If it seems like your utility bills are heating up, you’re not imagining things. As Americans endure the most severe and sustained inflationary trends in at least 30 years, the cost of living is going up. You can feel the effects when you buy groceries, when you fill up at the pump, and of course, every month when you pay your gas and electric bills.
So what’s driving your utility bills up?
Even beyond the 6.8% rise in the Consumer Price Index over the last year, the rising cost of natural gas has been magnified by a streak of cold winters and major supply grid disruptions. Most notable was the devastating winter storm that paralyzed Texas in February 2021. A virtual shutdown of the state’s natural gas production plunged 4.5 million Texans into power outages for days in subfreezing temperatures. The result was a temporary but dramatic regional spike in the cost of natural gas. This was followed by a ripple effect throughout the United States. Everyday consumers in every part of the country are still feeling the strain today.
For proof, you need only compare your home’s utility bills with those from a year ago.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that “natural gas prices trended higher over the last year. The delivered cost of natural gas to electricity generators grew from $3.19/MMBtu in January 2021 to an estimated $5.04/MMBtu in the fourth quarter of 2021.” The price of keeping the lights on and the heat flowing is getting higher and unfortunately, we aren’t likely to see much relief as we descend into the heart of another cold winter.
There are, however, steps you can take to lower the impact on your own household.
1. Shop Around for Energy Providers
Unhappy with your utility bills? Believe it or not, you don’t have to just sit there and take it. While rates may be generally higher across the board this year, utility providers must still compete with one another in many states. They often do so by offsetting high fuel costs with lower delivery costs and service fees. If you live in a state where providers compete for your business, make sure you do some comparison shopping before you simply accept high energy bills. According to U.S.A. Today, all you need to do is “Call your power company and ask for a list of energy providers that they use; once you get this list, compare prices and pick the lowest price provider…You can save hundreds just by making this one simple phone call.”
2. Use Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs
The broader move from incandescent bulbs to LEDs is nearing completion. While you may still see incandescent bulbs on the shelves at some retailers, commercial production of new incandescents has all but ceased. This is because LEDs and Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs) both use less energy and last exponentially longer than incandescent bulbs. This means you’ll be saving two ways, both on your household’s energy bills and on replacement bulbs. With LEDs, you will spend more upfront on bulbs. For instance, says Consumer Reports, you might spend as much as $60 for a single highly rated floodlight bulb. But that same bulb will save you $170 over the lifetime as compared to incandescent bulbs. Multiply this by all the bulbs in your house and it’s clear that savings can add up. You may be able to cut costs even further with CFLs. According to Consumer Reports, “Starting at $1.25 per bulb, CFLs are a budget-friendly choice. They’re almost as energy efficient as LEDs but take at least 30 seconds to reach full brightness, don’t last as long, and most aren’t dimmable.” The good news is that LED lighting technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, which means that in addition to becoming even more efficient, LEDs are also becoming more affordable. This suggests that the potential savings per bulb in your home will grow even greater as new lighting innovations reach the shelves of your local store.
3. Change Your Air Filters
The units regulating temperature in your house should have filters. If they don’t, your first step is to make sure that they do. Air filters are essential for reducing dust, dander, and other particulates that permeate indoor air, ultimately improving the air quality and the environmental health of your home. However, notes Better Home Guides, “changing your air filter is essential to helping your HVAC system run smoothly. Over time, your air filter collects the dust, dirt, pet dander, and other air contaminants that float around your home. While the air filter may be pristine and white when you place it in the return, it often turns grey and dusty as the months pass by. This deterioration causes significant strain on your HVAC system.” This strain can not only raise the energy bills you’ll pay every month, but it can also hasten the need for repairs and shorten the lifetime of your energy appliances. For that reason, you should be changing the air filters in your furnace or air conditioning unit (depending on the season) every 60 to 90 days. If you have pets or manage allergies that are impacted by air quality, you may need to change these filters somewhat more frequently.
4. Sign an Appliance Service Agreement
Many appliance maintenance and repair businesses provide a quarterly or seasonal service agreement that includes regularly scheduled maintenance visits. Many of these service agreements may additionally cover repairs, part replacements and filter replacements at a set cost, which means you’ll save on these important maintenance procedures every time routine service is required. Moreover, this type of service agreement can be essential to making sure your furnace, air conditioner, hot water heater, and other essential energy appliances are performing at peak efficiency. Service professionals can also be a great source of advice for finding the optimal settings on your hot water heater and thermostat. If you’re not sure how to find the perfect balance between creature comfort and energy efficiency, consult your service professional. Finding that balance can make a big difference on your gas, electric, and water bills.
5. Get an Automatic Thermostat
Speaking of optimizing your settings, one thing you can do is get a thermostat that does most of the work for you. An automated thermostat can be programmed to adjust temperature in response to fluctuations in the outdoor and indoor temperature. You can also program temperature changes according to time of day so that the temperature is automatically adjusted based on your schedule. To find the right balance between comfort and cost-effectiveness, Energy.gov recommends keeping the indoor temperature set to around 68 degrees in the winter, while programming your thermostat to adjust to lower temperatures for times when you’ll be asleep or away. The U.S. Department of Energy consumer resource notes that “you can save as much as 10 percent a year on heating and cooling by simply turning your thermostat down 7º to 10ºF from its normal setting for eight hours a day.” Many automated thermostats also come with an app so you can control your home’s temperature using your smartphone. This means that, in the winter for instance, you can lower the temperature when you’re away from home for a longer-than-expected duration, raise the temperature ahead of your arrival, and even regulate the temperature to keep your pets comfortable while you travel.
6. Make Sure New Appliances Are EnergyStar Approved
One of the best long term investments you can make on behalf of your home’s energy consumption is to jettison your old and inefficient appliances in favor of newer and more efficient models. Washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens and other essential large household items can be a major drain on your energy supply, especially as they age and become less efficient. Those which bear the EnergyStar logo can significantly reduce the electricity required to power your home. Appliances that are EnergyStar approved meet certain standards for efficiency and sustainability. Look for this logo as you replace your loud, buzzy refrigerator, the drier that takes three cycles just to finish your sheets, and the dishwasher that never fully washes your dishes. Once you get the initial expense of buying new appliances out of the way, your investment will translate directly into lower electricity bills.
7. Learn How to Use and Maintain Your Appliances
Even with the most energy efficient appliances, there are steps you can take to optimize their performance and consequently lower your bills. For instance, know exactly when you need to use the hot water settings on your washing machine. Any options for cold or warm washing can significantly reduce the amount of water you must heat to run a load and, consequently, would reduce the amount of natural gas burned to heat it. Other tips include regularly cleaning the lint filter on your drier, avoiding the unnecessary step of rinsing dishes bound for the dishwasher, and only running a load of laundry when your machine is completely full. This latter step should reduce the number of cycles you’ll need to run in a given week which, once again, is a big savings on electricity, water and the gas required to heat your water.
8. Caulk Windows and Weatherstrip Doors
Keep the good air in and the bad air out when you’re trying to regulate the temperature of your home. Especially in the winter, poorly sealed windows and drafty doorways are a huge suck on the efficiency of your heating unit. An automated thermostat will adjust in response to the conditions in your household. This means that, as hot air escapes and cold air seeps in, your furnace will be working harder to keep your home warm. But the solution is extremely affordable. The EcoGuide says that “You can save 5-10% on your energy bill or 7.5% on average by fixing air leaks with weather-stripping and caulking.”
9. Grill Outside in the Summer and Cook Indoors During the Winter
This is one of our favorite tips because it’s both cost effective and potentially delicious. I’m sure we don’t have to push you too hard to grill during the summers. If you’re like me, you’ll use any excuse to cook in the great outdoors. But it’s about more than just putting the perfect sizzle on your burgers and dogs. When you cook indoors during the summer, you’re raising the temperature in your kitchen even as your thermostat works to cool your home. Instead of making the thermostat work harder, throw on an apron and crank your grill. Don’t have one? Small charcoal grills generally go for well under $100 at most big chain hardware stores. And of course, the reverse is true in the winter. The added bonus of slow-cooking a beef stew on your stovetop is that your kitchen will get warmer, which is like giving your hard-working heating unit a friendly little sidekick to help shoulder the burden for a bit.
10. Use Fans
You can save a lot by turning your air conditioner down, or off altogether, on milder days. One of the best ways to do so while still remaining comfortable is to take advantage of strategically placed fans. Installing ceiling fans is a particularly good way to improve the airflow in a room without cranking the cold. U.S.A. Today says “your A/C uses about 25% of your household’s energy, or roughly 36 cents an hour, the most of any appliance…On the flip side, a ceiling fan costs only about a penny an hour.” The fan won’t necessarily make the temperature in the room lower but it can make it feel cooler. And USA Today notes that if you combine the ceiling fan with a slight elevation in the temperature settings on your thermostat, you can save more than $100 on the cost of cooling your house over the summer.
11. Unplug Unused Appliances
Did you know that your appliances can continue to suck up energy even when they aren’t being used. Toasters, lamps, and coffeemakers can use energy just by being plugged into the outlets around your home. You can save on your monthly energy bills by making sure that dormant appliances are unplugged, especially those that are only used intermittently. And if it sounds like a hassle to jack into an outlet every time you want a cup of coffee, Smart Power Strips are a great workaround. You can program your strips to turn on or off depending on the time of day. You can also control these specialized power strips through the voice command function on your Echo or another smartphone device.
In addition to the financial savings, a major added benefit of adopting this set of strategies into your life is that you will ultimately be living a more sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle as well. For more on this, check out these 5 Ways to Save Money While Helping the Environment.