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In Association with

Creative Ways to Trim Your Utilities Bills



By Rich Gray

Electricity, hot water, the phone, heating and cooling. . . . We take them all for granted today, and while they do make life easier, they also come with price tags that can vary wildly from household to household. The area of utility costs is another one where a little bit of work can pay off with sizeable savings that will stretch over years.

The following tips cover a range of “utility” topics, including refrigerators and other appliances, hot water, heating and cooling, phones, and more.

Position the Refrigerator for Efficiency. . .

To get the most efficiency out of your refrigerator, location is the key. You should position your refrigerator out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources, such as heating ducts and stoves.

. . . And Give It Space

A refrigerator will run most efficiently when you place it a place where air can completely circulate around it. Leave at least three inches between the refrigerator and any counters or walls. Also, make sure that you don’t use the top as sort of an open-air junk drawer, as this will also restrict air circulation.

Vacuum Refrigerator Coils Periodically

By the same token, sliding the refrigerator away from the wall and vacuuming the coils once a year will help to keep your refrigerator running more smoothly. This is particularly important if you have pets that love to shed.

Disable Automatic Refrigerator Devices

If your refrigerator came equipped with an automatic device, such as an ice maker or butter warmer, disconnect it. These may be convenient, but they also waste a lot of electricity.

Keep the Freezer Full

Freezers work most effectively when they are full. If you don’t have food to fill them up, take soda or water bottles, fill them two-thirds full of water and allow them to freeze. You’ll also gain the added bonus of a ready supply of ice packs for picnicking and camping.

Refrigerator Door Maintenance

Check your refrigerator door gasket periodically to see if it has become worn, ripped, or ill-fitting. If it has, replace it to greatly increase your refrigerator’s efficiency.

Avoid “Frost Free”

“Frost free” may sound like a more attractive refrigerator than a plug-it-in-and-forget-it unit, but it will also cost you more in energy –costs. Go with a traditional model and defrost it by hand every six months. You’ll also keep a better handle on the food within it and waste less this way.

Cool Dishes Before Adding Them to the Refrigerator

Don’t put warm dishes and foods directly into the refrigerator. Let them cool first, or else you’ll cause the refrigerator to run needlessly.

Ventilation Fan Use/Misuse

Be careful when using kitchen and bathroom ventilation fans that you don’t leave them running longer than you need to. In wintertime, these fans can quickly suck all the heat from of your house. In summer, they can do the same with your “cool,” if you use air conditioning (and losing one’s cool is never good).

Garbage Disposal Strategy

If you must own and run a garbage disposal (note: composting is a much better alternative), always use cold water when running it, instead of hot. Your hot water heater will thank you.

Use Your Dishwasher More Efficiently

Dishwashers have reached the stage where they are actually more efficient water-users than washing dishes by hand. Their efficiency breaks down in their drying cycle, though. You should always disable this and open the door to let the dishes air-dry.

Clean Your Dryer Lint Screen

Your dryer will run more efficiently if you clean the lint screen each time before you run a load. A full lint screen will reduce airflow, meaning the dryer has to work harder and longer to dry your clothes.

Schedule Consecutive Dryer Loads

If you must use a dryer, try to schedule it so that you use it for consecutive loads. This way you’ll be taking advantage of the heat from the preceding load to start the next.

Repair Leaking Faucets

Don’t let a leaking faucet send your hard-earned dollars down the drain. At one drip per second, a faucet can waste around 400 gallons of water a year. Not only will you be paying for the water, but if it is heated, you’ll also be paying for the wasted electricity or oil used to heat it. Leaking faucets are easily fixed, most requiring just the replacement of a washer.

Save Water in the Bathroom

Save water while brushing your teeth or doing dishes by turning off the water between use’s, and when the water is on, use it minimally (i.e., not wide open).

Use Low-Flow Shower Heads & Faucet Aerators

Want to save up to 50 percent of the water you use? Install low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators. Using these, typical family of four will save up to 14,000 gallons of hot water per year.

Shorten Showers to Save Hot Water Costs

Minimizing the amount of time you spend in the shower can save you considerably in hot water charges. Fully two-thirds of the amount of your hot water costs go toward showering, and even by trimming a few minutes off your showers, you can save hundreds of gallons of water (and the resulting cost) per month. To really maximize your savings, turn off the water while soaping up.

Lower Your Water Heater Temperature

Lowering the temperature of your water heater from 115 to 110 degrees will save you considerably over time.

Insulate Hot Water Heaters and Hot Water Pipes

Insulate both your water heater and hot water pipes to realize considerable savings year-round. In terms of the heater, make sure that you don’t cover the top or bottom of the tank, nor get insulated material anywhere near the thermostat or burner compartment. For the pipes themselves, you can either go with specialized insulation sleeves for use with hot water pipes, or make up your own out of strips of thin insulation.

Wash Clothes in Cold Water

When possible, wash your clothes in cold water. This can save you a whopping 75 percent in energy usage.

Consider a Home Energy Audit

To quickly zero in on what areas you should concentrate on in your heating and cooling system to best save money, consider scheduling a home energy audit. Your gas or electric utility may have a program in place to do this for free or at a greatly reduced cost. If not, they should be able to point you to a professional who can do it for a reasonable amount. Home energy audits quickly pay for themselves in both energy savings and in showing you what areas you should concentrate to lower your bills.

Ventilate Heat from the Kitchen During the Summer

In the summer, keep your kitchen cool by using ventilation fans to carry the stove’s heat outside. The electricity to run the fan will cost considerably less than the cost of the electricity to run your cooling system harder to compensate. Of course, the alternative is also true. In the winter, keep the ventilation fan off to help heat your house.

Turn Summertime Furnace Pilot Lights Off

Does your furnace have a pilot light? If you aren’t using your furnace for anything in the summertime, why would you keep the pilot light on? This can save you a few dollars a month, but make sure that you actually turn it off and not just blow it out, or you could be facing a very dangerous situation when your cellar starts filling with gas.

Use Vegetation to Cut Down on Energy Bills

Planting vegetation around your house is one easy way to cut down on your energy bills, particularly if your area really heats up in the summer. Trees and bushes planted around your house will block a lot of the sunlight that would normally strike it.”

Weatherize Windows for Big Savings

Make sure you weatherize your windows properly in the wintertime. This alone can save you a considerable amount of money, as well as make your house more enjoyable to live in. There are many different products you can use to achieve this, from simple plastic sheets to weather-stripping or putty. Run your hands around windows, doors, and outlets to feel for drafts (or use a candle and see where you get the most flicker), and then concentrate on getting the highest drafts under control first.

Dress Indoors for the Season

One of the biggest things you can do to assist in your heating/cooling bills is to dress for the season. Dress in several loose layers in the winter, and when you’re cuddling up on the couch at night to read or watch TV, make sure you do so under a thick blanket. In the summer, go barefoot and wear loose-fitting light clothes such as t-shirts and shorts. Not only will you be more comfortable, your energy bills will be lower.

Check Ducts for Leaks

Leaking ductwork can contribute greatly to your heating costs. Consider having a professional check your ducts to see how efficient they are. Alternately, your local utility may have a program to do this for you for free or at a significantly reduced cost. If you have some form of maintenance program in place, where they come yearly to clean your furnace anyway, ask if they’ll also check your ducts.

Use Airlocks to Cut Down on Energy Loss

In cold winter climates, one of the best ways you can cut down on energy/heat loss in your house is to employ an “airlock.” Yes, think science fiction movies. Essentially, an airlock is an area that exists between two doors that you must go through to enter your house. This can either be an existing porch structure, or even a simple 2 x 4 and plastic structure that you add to your main door. The whole idea is that you go through one door before opening another, keeping the cold gusts from flowing into your house, and the hot air from flowing out.

Only Heat What You Have To

If you have rooms you don’t use often in the winter, close them up and make sure you close the heating vents or radiators in these rooms. If a room is not being used, you’ll save money by not heating it. Even if it is used infrequently, opening the door and turning the heat back on will make it comfortable in a few minutes. Only heat what you must.

Woodstove Plusses

Consider installing a woodstove to help with your winter heating. Wood is a renewable resource, and you can often find it for free if you really try (take down a tree on your property, offer to fell and tote away a dead tree on a neighbor’s property, etc.). Wood is also a reliable heat source in case a winter storm takes out your power for an extended period of time, crippling your furnace.


Excerpted from The Frugal Senior by Rich Gray. Copyright © 2006 by Rich Gray. All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with Quill Driver Books. $12.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.497.4909 or click here.

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