Sometimes, the simplest solutions – like a programmable thermostat, replacement lightbulbs and power strips – are the hardest ones to figure out. But with a little research, some savvy shopping and careful integration into your daily life, these energy savers could pay for themselves several times.
Shopping for a programmable thermostat?
There are plenty of brands and styles on the shelves at hardware stores, home centers and big-box retailers – but one thing you won’t find today is a programmable thermostat that carries the Energy Star® label. The organization dropped the label from these products in 2009. Why?
Programmable thermostats potentially can save you up to $180 a year on heating and cooling costs according to Energy Star, but many folks miss out on the savings by incorrectly setting up their new thermostats – or just using them like a conventional, old-style thermostat.
“Most people failed to use the programmable capabilities,” says Brian Sloboda, a program manager specializing in energy efficiency for the Cooperative Research Network, the research and development arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. This led to poor ratings on consumer surveys, which resulted in the loss of the Energy Star seal for most programmable thermostats.
Today, smart thermostats are an easier-to-use, but often more expensive, alternative. They come with electronics that help do the work of detecting and setting the temperature in your home.
“Sensors will start to turn the thermostat up or down, depending on the season,” Sloboda says. Within a few days of installing the device, the system will begin to learn your schedule, automatically dialing your thermostat back when you’re not home.
The addition of smart phone and iPad apps help make temperature control easy, he adds. “Using an app interface should be more intuitive than the old-fashioned programmable thermostat.”
Residential lighting: Pay now, save later
By now you know that Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulb has dimmed. January 2014 marked the end of production for this style of bulb, under a federal provision to phase out and replace it with more energy-efficient options. Currently, there are three choices: halogen-incandescents, CFLs and LEDs.
LEDs are getting the most attention now in the marketplace, and their prices have dropped significantly during the last couple of years. Lighting experts recommend sticking with brands you know and trust. GE, Sylvania and Philips have been longtime consumer lighting choices, but Sloboda says don’t overlook the lesser-known Cree lighting products.
When you go shopping, spend a little time reading the Lighting Facts label on the packaging for the LEDs. It will come in handy when you want to narrow your lighting choice by light output, which is measured in lumens; choose the most lumens per number of watts. For example, an LED lightbulb that’s equivalent to a traditional 60-watt incandescent bulb may be rated at 800 lumens and 12 watts.
Also consider color temperature, which gives your bulbs a warm, soft white tone (which many people prefer for living and sleeping areas) or a cooler, daylight look for bathrooms, kitchens and work areas. A warm white bulb will have a yellowish tint and a color temperature of 2700K, while a daylight bulb will be at the other end of the color scale (blue) at 5000K. You also may see daylight-labeled bulbs that fall in between, at around 3500K. Try a couple of different LEDs to determine which you like best.
As with thermostats, smart devices also have arrived in the lightbulb aisle. Manufacturers such as Philips are among the companies manufacturing LEDs you can control from your cell phone, changing brightness and color to suit your mood.
“Today’s lighting is really starting to become part of a home’s entertainment system,” says Sloboda. “You can do things like create a party mode, a romantic mode, a reading mode or a mode for watching TV – all with the flip of a switch.”
Smart power strips can unplug electronics for you
They’re usually trapped under a desk or behind a TV, but traditional power strips work hard to affordably expand the number of electrical outlets in your home. Unfortunately, their convenience can encourage you to leave electronics plugged in all the time – and many devices keep drawing power even when you're not using them. This phantom or vampire power drain wastes electricity and can be costly.
Continually unplugging household appliances and gadgets is one solution, but it’s not the best option for saving money, power or your time. Smart power strips can help. They’re color coded and designed to reduce usage by shutting down power to products that go into standby mode.
Most feature multiple outlet colors, each with a unique task. The blue outlet serves as a control plug, and is ideal for a heavily used device such as a TV or computer. Anything plugged into red outlets stays on, making it perfect for satellite boxes or other appliances that need constant power. The remaining outlets are sensitive to current flowing through the blue outlet, so turning off the TV or computer cuts power to them as well.