Ways to be Fuel Smart: Tips for an Energy-Efficient Home

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Approximately 22 percent of the energy used in the United States is consumed in residences. Most of the energy consumed in homes still comes either directly or indirectly from fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, or coal.

These fuels are limited, nonrenewable, and increasingly expensive resources. In the case of oil and natural gas, world supplies could be exhausted in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interest to use these precious resources wisely while new energy sources are being developed.

Despite major successes in energy conservation in the last few decades, there is much that we can still do. This section contains information on a number of measures that will help you reduce the amount of energy you use in your home, while also making it a more comfortable place to live. Some of the measures may seem trivial, but when added up, the result can be significant energy savings.

These energy conservation measures are largely no-cost or low-cost (less than $10), or moderate-cost ($11 to $50); even the most expensive would probably cost less than $100 to implement. Few require any significant physical alterations to your house. Most require only a change in your energy use habits.

Nationwide, space heating is the largest consumer of energy in residences, and accounts for nearly half of the energy used in a typical household. Water heating accounts for 14 percent; refrigeration for 13 percent; space cooling for 7 percent; and lighting, cooking, and appliances for the remainder.

This section will show you how you can reduce the total wattage of lighting in your home while increasing the amount of usable light. It outlines steps you can take to reduce the amount of hot water you use for bathing, dishwashing, and laundering and to make the most energy-efficient use of your appliances.

Caution: Persons over 65, infants, and persons with certain illnesses risk hypothermia if they stay indoors at temperatures less than 65°F. If you think you risk hypothermia by turning your thermostat below 65°F, consult your doctor.


Nationwide, more energy is consumed to heat homes and houses than for any other purpose, so the largest energy savings can be made in this area. (Note: In some areas of the southern United States, air-conditioning or water heating may account for a larger share of regional energy consumption.)

Thermostats. For homes that have them, thermostats offer the single easiest opportunity to conserve energy, requiring nothing more than setting a dial to the desired temperature. Recommended settings range from 65°F to 70°F for the hours you’re active and 55°F to 60°F when you’re in bed.

Setback Features. Some thermostats have an automatic set back feature that can lower the temperature around the time you go to bed and raise it again shortly before you getup. See section 3 for more information on how to use your thermostat for maximum fuel savings.

Avoid Drafts. Make sure your thermostat is not in a draft. It will sense the cooler air and make the furnace work longer, overheating your home.

Radiator Tips. If your home has radiators they should be kept clean, as dirt and dust absorb heat. Radiator covers should be removed when radiators are in use because the covers absorb heat and block the flow of air through the radiator.

Radiator Types. There are two types of radiators: steam and hot water. In general you should adjust your radiator’s steam or hot-water valve only to turn it on or off. Positioning the valve in between does not regulate heat but strains the pipes. If your home is too hot, don’t open the window and let the radiator continue to pour out heat. Instead turn the valve all the way off until the temperature in your home is comfortable.

Bleed Radiators. To operate most efficiently, a hot-water radiator must be completely filled with water. At least once a year at the start of the heating season, your radiators should be purged of trapped air. Do this by opening the bleeder valve on each radiator. The bleeder valve is the small valve located at the top and on the end of the radiator. Some bleeder valves can be opened with a screwdriver; others are opened with a key available at hardware stores. When the valve is opened, any trapped air will escape with a hiss followed by a flow of hot water. Once water begins to escape close the valve immediately. Throughout the heating season, bleed radiators that are running cooler than normal.

Air Vent Valves. If your home is equipped with steam-type radiators it is important to check air vent valves each heating season. This vent allows air to escape so that steam can enter the radiator. The valve is usually a small chrome-plated device mounted on the top of the radiator at the end opposite the steam valve. This valve should always be standing straight up with the vent hole at the top. The vent hole must be kept free of dirt and paint for the radiator to operate efficiently.

Radiator Reflectors. Radiator reflectors are usually made from a thin bubble-pack material with aluminum or another shiny substance on one side. Placed on the wall behind the radiator unit, they reflect heat back into the room instead of allowing the heat to seep through the wall or nearby window. They are a moderate-cost item available from hardware stores.

Build It Yourself. You’ll spend even less money if you build your own reflector. Obtain a piece of cardboard or insulation board and cut it to cover an area of wall slightly larger than that covered by the radiator. Cover one side of the board with aluminum foil or some other reflective material. Then fasten the reflector to the wall behind the radiator. Whether you buy or build a reflector, be sure that when installed it does not touch the radiator, because it would then conduct heat into the wall behind it instead of reflecting the heat into the room.

Weatherproofing Doors. A poorly fitted outside door will allow warm air to escape during the winter months. However, there are a number of simple no-cost or moderate- cost techniques for making your door more airtight. Warm air can escape between the door frame and the wall. If this is the case in your home, caulk between the frame and the wall.

Door Sweep. The loss of warm air is frequently greatest under the bottom of the door. This air loss can be prevented by installing a door sweep on the bottom edge of your door.

Draft Guard. A no-cost or low-cost alternative to a door sweep is a draft guard. This is a sand-filled tube of cloth is laid against the bottom of your door. You can buy this product cheaply, but the no-cost way is to make it yourself. Cut a 4- inch- to 5-inch-wide strip from an old sheet, dress, or shirt. The strip should be several inches longer than the gap it will plug. Sew the sides and one end together. Then fill with sand and sew shut. Around the sides and top of the door, weather-strip where the door closes against the frame.

Windows. During the winter pull shut blinds, shades, and draperies on all windows at night and on windows with a northern exposure during the day. Open them whenever the windows receive direct, warming sunlight. Uncover east- facing windows in the morning, west-facing windows in the afternoon, and windows with a southern exposure during all daylight hours.

Weatherproofing Windows. Warm air can leak out between the window frame and the wall. You can stop this type of leak by caulking between the frame and the wall.

Leaky Sashes. Warm air can also be lost between the movable window sash and window frame and between the top and bottom sash in a double-hung window. (The window sash is the panes of glass and the framework into which they are set.) In this case, you can prevent air loss by weather stripping the movable sash.

Rope Caulk. Rope caulk can be placed over the cracks between the sash and the window frame, and where the upper and lower sashes meet. Most people use rope caulk for only one season, though it can be removed, rolled back up, and stored in a jar until next year. A disadvantage of rope caulk is that you must remove it in order to open the window.

Types of Weather Stripping. You can place plastic, adhesive weather stripping on the window frame, pressing it against the sash. This type of weather stripping will last longer than rope caulk, and you can use the window without removing the weather stripping.

The most durable type of weather stripping is the extruded plastic or V-strip that can be placed between the sash and the frame and between the upper and lower sash. Typically, this weather stripping will last for several years and does not interfere with the use of the window.

Loose Panes. Air can escape around the edges of a loose pane. Caulk or tape around the edge of a loose pane where it meets the framework of the sash. If you have a cracked pane of glass, you can find out whether it is losing heat by holding a stick of burning incense up to it. Is the smoke drawn out the crack? If so, replace the cracked pane, or tape over the crack until the pane can be replaced. Weatherproofing your door and windows will make your home more comfortable while conserving energy and saving you money.

Inexpensive Storm Windows. During the winter months a great deal of heat is lost through the glass in your windows. If your home is not supplied with storm windows, you can purchase inexpensive storm window kits or make your own out of clear plastic sheeting. The sheeting is applied to the inside of the window frame and completely covers the sash. The plastic will stop leaks, and the dead air between it and the window will slow the transfer of heat to the outside.

Buying Plastic Sheeting. The plastic can be purchased by the roll. It should be at least 8 mils thick so that it’s rugged enough to last the entire winter. Buy it wide enough to cover your widest window from outside one side of its frame to the other. Estimate the length of plastic you will need by measuring the height of each of your windows from the bottom to the top of their frames and adding their total height.

Applying Plastic Sheeting. You can use a number of methods to apply the plastic to the window frame. These include tape, glue, tacks, and wood strips and nails. No matter how you apply it, make sure that the seal between the plastic and the window frame is airtight. Leave one or two windows free of plastic so they can be opened for ventilation.

Air Conditioner Covers. Window- and wall-mounted air conditioners cool your home even in winter by letting in chilly drafts. If you can’t remove the unit and close the window, this energy loss can be stopped with an outdoor air conditioner cover made of tough plastic. An inside cover should be used in addition to or (if you can't safely reach the out side of your unit) in place of an outdoor cover. Air conditioner covers are low-cost items.

Exhaust Fans. When not in use, a kitchen exhaust fan allows warm air to escape from your home. Inexpensive covers are available for exhaust fan openings.

Furniture Arrangement. Arrange furniture and draperies so that they do not block or obstruct heat vents, radiators, or baseboard heaters.

Air Conditioning

In summer, air conditioners are one of the largest consumers of energy. Here are some tips for using them more efficiently and less frequently.

Air Conditioner Cleaning. Check the filter at least once at the beginning of the cooling season. If it’s clogged, your unit will run longer than necessary. Clean the filter or replace it — it’s an inexpensive item. If you can do so safely, check and clean the condenser coils and fins (the grills or spines on the out door side of the unit).

Temperature Control Setting. The temperature control on your air conditioner should be set no lower than 78°E Most window units do not have specific degree markings, so refer to a thermometer placed in a part of the room away from the unit’s air flow. Don’t set the control to a temperature below 78°F when starting up the unit. It won’t cool the room faster, and if you forget to set it to a higher temperature once the room is comfortable, you’ll be wasting money.

Air Conditioner Thermostat. Don’t place lamps, TV sets, or other heat sources near your air conditioner thermostat. Heat from these appliances is sensed by the thermostat and could cause the air conditioner to run longer than necessary.

Buying a Room Air Conditioner. Check the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER) and select the model with the highest number for the greatest efficiency. Remember to look for the Energy Star label. Make sure the unit is not too big for the space you need to cool. An oversized unit won’t cool your house properly. Instead you will spend more money to be less comfortable than with an appropriately sized unit.

Dress Cool. Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing in warm weather. This type of clothing allows air to pass across your skin, evaporating moisture and cooling you.

Window Fans. The outdoor air temperature is frequently comfortable, especially at night, but there may be no breeze to bring the cooler air into your home. Buy an outdoor thermometer, and mount it so it’s visible from your window. When the temperature outside is comfortable, use a window fan instead of the air conditioner. A fan requires as little as one-tenth the energy needed to run an air conditioner

Fresh Air. If your air conditioner has an outside air control to bring in fresh air use it without turning on the cooling section. The compressor motor in the unit is the big energy user, not the fan. Be sure to close the outside air control when operating the compressor (cooling position) so that the compressor is cooling only room air.

Lights, Cooking, Appliances. In the summer, electric lights, cooking, and the use of appliances such as the washer and dryer generate heat and increase the load on your air conditioner. Keep lights low or off whenever possible. Try to schedule cooking and the use of appliances for the cooler parts of the day. If you must use the oven for a number of hours, shut the kitchen off from the rest of the home and use the kitchen exhaust fan to draw off the heat you create.

Humidity. High humidity makes warm air even more uncomfortable, especially when you’re active. Reschedule chores that produce moisture, such as floor washing, dishwashing, laundering, bathing, and showering, until cooler times of day or night.


Want to slow down that spinning electric meter? Be careful how you use lights in your home.

Use lower-wattage light bulbs. Lower-wattage bulbs should be used in halls, vestibules, and other places where no close up work or reading occur.

Replace high-use incandescent bulbs with fluorescents. Compact fluorescent fixtures and bulbs are now available for almost all lighting needs. Interior and exterior fixtures, security lighting, and table lamps are some examples. These use about one-quarter to one-fifth the amount of electricity used by their incandescent counterparts. For example, a 15-watt fluorescent bulb produces as much light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. Even though the initial cost is greater, each fluorescent light will typically save $40 to $70 in energy costs. It will also last about 10,000 hours, or ten to fifteen times longer than an incandescent bulb. Any light that is on more than 3 hours a day is a good candidate for replacement.

This technology is improving rapidly. The light is warmer and more pleasing. It is now more flattering and closer to a daylight radiance. The bulbs come on instantly, and the flickering many people remember is no longer present. More and more products are available, which means you can find the right one for most situations. For example, three-way and dimmable fluorescent bulbs are now available. Check your store for the newer, warm-tone, screw-in light bulbs. Your electric utility company may offer rebates on compact fluorescent bulbs or lighting fixtures.

— Did you know that compact fluorescent floor lamps (often called torchères) provide the same light output as the halo gen torchères, don’t get as hot, and use dramatically less energy? Over the lifetime of the lamp, you can save up to $200 on your electric bill.

— In areas of your home that need better lighting it is generally more efficient to use a higher-wattage bulb than a number of lower-wattage bulbs.

Dark walls and ceilings may be dramatic, but they absorb light. Pastels or white on walls and ceilings will give maxi mum illumination with fewer light fixtures burning in the evening and will make a room pleasantly lit without electricity during daylight hours. A white wall reflects 80 percent of the light that hits it, while a black wall reflects just 10 percent.

Switch Habits. When leaving a room for even a short time, turn off the lights.

Use Daylight. When possible, schedule activities requiring good lighting for the daytime. Place your reading chair near the window. Dirty windows let in less light, so clean windows regularly.

Clean Bulbs and Fixtures. Dirt and grime from cooking, cigarette smoke, and dust obstruct light, so keep bulbs, fixtures, and shades clean. For safety’s sake remove bulbs before cleaning your fixtures and dry the fixture thoroughly before replacing. Make sure bulbs are cool before removing.

Lamp Location. Make sure that lamps are positioned so that you can make the most efficient use of their light. If you have a lamp by your reading chair or at your desk, you won’t have to light up the whole room.

Lamp Shades. Many decorative lamp shades bottle up light or direct it where you don’t need it. Light-colored translucent shades are the best for releasing light. Shades on reading lamps should direct most of the light downward. Remember to keep shades clean to let out more light.

Light-Colored Furnishings. Lighter-colored furnishings, curtains, and rugs reflect light and reduce the amount of artificial light needed in a room.

Safety Lights. Do you leave your lights on when going on vacation? Substitute compact fluorescents for incandescent bulbs in those fixtures that will be on 24 hours a day.

Correct Wattage. Have you installed the appropriate wattage for the task at hand? Often people use bulbs with higher wattage than necessary just because they have run out of bulbs with the desired wattage. A lamp with a 75- watt bulb might provide suitable light with a 60-watt bulb, so keep a variety of bulbs on hand for replacements.

Task Lamps. Task lamps provide direct lighting over desks and other work areas. You save energy when you use them instead of turning on the higher-wattage general lighting in the room.

Long-Life Bulbs. Long-life incandescent bulbs are more expensive and less efficient than standard bulbs of the same wattage.

Dimmers. A dimmer switch allows you to reduce the energy going to incandescent bulbs. A light can be adjusted from bright for reading to a gentle glow for watching TV or dining. Some dimmers require no installation. The lamp is simply plugged into the dimmer, and the dimmer is plugged into a wall socket. Wall switches can also be replaced by dimmer switches. Some compact fluorescents have a dimmable feature.

Timers and motion sensors. If you don’t like coming home to a dark home, or you want the added protection of leaving some lights on when no one’s home, consider lighting timers, which turn lights on and off automatically. Using timers or motion sensors is much less costly in the long run than leaving your lights on all day.


After space heating, water heating may be the next largest item on you total energy bill. Cutting down hot-water use can be a big money-saver.

Water-Saver Showerheads. These showerheads cut the flow of water by 40 to 60 percent and typically have a water cutoff lever. With this feature you can turn off the water while you lather up. These types of showerheads frequently have set tings for different types of spray. Water-saver showerheads are low-cost items that simply screw onto your existing shower arm.

Aerators. Installing an aerator in your kitchen or bathroom sink faucet will reduce the water flow. You’ll use less hot water and save the energy that would be required to heat it. The sinks in many modern homes are already equipped with aerators, so check with a plumber or your landlord before trying to install one.


Turn Them Off. Don’t leave appliances running when you’re not using them.

Keep Them in Good Working Order. They will last longer, operate more efficiently, and use less energy

Be Energy-Conscious when Buying Appliances. Compare energy-use information and operating costs of similar models by the same and different manufacturers. An appliance with a lower purchase price may in the long run cost you more than an energy-efficient model with a higher purchase price. Many types of appliances are required by law to have labels showing estimated annual operating costs.

Special Features. Before buying a new appliance with special features, find out how much energy it uses in comparison to a model without the features. For example, a frost-free refrigerator uses more energy than one that must be defrosted manually. It also costs more to purchase. The savings may make it worth passing up such features.

Use Appliances Wisely. Use the appliance that requires the least amount of energy for the job. Toasting bread in the oven takes three times as much energy as toasting it in a toaster.


A Major Energy User. Unlike most household appliances that are operated only periodically, the refrigerator-freezer operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. New York City estimates that more than 25 percent of the general electrical costs in an average city home is accounted for by the refrigerator.

Clean Coils. At least once a year carefully clean the condenser coils of your refrigerator, using either the crevice tool attachment of the vacuum cleaner or a long-handled brush. These coils are located behind or beneath the refrigerator.

Door Gasket. The gasket is the strip of flexible plastic or rubber around your refrigerator door that seals the crack when the door is closed. Dried food can break this seal, so clean the gasket periodically to ensure that the seal is airtight.

Temperature Settings. A temperature of 38°F to 40°F is generally recommended for refrigerators; 0°F is advised for freezers. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, but check these settings by placing a thermometer in both sections.

Contents Arrangement. Food retains cold better than air, so keep units as full as possible but don’t overcrowd, so air can circulate freely. For the freezer compartment, stack items tightly. Add extra bags of ice to fill spaces.

Humidity or Power-Saver Switch. Many refrigerators have a humidity or power-saver switch. Its purpose is to control small electric heaters around the edge of the door that stop the door from sweating on humid days. At all other times this heating serves no useful purpose. Keep your refrigerator switched to the power-saving or low-humidity position for most of the year.

Manual Defrost. Frost buildup increases the amount of energy needed to cool refrigerators and freezers, so defrost regularly. Never allow your freezer to build up frost more than 1/4 inch thick.

Range and Oven

Cooking. Use a steamer or pressure cooker if you have one. You’ll not only save energy but also preserve the nutritional value of food.

Burners. If you have a gas range, make sure the flame is blue and cone-shaped by keeping the burner clean and unclogged. You can use a piece of wire or pipe cleaner to unclog burner ports. Keep burner reflectors shiny, and they will reflect more heat.

Pots and Pans. Use flat-bottomed pots and pans, as they pro vide faster heat transfer. The pot or pan should completely cover the burner or heating element. A small pan on a large burner wastes energy. Shiny pans and clean reflectors help focus heat.

Turn Off the Range. If you use an electric range, turn off burners shortly before the recommended cooking time is completed. The heat retained in the element will finish the job.

Leave Lids On. Food cooks faster in pots and pans with tight- fitting covers.

Oven Habits. Cook as many dishes together as possible. If one dish calls for 325°F, another for 350°F, and a third for 375°F, set the oven for 350°F Cut a few minutes off the recipe time for the lower-temperature dish and add a few minutes to the higher-temperature dish.

Don’t Preheat. Preheat only when absolutely necessary and don’t preheat for dishes cooked for an hour or more. In any case, never preheat for more than 10 minutes.

Don’t Open the Door. Every time you open the oven door, the oven loses about 20 percent of its heat, so don’t keep opening the door to see whether your dish is done before the mini mum time given in the recipe.

Don’t Overcook. Use thermometers and timers to avoid overcooking.

Small Ovens. If you have more than one oven, use the smallest one that will do the job. For example, a toaster oven may cost half as much to operate as a full oven, but will cook or heat small items just as well.

Use the Range, Not the Oven. Whenever you can, use the range-top. It uses far less energy than the oven.

Use an Electric Slow Cooker. It uses heat efficiently and costs less. Invest in a slow cooker and a cookbook and you’ll be amazed at the variety of dishes you can make.

Double Recipes. When cooking or baking, double recipes and freeze half for future use.

— Frozen Foods. Thaw frozen foods (except when package instructions or recipes indicate otherwise) before cooking in the oven. Frozen meats require 20 minutes longer per pound to cook than thawed meat.

Oven Arrangement. Rearrange oven shelves before you cook, not while the oven is on. Allow at least 1 inch of space around each pan in the oven. When using more than one shelf, stagger the pans for better heat distribution.

Minimize the Use of the Self-Clean Feature. Use the feature only when absolutely necessary When you do use it, start the cleaning cycle after using the oven to utilize retained heat. Wipe up oven spills regularly to avoid the need for frequent cleanings.

No Foil. Never place aluminum foil on an oven floor. It may block vents and impair air circulation, reducing oven temperature as much as 50°F.

Microwave Ovens. Microwave cooking is much more energy efficient than conventional cooking.

Washer and Dryer

Detergent. Use only as much detergent as recommended on the box. Excessive suds hamper effective washing and often require extra rinsing.

Presoak. For heavily soiled clothing, presoak or use the washing machine’s soak cycle to avoid second washes.

Don’t Over-dry. Over-drying wastes energy, sets wrinkles, and causes clothes to wear out more quickly. If your dryer has an automatic dry cycle, use it to prevent over-drying.

Dryer Venting. Generally, dryers should be vented to the out side to avoid putting excess moisture into your home. However, if you have a dry home and an electric dryer, you may be able to vent the dryer into your home during winter. This will help heat the home arid add moisture. Cover the vent with a nylon stocking or buy an indoor dryer-vent kit to prevent lint from escaping into your living area.

Dry Consecutive Loads. Drying your clothes in consecutive loads saves the energy required to warm the dryer up to the desired temperature.


Full Load. Wait until you have a full load before you use your dishwasher, but be careful not to overload it.

Scrape, Don’t Rinse. Instead of rinsing your dishes in hot water before loading them into the dishwasher, scrape them with a sponge or spatula.

Rinse Hold Setting. Don’t use the rinse hold setting on your machine. It uses 3 to 7 gallons of hot water each time you use it.

Air Dry. Some dishwasher models have an automatic air-dry or overnight dry switch. If yours doesn’t, turn off the control knob after the final rinse and then open the door and let the dishes dry by themselves. This can save you up to 10 percent of your total dishwashing energy costs.

Hand Dishwashing. Rinse your dishes in a sink or dishpan of clean water instead of under hot running water.

Other Appliances

Garbage Disposal. Use only cold water when running your disposal. This saves hot water and solidifies grease, which is then ground up and washed down the drain.

Iron. An iron heats up much faster than it cools, so it saves money to begin by ironing low-temperature fabrics first then working up to those that require the highest temperature. Turn off the iron about 5 minutes before you complete your ironing and use the heat retained in the plate to finish the job.

Reduce Your Ironing Load. By promptly removing laundry from the dryer and hanging it up or carefully folding it, you can reduce the need for ironing. Hang clothes in the bath room when you’re bathing or showering — the steam will often remove wrinkles for you. Buy permanent press fabrics and garments.

Hair Dryer. Towel- and air-dry your hair whenever possible. Running an electric hair dryer for 10 minutes uses the same energy as burning a 60-watt light bulb for 3 hours.

Television. “Instant-on” TV sets use energy even when the screen is dark. This type of set may have a “vacation switch” feature so that you can turn it off for long periods. If not, you can plug your set into a switched socket.

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