Here's the simple truth: Your home is an enormous energy hog. Now, thanks to some impressive energy monitors in a range of prices, you can easily learn which appliances are the biggest gluttons and put them on a diet.
"If there is one main thing you can do to save energy in your home, it's to kill the 'power vampires,' " says Joe Hutsko, author of Green Gadgets for Dummies. These are electronic devices like DVRs and microwave ovens that use standby power even when turned off. The Belkin Conserve surge protector costs about $35 and has eight outlets that can figuratively drive a stake through the heart of six vampires. Two outlets are for devices that need to stay on around the clock, like your Wi-Fi router or answering machine; the others are switchable. The unit can be placed near clusters of electronics such as a TV/DVR setup or computers and peripherals in the home office. (The handy remote control also saves you from manually switching the protector on and off.)
Another device, the TED, aka The Energy Detective, will help you uncover other energy guzzlers. A measuring unit connects to your circuit breaker panel—call an electrician if you're not a do-it-yourself type—and transmits details about real-time power usage and costs to a display unit. While the TED gives you the overall picture by default, you can check individual appliances by unplugging each from the wall outlet, reading the numbers on the TED's LED screen, plugging the appliance back in and seeing the change in kilowatts and dollars and cents. Hutsko found that reheating a cup of tea in his microwave cost 22 cents per hour, but turning on the hot water faucet activated the water heater, costing a stiff $2 an hour.
At $119.95, the 1001 model TED may seem a little pricey. But the Electric Power Research Institute has reported that consumers who get feedback on their power consumption can save 5 to 15 percent on their utility bills. The average yearly electricity bill is about $1,148, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration, so a 15 percent savings translates into $172. You could pay for the monitor in less than a year.
A cheaper way to check individual appliances is with the P3 Kill A Watt EZ energy monitor ($27). Plug the monitor into a wall outlet and the appliance into the Kill A Watt. The screen shows energy consumption. Next, punch in the cost per kilowatt hour (found on your utility bill) and the monitor computes what you are paying to operate the appliance.
Finding leaks. If you want to reduce heating and cooling bills, you can find drafts with the Black & Decker Thermal Leak Detector ($50). Simply point it at windows and doors. When you find a leak, the light changes color to red (hot) or blue (cold). The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that repairing leaks can save up to 20 percent on heating and cooling costs.
Once you've discovered the problems, you can monitor your ongoing usage on two free websites. Earthaid.net is connected with over 200 electric, gas, and water utilities across the country. When you register on the site and select your utility, your historical account data are downloaded automatically, as is monthly information. "The site analyzes your usage and tells you how you're doing," says CEO Ben Bixby. Reports appear in the form of colorful graphs. You earn points for reducing energy usage: one point for every kilowatt hour, every 10 cubic feet of natural gas, or every 20 gallons of water saved. These points can be redeemed for one of over 250 rewards—like spa treatments or restaurant discounts—offered on the site. Some rewards "cost" as little as 10 points; most are around 75 points. "We found that most households making even a minor conscious effort can accrue 75 points in a month," says Bixby.
MyEmissionsExchange.com (called MyEex) can also help you reduce carbon emissions. Register on the site, enter a year's worth of utility data and continue to add more, monthly, as you get it. MyEex calculates your baseline carbon footprint—the emissions you generate from using energy at home. As you reduce your consumption, the site sells each carbon credit you earn and deposits the proceeds—minus a 20 percent commission—in a PayPal account. You'll feel good, but you won't make a lot of money. (One Pennsylvania couple earned $17 for one carbon credit, and MyEex estimates a family of four might earn two or three credits a year.)
The federal government is doing its part to help Americans become more energy-conscious. By entering your ZIP code into the Department of Energy website http://hes.lbl.gov/consumer, you'll get a snapshot of annual energy usage by a typical home in your neighborhood compared to what an efficient residence would use. Filling in your own home information gets you an informal, customized energy audit. If you're buying a new appliance, the DOE's Energy Star program (www.energystar.gov) can help you find more efficient products to save money.
The government is also offering incentives to encourage energy-saving household upgrades. You can follow a link on the Energy Star website to see if you're eligible for a tax credit representing 30 percent of the cost of your upgrades, with an overall maximum of $1,500. The credit covers specific products installed between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2010, including biomass stoves; some heating and cooling systems; insulation material; gas, oil, propane, and electric water heaters; and other items. Additional credits for geothermal heat pumps, solar energy systems, small wind turbines, and fuel cell systems are available through 2016. Getting a handle on your energy guzzlers now can pay off with dividends in the future.