How to: Lower Utility Bills This Winter

Brrr.  Autumn weather officially blew right into Berlin this weekend.  How about where you live?  Is it getting chilly?

Now seems like the perfect time to revisit and revise a popular post from last year:  How to Lower Utility Bills Even if You Rent.  (Thanks to Jesscyn who suggested it on Twitter)  So here it is – a new and revised version for all of you who hate paying higher power bills than you really, truly need to.  I’ve done my best to adapt to tips for both European and American homes.

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1. Buy a programable thermostat.  No sense paying for heating a house you’re not even in during the day.  Take down the manual thermostat (we did this at every rental we’ve spent a winter in over in the US to save money), and put up a programable thermostat.  It’s super easy, and then you don’t have to worry about turning the heat down at night or during the week if you’re always out at the same time each day.  We huge fans of this thermostat.

Our power company even offered a rebate for installing it, so we filled out a quick form and got a full rebate a few weeks later.

Total time:  15 minutes. Total cost: $0

programable thermostat

2. Check your air filter if you have forced air.  If your home is heated by forced air, check the filter.  Some landlords do this.  If yours doesn’t, you’d better hurry and do it.  A clogged filter drastically decreases the efficiency of the heat that makes it into your ducts.  Might as well get the heat you’re paying for into the house, right?

Total time: less than 5 minutes.  Total cost: $3

air filter

3. Open south-facing curtains.  During bright sunny days, you can snatch up free heat from the sun if you open your curtains on the south side of your house.  Nothing beats passive solar heat in the winter.

Total time: 1 minute  Total cost: $0

4.  Invest in thick curtains.  For all of your other windows and those south-facing windows at night and on stormy days, make sure you invest in thick curtains.  Feel the air in front of the window on cold days.  Now imagine putting up a shield of thick fabric to keep that cold air from circulating throughout your house.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a house with modern, efficient windows, thick curtains aren’t as important.  But if you’re a renter or live in an older home, chances are your windows aren’t quite good at insulating all by themselves.  I sewed some floor length curtains for our first apartment so they could be easily adaptable to our future homes.

Total time: 90 minutes  Total cost: $50 – $100

5.  Check the seals on your windows.  This means two things:

– pulling out the calking gun to close up gaps along the window frames, inside and out.  If you think it’s necessary to do the whole frame, wait for a windy or cold day and and run your hand along the frame to feel the air.

Total time:  10 minutes per window  Total cost: $7 for a caulking gun and caulk

– replacing rubber seals between windows and their frames.  This project just popped up on our to-do list.  You can call someone from your window supplier or local glass shop about getting the seals redone, or you can DIY.

Total time:  couple hours per window  Total cost: varies depending on seal type and quality

6. Replace the light bulbs you use the most.  I think everyone talks about this idea all the time.  But how well do you understand light bulbs?  Martin put together a great lightbulb guide to clear things up.  For years, he’s been swapping out our light bulbs for more efficient ones.  We even snagged a handful of free CFLs from our power company in the US.  As of a few days ago, conventional light bulbs are no longer available in the European Union.  And it makes sense.  Power costs 3x as much as it does in the US.

Total time: 2 minutes per fixture.  Total cost savings: $6 per bulb each year

old light bulbs

7. Open the vents.  You’d be surprised by how many people complain how cold rooms are… only to discover that the vents in that room are all closed.  Take a few minutes to make sure that they are open.  If you don’t need a particular room to get as much heat (like your bedroom), close the vents a little.  This picture is from a forced air system.  It’s the same idea with radiators on your hot water heating system.

Total time: 10 seconds.  Total cost: nadda

heater vent

8. Close the door.  German homes feel strange.  When you walk into the entry of a home, you’re greeted by a series of doors.  Every room in the house – from the bathroom to the living room is shut off by a door.  As strange as it feels, the idea is brilliant.  Germans close doors and lower heat in rooms they don’t use.  Consider closing the door to guest bedrooms and extra spaces in your home.  Close the vents or leave them cracked just slightly to keep the room heated a little.

Total time: 5 seconds.  Total cost: nadda

9.  Wear slippers.  If you have a no-shoe policy in your house like us, chances are that your feet are going to get cold, especially if you have forced air heat or live on a “slab on grade” (i.e. have concrete slabs as foundation under your flooring).  Wear slippers and try to keep a few pairs available for your guests.

Total time: 10 seconds.  Total cost: $10/pair

10. Get an energy audit.  Call your local power company and ask about their energy audit program.  It’s free in most communities!  A couple of guys will come to your house, ask you about energy use in your house, perform a few tests, and help you come up with ideas for improvements.  Then they load you up with free stuff.  We’re talking gobs of CFL light bulbs, low-flow shower heads, blankets for your water heater…

Total time: 2 hours.  Total cost: free

11. Insulate your house.  Don’t hesitate to shimmy up to the attic area and see how much insulation is up there.  You know how we lose most of our body heat through our heads?  Hot air rises, so it’s the exact same in homes.  Get that attic well insulated.

Consider insulating walls.  Local companies can blow in insulation by poking holes into the walls.  (Obviously, this tip is irrelevant to most European homes, which have solid walls.)  Landlords might hesitate to add these upgrades.  Sell them on the idea by finding out if your power company offers rebates and… well talk to the homeowner instead of the property manager if it’s something you really want.

Total time: amount needed to line up necessary work.  Total cost: several hundred dollars

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I love it when being green means saving money.  Or saving money means being green.  It’s all good.  Have any pointers we can all add to this list and save a little as utilities go up and the economy goes down?

In the mood for saving more money?  Check out our list of ways we save money at home and tips we follow for affording life in Europe.

(images by Katie for Making This Home)