The arrival of fall doesn't just mean pumpkin spice lattes, tailgate parties and chunky sweaters — it also signals heftier utility bills, which promise to climb even higher once winter sets in.
If you're a homeowner, you're used to striving to make your living space as energy-efficient as possible this time of the year. But if you rent, your situation might be different, since you have less control over making energy-efficient changes. Renters generally can’t add insulation or upgrade their windows, for example, unless management gives them the okay and they shell out for it themselves.
More and more people are finding themselves in this predicament because renting is on the rise: The share of U.S. households that rent increased from 36% in 2006 to 41% in 2014.
That means more households are at the mercy of the decisions their landlords have made when it comes to paying their energy bills.
Yet with utility bills averaging about 18 percent of the typical month's rent (it's likely higher in fall and winter), renters have a strong incentive to reduce their outlay. These cheap tricks tackle the energy gobblers in your rental without requiring changes your landlord might balk at — and they're super tips that can help homeowners conserve energy and cash as well.
PLUG INTO A SMARTER POWER STRIP
Ever heard of “vampire electricity?” It’s created when plugged-in appliances continue to draw energy, even when they are not in use. (Phone chargers, we’re looking at you.) But other culprits include small kitchen appliances, TVs and computers. An easy solution, explains Jacob Bayer, CEO of Luminext, a consulting company that helps businesses lower their energy bills, is to use a power strip that you can switch off on your way out the door.
An even easier option is a “smart” power strip. Yep, these wise energy savers shut down power to products that are in standby mode, so you don’t even have to flip them off. They’re available in big-box and hardware stores and run $25 to $30 each.
GIVE YOUR APPLIANCES A TUNE UP
Be sure that all of your household machines are functioning properly, suggests Bayer, and if not, see about getting a repair person in. If your fridge door doesn't seal properly, for example, you could be paying for all that cold air that's leaking out.
Check your appliance settings to make sure that your refrigerator and freezer are at their optimal temperature — 39 to 40 degrees for the fridge; 0 to 0.4 degrees for the freezer. And adjust your water heater to about 120 degrees to save on the cost of heating the water. “Lowering the temperature means that water costs less to heat, but don't go below 120 degrees, as some bacteria can grow at lower temperatures,” advises Jay Best, founder and president of Green Audit USA.
Another easy fix is to avoid running your washer, dryer and dishwasher at peak times — typically noon to 7 p.m. — as some utility companies increase rates during prime time. If you set your appliances to run at night or early in the morning, you could potentially save a bundle.
INVEST IN A WI-FI THERMOSTAT
If you have an adjustable thermostat, consider getting a Wi-Fi thermostat like Nest that adjusts to the weather as well as your habits, keeping your place at a comfy temperature automatically — without busting your budget. “Not only do they look cool, but you get a much greater degree of control over when your heating and cooling systems are kicking in,” Best says. Nest will set you back about $250, but think of it as an investment — and you can take it with you wherever you live next and save money there too.
CHANGE YOUR AIR FILTERS
You’d be surprised by how many people neglect to do this for their humidifiers and HEPA filters. Yet keeping your filter clean and clear can help reduce utility costs by 5 percent to 15 percent — and it makes the air you breathe in your place healthier to boot. Check the instructions that came with the device for how often to change the filter, or open it up every few months and remove it when it looks grimy.
UPGRADE YOUR LIGHT BULBS
Sure, we know you’ve heard the news by now: Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) last 10 times longer and use about a quarter of the energy of incandescent bulbs. But did you know about the benefits of light-emitting diodes (LEDs)? Available wherever other bulbs are sold, these may cost a few dollars more, but they last up to 25 times longer and use only a quarter of the energy of old-school bulbs.
“These are definitely worth the investment, especially if you're going to be in your rental for a while,” says Best.
CHECK INTO POWER COMPANY AND GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS
Are you ready for an appliance upgrade? Many energy companies offer rebates when you install Energy Star appliances so investigate what's available and if you're renting, be sure to bring it up with your landlord.
Best recommends looking for the “Most Efficient” label, which goes beyond the standard Energy Star requirements. You save on the utility bills — and if you're renting, your landlord gets modern appliances that make the property more appealing to the next renters after you move out.
And there are government programs to help get a more energy-efficient home even if you rent. “Some low-income weatherization programs run by the federal government are based on the income of the tenant rather than the landlord,” Best says. That means that they might do insulation and air sealing at no cost or a reduced cost. While the rules vary by location, Best recommends finding out what’s available near you.
“You'll definitely need your landlord’s consent, but it would be a great deal for them, as they are getting property upgrades at a bargain,” says Best.
KEEP THE COLD AIR OUT
Even if your home has decent insulation, it doesn't mean there still isn't room for improvement. One affordable way, suggests Best, is picking up a caulk gun from a home-improvement store for about $10 to $15. “You can reduce the air leakage and make your place more airtight by doing some caulking around leaky windows and doors,” he says. He recommends getting a can of foam insulation for larger gaps that no one will see, like under the sink where the plumbing pipes come through.
To keep the rooms you're using feeling warmer, Bayer recommends closing doors to unoccupied rooms, shutting the fireplace flue unless you're using it and double-checking that you’re not blocking heat registers with furniture. Another handy trick Bayer suggests is something your great-grandmother may have done rather than crank up the thermostat: keeping rooms cozy by placing a few bowls of water in front of your heat registers. This helps humidify the air, so it feels warmer.