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.
Little things like that can really add up. Here are a few more:
• Today’s refrigerators use 60 percent less electricity on average than those manufactured before 1992, when the EPA introduced the Energy Star program, and Energy Star refrigerators and freezers can save you an extra 15 percent over noncertified models. You can calculate your potential savings at energystar.gov.
• If you’re remodeling, don’t get a big refrigerator just because it looks good. “Get the smallest one you need,” says Thomas Buckborough of Thomas Buckborough & Associates in Acton. “A giant refrigerator is still a giant refrigerator, whether it’s Energy Star rated or not.”
• If you have a second fridge in the basement or garage, says Laurie Acone, senior program manager at National Grid in Waltham, “remove it and let us recycle it for you.” And if you’re renovating, make sure to replace that older model with a newer Energy Star version. It can save you big bucks, especially if the spare was made before 1992.
• Tightly pack your refrigerator and freezer. “When you have more in there,” says Tawfik, “it doesn’t have to work as hard to cool an empty space.” In both compartments, use 2-liter soda bottles filled with water to take up slack.
• Why use an energy-sucking automatic ice maker when you can make ice yourself with a tray? The built-in gadgets increase your fridge’s energy consumption by as much as 20 percent, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. You can get molds now that form little Titanics, Legos, letters, and more. Better yet, buy reusable cubes made of plastic filled with water. Some ice makers have an on-off switch; if yours doesn’t, simply lift the little wire arm that senses when the bin is full to turn it off.
• Dust or vacuum the coils on your refrigerator: “Dirty coils make the compressor work harder,” says Acone. Keeping the fan vent clean can also increase efficiency.
• Thaw frozen food in the fridge rather than on the counter. It takes slightly longer but helps keep the refrigerator cold — and is safer from a health standpoint, because bacteria grow quickly at room temperature.
• Open and shut the doors of your refrigerator and freezer as little and as quickly as possible. Good organization can help you find things quickly.
• Set your appliances at the right temperature. Check your owner’s manual, but most refrigerators work best between 36 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and freezers at 0 to 5 degrees. If you have a wine cooler, around 55 degrees is best.
• If the flame from your gas burners is yellow anywhere but toward its top, it’s time to get your stove serviced. A yellow flame signals the range isn’t using gas efficiently.
• If your recipes won’t suffer from it, use the microwave instead of the stove top or oven. A casserole “nuked” on high for 15 minutes costs only 3 cents in energy, while baking the same meal in an electric oven at 350 degrees for an hour costs 16 cents, and in a toaster oven, about half that.
• When you use a 6-inch pot on your stove’s largest burner, says Swett, “you’re heating the air in the kitchen instead of actually cooking the food.” Right-sizing your pot to your burner can save a surprising $20 to $40 a year.
• Keep the metal reflectors under your electric burners clean for maximum efficiency.
• Cover pans when cooking to keep more heat where it belongs.
• If you’re in the market for a new range hood, look for one with an automatic shut-off option that lets you preset its running time, so you don’t forget to turn it off while eating that fabulous meal you just cooked. Others have heat sensors that automatically adjust the blower to a higher speed when the stove top is hotter.
• Cook multiple meals in your oven once or twice a week and then freeze portion sizes; it saves you time and lets you use the appliance while it’s hot, rather than preheating and cooling it down every day.
• Use your dishwasher. According to energystar.gov, doing dishes by hand not only requires as much as 230 hours of your time annually but also consumes about 5,000 gallons more water a year. If you don’t have the space or funds to add a dishwasher, consider investing in a touch or motion-sensor faucet so the water needn’t continue running when you’re not actively using it.
• Wash dishes in cold or tepid water. “Hot water is no better for the dishes,” says Swett. “You’re not getting to a temperature at which you’d be killing bacteria anyway. You’d need to get it to 180 or 190 degrees, and you’d be scalding your hands.”
• If you have a dishwasher, run it only when it’s fully loaded. If you rarely have a full load at the end of a day, consider buying a two-drawer dishwasher when it’s time to replace your current one.
• Check your dishwasher’s control panel to see if you can turn off the drying cycle and let dishes dry naturally; doing so can cut the appliance’s energy use by 15 to 50 percent. “They can dry using the residual heat from the washing cycle,” says Samuel Rashkin, chief architect at the US Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office. “It might take two hours instead of a half-hour, and you may have to use a dish towel if you take the dishes out immediately after, but it does save quite a lot.”
• A typical American home has 40 products — small appliances, chargers, computer equipment, and so forth — constantly drawing power on standby mode, which can account for as much as 10 percent of your utility bill. When countertop appliances are not in use, unplug them.
• Buy less. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, American families throw out about a quarter of the food they buy, mainly because it spoils before it’s used or because too much is cooked and served. Food production uses 50 percent of the land and 80 percent of the fresh water consumed in the United States, and wasted food ends up in landfills and contributes significantly to methane emissions, which increase global warming. If those facts don’t move you, consider this: The food you throw away might be costing you as much as $2,275 a year for a family of four.
• Many of the newer bathroom fans have humidity sensors that turn them on automatically when the room steams up — and off when it’s clear. Fans with timer switches, too, can be practical in busy households.
• A low-flow faucet — look for those labeled WaterSense by the EPA — can reduce your bathroom sink’s water flow by more than 30 percent, and a low-flow shower head can result in savings of up to 60 percent with an upfront cost of as little as $10. Most have a built-in function that aerates the water but keeps its pressure high, so you’ll never know the difference.
• Repair leaky faucets immediately; just one drop a minute adds up to 34 gallons in a year. Better yet, replace that old faucet: Touch and motion-activated ones are available for the bathroom, too.
• Take showers, not baths; you can save as much as 60 percent more water.
• You can buy shower heads with shut-off valves, so you can turn off the water while you’re soaping up or shaving.
• Don’t let the water run while shaving or brushing your teeth.
• Though it has been fashionable in recent years to put multi-head showers in during remodels, “you really don’t need like eight body-spray jets,” says Buckborough. “They waste tons of water.”
• If you’re replacing your toilet, go with a low-flow or the dual-flush version, which allows you to adjust the amount of water used depending on what’s being flushed; both can save more than 10,000 gallons a year. If you’re not ready for a new one yet, make your old one more efficient by displacing some of the water in the tank with a plastic bottle full of sand; your toilet doesn’t need that much to flush with anyway, and it can save you up to 30 percent.
• Your biggest savings can come from buying a new front-loading washer when your old one needs replacing. “They use so little water that when the clothes come out, they’re damp,” says Thomas Kelly. “You put towels in [the dryer] and they’re dry in like 10 minutes. The washer has such a high spin rate, it gets rid of the water, and the dryer doesn’t have to work so hard.”
• Use cold water with a detergent that’s appropriate for your machine. Newer high-efficiency machines require less detergent, and soap manufacturers have made it easy to find them by marking the packages with “HE.” Unless you’re trying to disinfect something, like diapers, says Swett, cold water works just as well as hot and is better for clothes, too.
• Skip the extra rinse cycle on your washer. If you use the right amount of soap, you don’t need it.
• If you have time, dry your clothes on a line outdoors in good weather and on an indoor rack when it’s too cold out. If your clothes are stiff after line drying, you may be using too much detergent; many “helpful hints” websites also recommend adding vinegar to the wash cycle to avoid this. Worst-case scenario is you can put things in the dryer on “fluff” for a few minutes before or after line drying to alleviate the problem.
• If your dryer has one, be sure to set it on the “automatic” or “energy preferred” moisture-sensing setting, which turns the machine off when the clothes are dry, so it doesn’t keep tumbling for an extra half-hour if you have forgotten about it.
• Clean your lint trap after every load. The EPA says this simple step can save you up to $34 a year. And don’t forget to check the outside vent periodically, too, for lint buildup.
• Separate light fabrics from heavy ones, and dry them separately.
• Don’t add wet clothes to a load that’s already drying, but do put a dry towel in with a fresh load; it will absorb dampness from other clothes and reduce drying time.
• Buy clothes that don’t need ironing. Not only will you save the earth’s energy, but, as with many of these tips, you’ll conserve your own, too.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent Globe Magazine contributor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.