated. Ventilation is as important as insulation.
  • If the access door to the attic is in a heated area, check to make sure that it is well insulated and weather-stripped.
  • If your home has a crawl space beneath heated areas, have it checked out for proper insulation, ventilation and protection.
  • Check for insulation in the floors of the rooms above unheated garages and basements, too.

Work those drapes!
Here's an easy way to get some free heat. Wash your south-facing windows and open those drapes on sunny winter days. The heat from the sun will help warm your house and keep your heating system from working too hard. When the sun goes down, close your window coverings to provide extra insulation. Insulating curtains, at a cost of about $100 per window, can help even more. On average, insulating curtains will pay for themselves in energy cost savings in about seven years.

Plant for beauty and efficiency
During warmer weather it's time to get out in the garden. Before you select plants to beautify your home, consider another important benefit of good landscaping: energy efficiency. Think about how much cooler it feels beneath the shade of a big tree on a hot day. That tree can provide several tons of cooling power, in air conditioning terms.

If your property doesn't have big deciduous trees -- the kind that lose their leaves in winter -- give serious thought to planting some. Planted on the south and west to block the summer sun, trees can reduce the heat pouring into your home and provide cooling. The Department of Energy estimates that just three trees positioned correctly around a house can cut the energy used for heating and cooling by one-fourth.

Trees and shrubs can also provide windbreaks, as farmers have known for years. Rows of evergreens bordering fields were planted to keep the wind from blowing away soil and damaging and drying out crops. The same principle applies to diverting winds that blow directly toward your home. Even shading your air conditioner compressor can make a difference. Although you want to keep plants from lying directly on or interfering with the compressor, a unit that's shaded by a tree doesn't have to work as hard as one that's in the direct summer sun.

To read more about landscaping around electrical equipment, click here.

Compact fluorescents shine light on efficiency
The very first practical use of electricity was lighting. Today, with all the many ways we use electricity -- cooling, refrigeration, operating computers and major appliances -- we tend to overlook the lowly light bulb as a possible source of energy efficiency. But, in fact, lighting accounts for up to 25 percent of all the electricity we as a nation use in a year. There have been major advances in lighting technology since Thomas Edison made his big discovery. One of the latest and greatest entries into the lighting market is the compact fluorescent bulb. Don't confuse these new compact fluorescents with the old tube fluorescent lights. The new bulbs give a warmer, more natural light (not that greenish hue) and they don't hum and flicker. Virtually all the negatives associated with fluorescent lights have been corrected in these new bulbs. These lights fit into ordinary lamp and fixture sockets, last about 13 times longer than incandescent bulbs and use only about 25 percent as much electricity.

Quick window fixes
If your windows rattle easily (and not just when the kids turn the music up loud!) you'll likely lose a lot of heated air this winter. In fact, the heat you lose through your windows can account for 10 to 25 percent of your heating costs! Take advantage of good fall weather to prepare for colder, windy days ahead by giving your home's windows a good long look. About that rattling...if the windows are loose in the frame, heated air can escape. A little caulking can solve the problem inexpensively. Rope caulking comes ready to press into place, costs about $5 per window and is easy to remove in the spring. If your window glass is very loose, you may need to reglaze them with glazing compound or putty, which is permanent. It's not a difficult task and it can really pay off. If your windowpanes are okay but you don't have storm windows and want an extra layer of protection, try clear plastic film. It may not look like much, but that thin layer of film creates a dead air space, which is a great insulator. Kits come with film and double-sided tape, are simple to use, and the film is almost invisible after it is heated and tightened into the space with a hair dryer.

Window tips: Get a clear view on energy savings
Was your house cold last winter? Energy bills high? Before the next summer comes and brings in air conditioning season, you might want to take a close look at your windows. During winter in colder climates and during the hot months in warm areas, windows can account for about one-fourth of the heat loss or gain in a typical home. About half of the houses in this country still have old single-pane windows, which are major sources of lost heat in the winter and lost cool air in summer. Replacing all your windows is likely to be an expensive proposition, but there are many other, less expensive things you can do to make them more efficient:

  • Replace old, dried or loose window glazing with new glazing to ensure that your windowpanes fit tightly.
  • Caulk around the outside frame of your windows, where the frame meets the home's siding. Weather-strip around the window itself to provide a tight seal when the window is closed.
  • Use heat-shrink plastic, installed with a hair dryer, to provide an extra layer of insulation. This simple step can really cut heat loss and gain through the window glass.
  • In cold weather, insulating shades or drapes can keep drafts out; in warm weather, they'll help keep conditioned air in and cut down on heat gain.
  • During hot weather, keep shades drawn on windows that let in a lot of sunlight. In the winter, open those shades to collect heat energy from the sun. Awnings can also help deflect the sun's rays in hot weather.
  • Hang white window shades or blinds, which can reduce solar heat gain by 40 to 50 percent.
  • Close south- and west-facing curtains during the day, and keep the windows closed.
  • Install awnings on south-facing windows where there's no roof overhang to provide shade. Canvas awnings are more expensive than window shades, but they're more pleasing to the eye, they work better, and they don't obstruct your view.
  • Alternatively, hang tightly woven insect screens or bamboo shades outside windows during the summer. They'll reduce your view, but they'll stop 60 to 80 percent of the sun's heat from getting to the window.
  • Plant trees or build a trellis to block out solar radiation. Deciduous (leaf-bearing) trees planted to the south, east and west of your building provide valuable shade in the summer, then drop their leaves in the winter to allow half or more of the sun's heat to warm you on clear winter days.
  • Apply retrofit window films on the inside of east-, south-, and west-facing windows and glass doors.