Friday, October 21, 2005

Renter's Guide to Saving Energy

Saving energy at home is a great way to cut your expenditures and take into your own hands some direct control over energy consumption. This task is made harder if you are a renter as some very important decisions that you could make, are not your responsibility. For example, a homeowner would replace that 25 year old dog of a fridge to reduce his or her electric bill. The property owner on the other hand, would be less inclined to replace that fridge if it still works. In most cases, the only financial concern that property owners have is the replacement price of the appliance and as long as it works he or she seldom is concerned about it or their renter’s electrical bill. Your average renter isn’t likely to offer to replace it either. I know this predicament; I have experienced it first hand.

So what do you do, if you are renting? Try some of these…


Perhaps the aspect most under your control is the lighting situation. You may have inherited an apartment or rental house with the 50-cent WalMart bulbs, but there is no reason why you have to stick with them. Unscrew and replace every fixture with compact florescent light (CFL) bulbs. Save the regular bulbs so you can put them back in when you move out. CFL bulbs come in much smaller sizes and light faster now, so there is no excuse for not using them. Plus in many locations you can find them heavily discounted by the local utility (check your local discount, overstock or dollar store for such sales).

If you can’t bear to see yourself in front of the vanity mirror under the glow of a string of CFLs, keep your incandescent bulbs but partially unscrew half of them. Chances are that you will still have sufficient light to see with. I worked this arrangement out with my wife. We kept the CFLs out of the vanity but unscrewed multiple bulbs instead.

Finally, do not underestimate the power of natural window light. Opening the curtains can do wonders for the lighting situation inside your living space.

Personal Appliances

Again, you have total control over these. Replace older appliances with new, more efficient models, if available. Otherwise try to get by with using fewer items or reducing the number of times you do use them. Heat generating beauty appliances come to mind at once. Make do without that hairdryer, curling iron or straightener. Of course, I am male so these were never big usage items to begin with.

Strategic use of certain appliances over others can also help. Use a microwave to heat beverages and reheat meals instead of the stove (especially electric ones). Microwaves are more efficient at heating things than convective or conductive appliances are. Get a toaster-oven and learn to bake small things in it instead of using a large oven. If you cook with an electric cooktop, turn the heat off one to two minutes before you finish cooking. Most electric surfaces (and by extension, the pan) will remain sufficiently hot to cook with for a little bit after the heating element was shut off. (If you have gas, ignore the last suggestion as the gas burner response time is much quicker.) Also, serial use of a single burner by two or three pots in succession can save a little energy by only trying to get a second or third heat element hot. If you have a gas range and an electric toaster oven, watch both the gas and electric bills to figure out which appliance is cheaper to bake with. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but little things do add up.

I wouldn’t worry too much over those electronic appliances that are always on, even when they are switched off. Those tend not to consume a lot of electricity and in most cases not a significant portion of your utility bills. Common sense should dictate you turn them off when they are not being used, but other than that, use them whenever you need them. Finally, if you have wood floors and throw rugs, sweep/mop the floor and haul the rugs outside and beat the dirt and dust off of them. Cleaning this way uses no electricity whatsoever and was the way most people cleaned their floors before electricity. If you live in a place with wall-to-wall carpeting, you are pretty much resigned to having to vacuum at some point.

Climate Control

Okay, now we are getting into the area where you have fewer options (if any). First of all, if you live in an apartment that heat or all utilities are provided, don’t bother reading this section, because anything you do will not have an appreciable impact. On the other hand, if you pay (via your gas or electric bill) to heat or cool your place, you still do have some control over the bill.

First and foremost: control that thermostat. Set it as low as you can tolerate in the winter and if you have AC, as warm as you can sweat it out in the summer. You may not have any control over what heating unit the landlord has provided you with, but you can control how much you use it. I will not make specific recommendations on temperature as it ultimately should be up to you to come up with some sort of comfort/affordability meeting point (basically how warm or cold you are willing to tolerate in exchange for a certain heating bill figure). Learning to wear warmer clothes indoors in the winter and acclimation to the summer heat can allow you to maintain a greater range of indoor temperatures. It is still possible to live in the Deep South with only fans in the summer…

You can also help the efficiency of whatever climate control system by making some of the following improvements on the cheap. If you live in a house or apartment with old leaky windows, purchase some of that shrink-wrapped cellophane window wrapping and cover as many windows as possible (especially northern and western windows) for the duration of the winter. Be sure to leave one or two windows uncovered so you can occasionally open them to allow in shots of fresh air. Cover the windows with big, heavy curtains to help with both heating and cooling. In the winter, open them in the day to let light and heat in and close them at night to prevent heat loss. Reverse this practice in the summer, especially if you have south or west facing windows. Check your outside facing doors for drafts and purchase new weatherstripping if it is required. If you have a central air unit, keep the filter clean. If you have individual room heaters or window AC units, heat or cool only those rooms you are going to be in.

Air circulation is important. If you have wall furnaces (common in many older California residences) or radiators, place fans in front of them to push or force the heated air away from the heater and out into the room. Not only will it distribute the heat more evenly, it will warm the room faster. In many cases you will probably have one or two rooms that stay warmer or remain cooler than the others in your home. Use fans to circulate the air to even out the temperatures. Make sure you use a fan that has a real slow setting to avoid creating a draft. If you have a ceiling fan, make sure they are set to force down the heated air that rises. During the warmer times of the year, use box or window fans to bring in outside air whenever possible to avoid turning on the AC. Each hour you don’t use it will reduce your electrical bill. Using fans to move air will allow you to tolerate higher temperatures than sitting in stale air.

A final suggestion to the renter seeking to reduce his or her heating or cooling expenses would be to look into space heating devices. These may be of some use if you live in a large, old or particularly drafty structure with a large or old heating unit. At night or other times, it may be worth your while use a small electric space heater in your bedroom and turn the heat way down in the rest of the place. Given the likelihood of serious natural gas price spikes or shortages this winter, investing in one or two electric space heaters may be worthwhile, particularly if your electricity is cheap and reliable.

Water Heating

If you live in a unit where hot water is provided, again this section will not be of much use. Generally, there is not much that you can do if you have an old, inefficient water heater other than make a few quick fixes and behavior modifications. If your fridge is old or located in an unheated space, spend a few bucks and by a water heater thermal wrap from your hardware store. Don’t forget to wrap at least the first three feet of pipes coming out of the unit as well. Be sure to turn down the water temp to no more than 120-125F. If you are going to be gone for a week or more, turn the unit off altogether. Finally, make sure you use hot water wisely, take short showers, don’t let the water run when doing the dishes, wash your clothes on cold whenever possible (if you have a washer/dryer set of your own) and make sure any leaks are reported to management immediately. Hot water leaks will cost you over the long term. Apartment owners may not be keen on making large investments on energy efficient technology, but they should promptly attend to simple maintenance matters.

Final Words

Should the landlord initiate or discuss the need for new appliances or HVAC units with you, steer them in the direction of energy efficient models. In the end, trying to improve energy efficiency and reduce utility bills while renting is not as simple or effective as when owning a home. Just because it is not easy, does not mean it impossible however, if you can make simple investments and change certain behaviors. Hopefully this should help you save energy (and money) even without the need for any modifications by the landlord.
Authors Note: I have tried many of these strategies first hand and have lived in both new and old apartments and rental houses, each with their own quirks and pitfalls. Some strategies will yield a good bang for the buck, while others will be more subtle. If you have any other quick and inexpensive tips that any renter could undertake (with or without landlord approval) feel free to add them below.


Blogger monkeygrinder said...

Thanks for posting this. Heating is going to be a big one this winter; I expect electricity costs to skyrocket.

10/22/2005 12:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We lived in Paris for one winter, and were really happy that our landlord provided seriously thick curtains. They were really thick and kept the drafts out of our living spaces, and kept the already expensive elctricity bills a bit down. One other thing that was available there, but not where we live now. Perhaps you can ask your energy providers. We were able to do things like laundry in the middle of the night at a really reduced rate. That also helped us keep our electric bill down.

10/23/2005 4:52 PM  

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