Empire State Building Slashes Energy Use – So Can You

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Empire State Building
Marc Venema / Shutterstock.com

The owners of the Empire State Building recently announced they’ve increased the iconic building’s energy efficiency by 20 percent, and that’s just from exterior changes. Once interior retrofitting is complete, total energy use is expected to drop by 40 percent. The $20 million in energy upgrades – part of a $500 million rehab plan – should cut overall energy bills by $4.4 million a year. Here’s what they’re doing…

  • Installing special windows featuring a gas-filled gap and additional layer of plastic.
  • Upgrading to a high-efficiency cooling system.
  • Using computers to manage temperatures floor by floor.
  • Giving tenants detailed info about their energy use.
  • Shutting off unused lights automatically.

But even if your home doesn’t have 102 floors, an observation deck, and a multimillion dollar budget to reduce electric bills, you can still save big on energy. Here are some cool tips to melt your summer electric bills without breaking the bank…

1. Try free tech

Check out the U.S. Department of Energy’s online Home Energy Saver tool. You give it some specifics about your house, and it will suggest improvements and how much they’ll save you. Another tool to try is Microsoft’s Hohm.

2. Get some shade

Even if you don’t use solar power, you probably recognize the sun is a powerful source of energy – especially when it works against you. Blinds, curtains, trees: Keeping direct sunlight out of your house will keep temperatures down and lower cooling costs. If you have to pick, focus on protecting west and south-facing windows, and if you plant trees, avoid evergreens – you want the leaves to fall off in the winter to help with heating.

Trees may not be an option for Empire State, but the U.S. Forest Service estimates that three 25-foot-tall trees can slash summer air-conditioning costs for some homes by up to 25 percent, and those trees also provide a wind break in winter that can cut heating costs by a similar amount. (Use this Tree Benefits Estimator to get a more precise figure of how much you can save.) If your city has a tree program, you may even be able to find some free.

3. Check your filters

Check and change your AC filters monthly (disposable ones are around $3), or just clean them if they’re permanent. Also periodically clean the coils on both the outside and inside AC units as well – build-up makes the system work harder. Keeping it clean can cut your power bill 10 percent and prevent a major source of service calls. While you’re at it, vacuum the coils on the back of your fridge too.

4. Stop air loss

Whether summer or winter, the trick is to keep the inside air inside and the outside air outside. EnergyStar.gov figures you can save 10 percent of your annual energy bill with proper sealing and insulation. (More on that in a minute.)

There are several easy ways to identify leaks.You can use a candle and watch for the flicker. Another is to grab a flashlight and a helping hand tonight: Light will shine through from the other side of cracks leaking air. You can also test doors and windows with a simple sheet of paper – shut them over the paper and try to pull it free. If it comes out without tearing, you’ve got a leak. Check high and low: attics, basements, foundations, windows, doors, and anywhere different building materials meet or where pipes enter and exit.

If you want a more thorough job done, pros can cost hundreds – but some utility companies will conduct a free energy audit and may fix minor issues free. On your own for fixes? Caulk, weather-stripping, or both will work. It’s just $7 for a low-tech, do-it-yourself interior storm window kit.

5. Add insulation

Proper insulation can save you 30 percent on cooling costs, and while doing the whole house properly can cost up to $500 for an average home, it’ll save you year-round. If you can get into your attic, start padding there, because it’s the easiest and usually gives the most bang for your buck. EnergyStar.gov suggests how you can tell whether you need to add insulation at a glance: If the insulation isn’t level with or above the floor beams, get more. For step-by-step instructions and safety info, check out this insulation guide from the Department of Energy.

And while you’re up top, make sure your air ducts are sealed and insulated too.

6. Get ceiling fans

A fan will allow you to set your thermostat at 78 degrees and make it feel like 72 degrees. They’re cheap at the local home improvement warehouse, and they don’t take a genius (or electrician) to install, especially if you use a swag kit so you can plug it in like any other appliance. Energy Star-certified ceiling fans move air up to 20 percent more efficiently than conventional models, and if you get a light kit, get one with compact fluorescent light bulbs: They produce 70 percent less heat and save on lighting costs.

7. Play with your thermostat

Try raising your settings a degree or two and see if you notice. If you don’t have a programmable thermostat, check them out, especially if you’re the type to forget to dial up the temp when you leave for work. A “remote programmable thermostat” runs a few hundred dollars, but some, like the CEM24, allow you to adjust the temperature using your phone. Others, like the Honeywell Prestige 7-Day Programmable, even have iPhone or iPad apps. No smartphone? No sweat: Many let you use the Internet to go online and, say, raise the AC to 80 degrees while you’re at work and then lower it back to 70 when you’re heading home.

EnergySavers.gov says you can save 10 to 15 percent on your annual heating and cooling costs by turning your thermostat back 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours. (The savings are greater in milder climates.) They also debunk an old myth: “A common misconception associated with thermostats is that a furnace works harder than normal to warm the space back to a comfortable temperature after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings.” It doesn’t work that way, so don’t be afraid to turn it down.

8. Soften hard water

If your water supply is “hard” – if it has too much of minerals like calcium and magnesium – it could be damaging your pipes, clogging your faucets and shower heads, causing leaks, and wreaking other efficiency problems around the house. Research shows a water softener can fix them. Your city can tell you about local water hardness, and you can get all the details in Is Hard Water Costing You Hard Cash?

9. Insulate your water heater

A jacket to insulate your water heater can cost $25, but cuts water heating costs up to 9 percent. It’s a half-hour job: Here are instructions. EnergySavers.gov also suggests setting the temperature to 120 degrees, noting that each 10-degree drop is worth 3 to 5 percent of energy costs.

10. Dress for the season

Lounging around in shorts during the winter and jeans in the summer is expensive. Wear extra clothes in the winter; wear as little as possible in the summer. Change your bed set too: thick comforter in winter, light bedspread in summer.

11. Leave AC ducts open

Don’t close the vents in rooms you’re not using. Closing more than 10 percent of your vents can create an air pressure imbalance that will reduce your AC’s efficiency. If you’ve got central air, let it flow.

12. Upgrade light bulbs

Compact fluorescent bulbs use less electricity, produce less heat, and last much longer than conventional ones. If you haven’t bought any lights in a few years, give CFLs another look – these days they come in virtually any color, temperature, and configuration, not just “alien bluish-white.” You can save $50 a year by swapping out a dozen incandescent bulbs. We spell out the efficiency and terminology behind newer bulbs in Bright Idea: Get the Right Light.

13. Wash with cold water

According to Energy Star, heating the water takes up 90 percent of the energy clothes washers use. So just use cold water, which can be equally effective except with the worst stains. Also remember to regularly empty the lint trap in the dryer.

14. When it’s hottest, be cool

When it’s the hottest part of the summer day, don’t run appliances that create heat. Chill out with iced tea and TV.

15. Cook smarter

Use pots and pans with flat bottoms that fit the size of your stove’s burners to avoid wasting heat. Don’t open the oven door during cooking – each time you do, you can lose about 25 degrees of heat. (So a windowed oven is helpful.) You can also turn the oven off a few minutes before food’s done cooking – it’s not like the temperature inside the oven instantly drops to match the room’s when you press a button or turn a knob.

16. Don’t pre-rinse dishes

Instead, scraping the plate clean right after eating can save up to 20 gallons of water per load, according to Whirlpool. Plus, using dishwashers instead of hand-washing saves up to 230 hours a year, in their estimation. And here’s what they don’t say: Turning it off after the wash cycle and opening the door to let them air-dry saves energy too.

17. Turn it off

According to the EPA, TVs that aren’t even turned on cost the average American household $5 a year. Plug your TVs, cable boxes, DVD players, video games, and whatever other entertainment boxes you’ve got into a power strip and use that as the on/off switch.

18. Get a tax break

If you’re ready to upgrade to more energy-efficient devices, find out which ones will earn some slack from Uncle Sam at EnergyStar.gov. While you’re there, check for rebates too.

Malkin Holdings is spending $20 million to renovate the Empire State Building, and expects to save $4.4 million a year: That means it’ll take almost five years for their efforts to pay off. But most of the tips above cost very little, so you could see savings as soon as your next electric bill. Got more tips? Share them with everybody on our Facebook page.

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