Our parents were right: Turning off the lights when you leave a room does save money. So does turning down the thermostat, especially when you’re not at home or while you’re sleeping.
Because energy prices are at their highest levels in decades — and since Jan. 10 is National Cut Your Energy Costs Day — here are some suggestions that homeowners and renters alike can make to help bring down home energy bills, even in winter.
Energy prices in the U.S. jumped by 33.3% in 2021, according to Consumer Price Index information released in December by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food costs were second, rising 6.1% over the year.
Festival preview:A look at which Somerset Fire & Ice festivities return this year and which are canceled
Powerball prize:Winning Pennsylvania Lottery ticket sold in Jennerstown
In the dark:What to do when the lights goes out
Those two categories helped to fuel an overall 6.8% increase in the Consumer Price Index in 2021, which was the largest increase in consumer prices since 1982. The price of items not related to food or energy also rose by 4.9% last year, especially in the cost of used and new vehicles.
What should you set your heat to?
A closer look at energy costs shows that most consumers saw large increases in their home heating and cooling bills during 2021. Fuel oil prices increased by 59.3%, while natural gas prices rose by 25.1% and electricity costs rose by 6.5%. Gasoline prices also rose 58.1% during the year, the largest increase in 40 years.
There are ways, however, for customers to control how much energy they use, say energy providers in Somerset County.
“Heating rooms in homes and water for washing and showering are the primary drivers of winter energy bills, so it is crucial to control your thermostat,” said Todd Meyers, a senior communications representative at First Energy Corporation.
First Energy is the parent company of Penelec and West Penn Power, which distribute electricity to approximately 31,000 customers in Somerset County.
Meyers said setting a home’s thermostat to 68 degrees or less in winter, and the water heater’s thermostat to 120 degrees, can save customers money on their energy costs.
“We can’t control the weather, but we can control the thermostat,” he said. “Sixty-eight degrees is the baseline that most people can feel comfortable (at home). Every degree you can lower your thermostat can result in a savings of about 3% on your energy bill.”
Taking advantage of the sun’s warming power also helps. Open curtains and blinds on windows where direct sunlight comes through during the day, then close them at dusk.
Turning back the thermostat to 60 degrees when no one’s at home — or at night when everyone’s asleep — reduces energy costs as well. Use extra blankets or an electric blanket to stay warm overnight rather than raising the thermostat or using a space heater, which can be dangerous.
“Rather than keeping (the home) at a constant temperature, customers can have savings if they turn (the thermostat) down,” Meyers said, “and it’s not hard on the equipment.”
Because a tank hot water heater can use up to 25% of the home’s total energy usage, finding ways to reduce that usage can add to the energy savings. Turning back the tank’s thermostat to 120 degrees still provides adequate hot water for washing and bathing while reducing the amount of energy needed to heat the water.
This change alone can save customers at least 10% on their energy bills, according to the Edison Electric Institute.
Peoples gas company makes many of these same recommendations to its natural gas customers, according to a “5 Tips to Save on Heat” article on its company website.
Taking showers instead of baths, washing clothes in cold water and washing full loads when possible can reduce overall energy use as well.
Should electronic devices be unplugged?
Today’s homes have a variety of electronic devices that are used for work, school, communication and entertainment, such as computers, televisions, cellphones and video game consoles.
Many of these devices stay plugged in and draw energy even when they are not in use, said Emily Baer, director of marketing and member services for Somerset Rural Electric Cooperative Inc. The utility company distributes electricity to 13,765 members in five counties, including Somerset.
To reduce the amount of “phantom energy” these devices use, Baer recommended unplugging electronic devices when they are not in use or when the customer is not at home. Phone chargers should also be unplugged and video game consoles turned off when not in use to save energy.
Devices that are used often — such as televisions, computers, monitors and routers — can be plugged into a smart power strip to prevent the constant draw of energy from an electrical outlet.
The Edison Electric Institute also recommends turning off a computer monitor that isn’t being used for 20 minutes or more. A computer that isn’t being used for more than two hours should be turned off as well, because it takes less energy to restart the computer than to let it sit idle.
Ways to reduce energy consumption
- Limit the use of exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom in winter, as the extra heat and humidity can be beneficial to a home’s dry indoor air.
- Use microwaves, slow cookers, air fryers, toaster ovens and other small cooking appliances when possible to prepare meals or reheat food. These appliances use less energy than an oven and stovetop.
- Resist the temptation to open the oven door while baking or cooking, because more energy is needed to replace the heat lost when the oven door is opened.
- Replace traditional incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs, which use much less energy. That change alone can reduce a home’s energy costs for lighting by up to 85%, according to the Edison Electric Institute.
- Newer LED television sets have a brightness setting that is pre-set at the factory for use in a retail display. Turning down the brightness to the “Home” setting offers additional energy savings.
- Check around windows and doors for air loss and add weatherstripping, caulking or plastic covering to keep the cold air out and warm air in. Air leaks can be responsible for 25-40% of the energy used to heat (or cool) a home, according to the Edison Electric Institute.
- In winter, switch ceiling fans to the “reverse” setting to pull warm air from the ceiling and recirculate it around the room.
More energy-saving suggestions can be found in “More than 100 Ways to Improve Your Electric Bill” at the Edison Electric Institute or from your local energy supplier.
Can I choose my own electricity supplier?
Pennsylvania residents also have the option of shopping for and choosing the company that produces the electricity for their home.
To help customers make an informed decision, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission offers information about the process — including what questions to ask, how to choose a supplier and understanding the various rates and terms involved — at papowerswitch.com.
What to do about a large energy bill
Customers who are having trouble paying their energy bill should contact their supplier right away rather than avoiding the situation, Meyers said.
“Customers who are struggling to pay bills need to pick up the phone and talk with us … otherwise we have no way of knowing they are having difficulties,” he said. “Our customer service representatives can point them to programs that can help offset past due balances, or we can negotiate payment plans to help them manage their electricity bill.
“The last thing we want to do is shut off anyone’s power. It’s not good for our customers — and not good for us either.”