Lower Utility Bills for Everyone, Owners and Renters Alike

Before I bought my home, I lived for many years in apartments. My first electric bill for a 1 bedroom apartment for three weeks was an amazing $97.00. I called the electric company, certain I had been charged with the previous tenants bill, an illegal practice. The electric company assured me there had been no billing error, and suggested I speak to the manager about changing the filter in the air conditioner. It took two weeks for the handyman to show up and change the filter. I watched as he took the old filter out, completely filthy, listened with disbelief as he tried to tell me “there’s nothing wrong with it” and start to put it back. I stopped him and reminded him that the work order was to change the filter, which he did with an attitude. When I offered to do the monthly change myself, I was rudely informed that any such action would get me evicted. I spoke to the apartment manager (who was a friend); I was told that unless I broke something, I could change the filter myself. I made sure I used the same filters as the apartment complex (super cheap). My bill dropped the next month to around $45. Dramatic change.

I began asking handy-man friends about other things I could do. I was hooked on learning how to reduce my energy bills. Not necessarily to “save the planet,” but to save something even more endangered, my wallet. I learned there were things I could do that wouldn’t violate my lease. Even though it didn’t turn out to be a long list; it still reduced my bills so much other residents joined in. (You can tell I bragged about my low bills.)

There are things people can do, regardless of where they live, own or not, to reduce their energy bills.

For this article, “resident” is anyone who owns or rents a home, apartment complex, duplex, etc. The term “maintainer” is the resident, handyman, owner, landlord/lady, whoever does the work where you live. In my home it’s me. Dwelling is anywhere the resident lives, be it a house, apartment complex, duplex, “converted garage,” etc.

1. Encourage the maintainer or management to implement a regular maintenance program for air conditioners and heaters and share the results with the residents. It not only lowers the utility bills for the residents, but saves on repair costs in the long run. And, more residents would be drawn to a well-maintained dwelling.

2. AC units need to have the filters changed or cleaned monthly; more if there are pets. I have filters I can take outside and clean with a stiff blast from my hose, so I don’t have to buy a new one every month. Window units have cleanable filters.

3. Insulated outlet and switch plate covers. Under each switch plate and outlet over is open airspace leaking into the room. It has been estimated by the Department of Energy that not having insulated covers under the switch plate or outlet covers in a home is the equivalent of having a 2foot by 3foot window open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That’s enough to make any wallet and their owner scream. The insulated covers are inexpensive, about $2 for a dozen at any home center, Wal-Mart, K Mart, etc. Simply unscrew the hard plate cover, place the correct foam cover over the outlet or switch, and screw the plate back on. For plates with multiple switches, I’ve taped several together, trimming edges to fit. I make sure the tape is on the outside. Safety hint: NEVER touch the screwdriver to any wire attached to an outlet or switch! Don’t touch with your bare fingers either! The shock, at the least, will knock you for a loop. At worst, kill. Just confine the screwdriver to the plate screw only and you should be ok. The maintainer may even install them for you; it never hurts to ask.

4. Fluorescent lights are now available in all grocery stores and home centers. Although they initially cost more, they last many times longer than conventional bulbs. They can fit into almost any fixture, and I have them in my ceiling fan. (Make sure the package says the bulbs can be used in a ceiling fan.) Match the size (wattage) bulb to the fluorescent package. For example: If a lamp needs a 60 watt bulb, look for a listing that says it’s the equivalent to 60 watts. The bulb may only use 13 watts of energy, but is meant to replace the bright bulb. They don’t generate as much heat as a conventional bulb. I have had one bulb in place for nearly 20 years! My back porch has a fluorescent yellow “bug-bulb” that replaces the regular bulbs and works just as well using far less energy.

Some of the bulbs manufactured today are “full spectrum,” meaning they imitate natural sunlight. If the bulb makes a buzzing sound, replace it.

5. Shrink-wrap window film for winter insulation is a tricky subject. The premise is simple: place a perimeter of double-sided tape around a window. Stretch the plastic smoothly over the tape on all sides, then shrink it tight with a hair dryer and leave it in place all winter. I have a couple of friends who own rental houses, and expressly forbid its use in their properties. Even though it works, the reasoning is simple: the tape used to secure the film is notorious for removing paint and even the top layer of wallboard.

For homeowners, use at your own risk. I saved for a long time and am replacing my windows (one at a time) with double paned energy star rated units. For renters: check with the owner/manager, etc. first. If the window film is approved, get it in writing. Guard that paper as if it were a live cashable check. If any paint is damaged, you won’t be charged for painting the entire house/apartment for a missing paint spot. I don’t suggest that renters buy new windows. That’s money out of their pockets, and they can’t take the windows with them. I have put up Plexiglas window inserts with felt strips surrounding the plastic to protect the paint. This is not cheap. The Plexiglas can be turned into other things later. Again, check first.

If the windows in a rental dwelling are leaking air, ask the owner/manager about solutions. To check for a leak, light a match or candle and blow it out. Hold the smoking match/wick near the window while it’s shut. If the smoke rises in a steady stream, it’s ok. If it is blown into the room, there’s a leak. Be prepared, though, not all owners/managers are nice. If the attitude is “don’t care,” make preparations to find somewhere else to live. Mentioning that the more energy efficient a dwelling is, the more money tenants save, the owner/manager can charge higher rent to new tenants. Also mention that air-leaking windows mean that moisture is getting inside the walls, causing rot. The result to the owner is major repair bills. It behooves the owner to make simple, inexpensive repairs before major work is needed. Current tenants would have their rents grand-fathered for an amount of time. This doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.

6. Homeowners and renters (who use their own appliances) can save a tremendous amount of energy by looking for the energy star label from the Department of Energy. Compare the energy use of two same-sized refrigerators, for example. The one that uses the least energy (even if it costs more up front) is going to be the least expensive in the long run because over it’s lifetime it will use less energy. Many products today carry the energy star label. When I’m looking for a new appliance, local salesmen know “show me the label,” I don’t want to know anything else exists, even if it’s cheaper. Those “cheap” energy hog appliances will cost me much more over time.

Many appliances, computers, heaters, air conditioners, televisions, vcrs, dvd players, and more carry the energy star logo. It’s even on fluorescent bulb packages. There are many “cheap” ones that do not. Go for the star.

7. Reset the thermostat. Get a reliable thermometer and hang it near the thermostat. Is there a difference? There shouldn’t be. If the current thermostat needs to be set at 65 degrees to obtain a 78 degree temperature in a room, it needs to be replaced. Start by checking the filter. If there’s still a difference, the maintainer needs to call for service from a reliable company. It may be that the thermostat could be changed to a programmable one; mine saved it’s own cost in two weeks. It’s possible that the ducts may be leaking; in which case the resident is paying to heat and cool the attic and the insides of walls instead of the room(s). This would cause the existing unit to work much harder than it has to.

Once again, for renters, if the attitude is “don’t care,” perhaps a move is in order. Check to see if a space heater (with the energy star label and automatic shut off switch) or a window a/c (energy star and properly sized to the room most needed in), is acceptable. If so, get it in writing.

If the main unit is ok, the thermostat works fine with a new programmable thermostat, set the temperature higher when the dwelling is unoccupied or at night to sleep. Set it a degree or two higher in the summer, and lower in the winter. Sweaters are great to wear. For every degree the temperature is raised in the summer and lowered in the winter, two to three percent can be saved on the total bill.

Of course, take advantage of the times of the year when the weather is gorgeous. (Consider the neighborhood, of course.) There are many types of locks available that will allow windows to be cracked open during the day or night, and good screens keep out pests. I never have the windows open past two to three inches. My cats don’t try to push the screens out, and from the street, it can’t be noticed past solar screens.

8. Curtains- it can be as simple as curtains. In the summer, close heavy curtains to reduce the “solar gain” – the heat coming through the window from the sun. The air conditioner won’t have to work as hard to keep the room as cool. In the winter, open them to take advantage of it and reduce the amount of work the heater has to do.

9. During the summer, I don’t use my stove or oven much. Especially the oven. It heats up the whole house, it seems. Since I live by myself, a toaster oven works fine. For a family? If the amount to be cooked fills the oven, use it. Toaster ovens come in various sizes, and some existing cookware can be used.

I also use an electric skillet instead of the full sized stove. I’ve made enough for 6-8 people with just the 12″ skillet. A six quart crock pot uses less electricity than the stovetop, and I can load it before I go to work, and come home to a cooked dinner. My microwave doesn’t get left out- it gets a workout during the summer, and doesn’t raise the temperature inside the room.

10. There is another type of window film for energy saving. It’s marketed as UV film and is packaged in different “strengths” (the higher the number, the more heat gain the film prevents from getting in). This film doesn’t go around the window, it adheres to the window glass like wallpaper. While it does work to reduce the heat gain (the heat coming through the glass from the sun), it is expensive, and lasts about 3 years. I’ve used this product in my own home. I hung a thermometer on the inside of one window during the summer and noted 130 degrees. After I hung the film, I noted only 90 degrees at the same site! A dramatic difference to be sure.

Less heat coming in through the window means the air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard; the result being a lower electric bill. The down side of the film is the price: I paid $50 for one box of film sized for a patio door. It covered three smaller windows.

This is nice for homeowners, however, renters need to check with the maintainer first. Many leases and rental agreements specifically prevent attaching anything to the window glass. (One popular idea in the 70’s was to glue aluminum foil to the window glass- it didn’t work, looked worse and got people into trouble).

Some UV window film is removable and decorated with pictures for privacy. Be sure to check the package, though, if left on the glass too long it could permanently stick resulting in messy cleanup. If the maintainer says no, it’s no.

I do have an idea that I’ve used before with the decorated “privacy” UV film. The maintainer where I rented a room was adamant. I measured inside the window frame from wall to wall and from top to bottom. I then purchased two spring rods (a curtain rod with a spring in the middle; it expands to hold inside the window frame- no screws or hardware needed), a frame for window screens that I cut to fit, and the window film and two magnetic strips. I put the screen frame together using the window film instead of the screen, and glued the magnetic strips to the top and bottom. The spring rods were placed on the inside of the window at the top and bottom, as close to the window as I could get. The new “screen” stuck to the spring rods. Once I showed the maintainer that this didn’t damage anything, wasn’t stuck to the window glass and was completely removable, he relented.

These ten items are offered to help residents of both rented and owned properties.

Maintainers everywhere like to make money; that’s why they own and rent property. It’s to their advantage to make the dwellings energy efficient. The less a resident has to pay in utility bills, the more they can spend on rent. The problem: most maintainers won’t upgrade their properties because that would be spending money, not making it immediately.

Residents, however, can use these items to benefit themselves without having their rents raised, and they can take these items when they move. Granted, some dwellings are worthless as far as energy savings go, and only the maintainers can fix that. Residents can check with the laws in their state about dwelling conditions. The can also make sure that the dwelling is registered as a rental property before signing a contract. This gives residents the greatest protection under the law.

Look for more articles on energy saving in the future for both owners and renters.

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