Lean, Green Tips for Energy Savings

With the cost of utilities and home heating and cooling climbing, here are some fuel-economy ideas you might not have thought about

By Amey Stone and Carol Vinzant

Ideas for saving money on soaring energy bills typically range from the obvious to the inconvenient. Insulate your water heater? Been there, done that. Take shorter showers? Yea, right. Carpool? No thanks.

Even though gasoline is above $2 a gallon nationally, experts say it would take a price above $3 for drivers to really change their gas-guzzling ways. Likewise, most people already know that diligently turning off lights and insulating the attic will reduce energy bills. But with heating and electric costs rising so rapidly, a new sense of urgency may be just around the corner.

There are some new (and not so new) ways to cut back on your energy consumption that will help the environment in the short run, save you money in the long run, and are, well, hot (or cool) in their own right. Here are 10 ways to save energy that you probably haven't thought about:

Buy a hybrid car. Have you ever ogled a new Toyota Prius or Honda Insight? Known as hybrids, these Japanese models combine a traditional combustion engine with electric power. Along with a sleek design, they offer high mileage (about 60 miles per gallon in the city) and low emissions. And given their increasing coolness, the price isn't bad either: Each has a sticker starting around $20,000.

Second chance for diesel? O.K., so finding a gas station with a diesel pump can be vexing sometimes. But for a whole range of European luxury cars (diesel fuel is widely available in Europe, where gasoline costs $4 a gallon), going diesel makes economic sense. The fuel costs between 10 cents and 30 cents less than gas in most parts of the country (although it's higher in some places, too). It provides much better mileage than gas and burns cleaner (see BW, 5/31/04, "Diesel Deserves a Second Chance"). For those feeling especially adventurous, biodiesel fuel -- a mixture of diesel and corn oil, which makes the fuel even cleaner and cheaper -- is now available at close to 200 outlets in the U.S.

Splurge on a high-end washer-dryer. Energy-efficient appliances offer lots of savings on your electricity bill. You may even be able to get a rebate from the government's Energy Star program for trading up (go to www.energystar.gov to look for local deals). Best of all, some of the trendy, expensive models are the most energy (and water) efficient. So go ahead, ante up for a $1,000 Bosch front-loading washer and feel good about it, knowing you could be cutting up to $110 a year from water and energy bills. Savings like that pay for the machine.

Solar power your hot-water heater. For solar-power aficionados, hot-water heating systems are entry level. But you can knock 10% a year off your bill with an initial $7,000 investment in a solar unit to heat water. Brandon Leavitt, president of Solar Service, in Niles, Ill., says his customers save about $1 a day on their energy bills. Better yet, some states like Illinois will give you a rebate of up to half the cost of the unit.

Leavitt says the systems pay for themselves in about 10 years (less, if energy prices rise) and end up with a 10% return on investment over their 30-year life. Check out the federally-funded National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Web site to learn more about solar power.

Light your home with energy-efficient bulbs. Looking for a smaller-ticket item? Tubular compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs aren't the epitome of chic, but they use one-third the power of regular bulbs and last up to seven years. The Energy Dept. estimates that the average family spends $160 a year to light their home, and using CF bulbs can cut that bill by 75%. Try IKEA for popular varieties for as little as $4, spend a few bucks more for round-looking bulbs, or splurge on $36 bulbs that mimic natural sunlight. By Amey Stone and Carol Vinzant Do some creative landscaping. Farmers used to do simple planting to make their house warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. They'd plant evergreens on the windy side (usually west) and deciduous trees on the sunny side (usually south). That would offer shade in the summer, but let the sun warm the house in the winter. Modern studies have proven that tree planting can save a quarter of a household's heating and cooling costs. One study showed that planting evergreens on just the west side reduces heating costs by 25%.

Meter your old appliances. For roughly $100 or less you can get a "Watts-Up" or "Kill a Watt" plug-in power meter. Find out which household appliances are the biggest energy hogs.Make a game out of it, and you may even convince your spouse to stop using the energy-wasting remote control (The Energy Dept. estimates that Americans waste $3 billion a year powering home-electronics gear that's turned on but not in use.)

Sell your surplus power back to the electric utility. Already got solar or a hydroelectric generator? "Net metering" programs allow customers who produce more electricity than they need to sell the surplus power back to the utility (although usually at a lower rate than what you pay for power). "Your meter sort of runs backward," explains Ellen Morris, president of consulting firm Sustainable Energy Solutions in Glen Ridge, N.J. "You're actually giving back to the grid, and they credit you."

The programs vary by state. California offers good advice for everyone and benefits for state residents at www.fypower.com. You can check what your state offers at this Energy Dept. list..

For ways to generate your own power, check out Home Power Magazine. It's not just solar -- you can also buy a windmill or a hydroelectric generator designed for home use.

Put in a geothermal heat pump. This is more of a construction project -- best done when you're upgrading your entire heating and cooling system, or, better yet, building a new home. It works this way: A series of underground pipes essentially move heat out of your home to the cooler ground in the summer. And in the winter, they pull the warmer air from the ground into your home.

"Basically it makes it less work for the traditional heating and cooling system," says Morris. They're pricey, costing about $7,500 for a typical house. Yet, they use 25% to 50% less energy than conventional heating and cooling systems, according to the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium. The investment is recouped in 2 years to 10 years and the systems should last 20 years or more with little maintenance.

Do your own energy audit online. A neat Web tool can make this exercise a lot more fun. Check out Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Home Energy Saver. It helps you estimate energy consumption and suggests savings opportunities like putting in storm windows, insulation, and caulking. Such projects may not have the cool factor of running your car on corn oil, but for most of us, they're the bread and butter of energy conservation.

Stone is associate editor for BusinessWeek Online. Vinzant is editor of BusinessWeek Stock Trader.

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