Consumer Reports offers tips for saving energy

Discussions about federal regulations on Energy Star ratings and energy-efficient products continue and homeowners need to keep a pulse on the changes. Consumer Reports, which seeks to help shoppers make the best decisions for their needs and possibly save some cash, offers these energy-saving tips.
Powering electronic devices can cost almost as much as powering your kitchen appliances. Electronics and appliances account for 30 cents of every dollar spent on electricity. Appliances have become more efficient, but increased use of electronics has offset those gains, according to the Energy Information Administration.
To help save energy and money with electronics, be sure to set computers to hibernate when they aren’t in use. Ask the cable company about replacing your current set-top box with one that meets Energy Star’s 3.0 specifications, which took effect Sept. 1. Also inquire about whole-house DVRs, which can eliminate the need for an energy-intense recording device on each TV. Get rid of the early-model plasma TVs that could cost well over $200 a year to operate. There are now large screens that cost $70 or less per year to run, including the 55-inch LCD Samsung UN55D65000, $1,900, with an annual energy cost of $29.
As for appliances, newer models generally perform better than older ones, and the Energy Star program has improved. Starting this year, before a product can display an Energy Star logo, it must be tested for compliance by an accredited third-party lab. For washing machines, front-loading ones use less energy and water than most top-loaders. In the kitchen, dishwashers with soil sensors adjust the use of hot water depending on how dirty the dishes are, saving energy and water.
There are also several alternative energy options available to homeowners. Geothermal systems, which use the relatively constant temperature of the earth to heat and cool homes, are an emerging alternative to fossil fuel-powered systems. A home energy audit can identify low-tech, high-yield energy retrofits. Expect to pay between $300 and $800 for a complete audit by a trained pro. The Department of Energy’s website, energysavers.gov, has advice for conducting an audit yourself.
CR recommends thinking twice about using a space heater to lower winter heating bills, unless you turn the heat down in the rest of the house. Also, there’s little proof that cleaning ducts actually improves efficiencies, and shoddy work can damage the ducts. Only consider this if there is visible mold or vermin, or debris is coming out of supply registers. Before replacing the primary heating or cooling equipment in your home, consider having the duct distribution system sealed and insulated, as the savings will be far greater than by simply switching to a more efficient furnace or central air conditioner.
Energy management is improving with the use of a “smart grid” that adds digital sensors, wireless communications and other intelligence technologies to the nation’s century-old electrical grid. The new grid could pave the way for widespread time-of-use pricing, which should help to make the demand for electricity more uniform over each 24-hour period, thus foregoing the need for more electric power plants while handling a greater overall load. Depending on the actual time-based pricing, some consumers may be able to reduce their energy costs.
One thing you can do now is buy a programmable thermostat, which can lower annual energy costs by as much as 10 percent. The Lux Smart Temp Touch Screen TX9000TS, $80, was one of the easiest to use during CR’s testing, and it kept temperatures constant.
Keeping heated and cooled air from leaking out of your home from ceilings, walls and windows could lower annual energy costs by $500. Start by finding out if your attic needs additional insulation, then seal and insulate leaky ductwork. Lastly, eliminate air leaks with a combination of caulk, foam board, expandable sealant and weather stripping. A final tip: Don’t replace windows just to save energy. CR’s tests found it could take up to 20 years to recoup that investment.

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