It’s expected to be a hotter summer this year, but don’t confine your money-saving efforts to the thermostat.
The warm months can be the best time to focus on cutting year-round energy costs (http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/steo/report/electricity.cfm). Free of snow, ice and wind, it’s easier to spot problems, do repairs and budget for energy-efficient appliances and fix-up projects that can save considerable money in the future.
Your first step should be better tracking and analysis of the energy you buy. The most common sources of energy spending are home utilities and fuel costs for vehicles. However, if you own a vacation home, operate a business within your residential space or have different vehicles for land or water, see if you can separate those numbers so you can more clearly identify usage patterns month to month and find ways to cut back.
Think about an energy audit. Whether you do it yourself or pay for the services of a certified professional summer is the best time to do a basement-to-rooftop energy audit (http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/professional-home-energy-audits). Some utility companies have home energy audits online so you can see where your energy is going. Prospective homeowners might make an energy audit part of their home inspection process. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2014, the average American spent 60 percent of their energy dollars heating rooms and water. Another 16 percent goes to lighting, cooling and food refrigeration. The remainder – nearly a quarter of total home energy uses – covers all miscellaneous energy use in the house.
Then focus on the thermostat. In the summer, confine heavy air conditioning use to the hottest nights, and the rest of the time, try to set the thermostat a little higher than you do now. For example, the U.S. Energy Department says that setting your air conditioning to 78 degrees instead of 72 can save between 6-18 percent on your summer cooling bill. Before you spend money on a programmable thermostat or convert your real-time utility billing to a budget plan, note that some research questions their value (https://today.duke.edu/2015/04/autopay). First, see how much you can save by shutting off vents and doors and drawing curtains in unused rooms and spaces. If you don’t have pets, you may consider setting your thermostat significantly higher than 78 before you leave for work.
Lights out. We’ve all been admonished to turn off the lights when we leave a room, but there are other things we can do to capture random, or “vampire,” energy waste. Sensors, dimmers and timers can reduce lighting use, and installing power strips can keep computers, microwaves, cable boxes, DVRs and high-end TV sets from sucking energy even when they’re not turned on. Unplugging between uses works too. Also, swapping conventional incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) can provide lighting that lasts longer and saves money on replacements.
Check for tax credits and rebates. Make a call to your tax professional, check the Internal Revenue Service’s website (http://www.irs.gov/uac/Form-5695,-Residential-Energy-Credits) and EnergyStar.gov for news on residential energy credits for specific replacement appliances and energy-saving improvements to your home. Keep in mind that Congress traditionally acts late each year to renew old credits or to approve new ones.
Consider energy-smart landscaping. Keep in mind that well-placed trees and shrubs can shield a home from the sun and the elements year-round and potentially save 25 percent on energy costs annually.
Cars, gas, and public transportation. If you drive, consolidate errands, fill up your tank at cheaper times and consider smartphone apps to find low gas prices for commuting and vacation use. And if you don’t regularly use public transportation, start testing it during the summer. The additional walking most people do when they take public transportation has health benefits as well.
Bottom line: This summer, don’t just try to keep cool. Save money by changing your year-round energy behavior.
By Nathaniel Sillin
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney.