If you’re reading this article, you probably give some thought to your residential energy consumption. Good for you! Managing an energy-efficient household is a win-win: you’re doing your part to reduce environmental impact, and you’re reducing your monthly utility bills at the same time.
But in order to truly minimize your energy consumption and maximize your efficiency, you need to know where the greatest amount of energy is being used in your home. You may be in for a surprise — a study released this year suggests that many homeowners have the wrong idea about where they’re using the most energy, as well as the best ways to cut back.
According to the study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, participants tended to believe that the electronics, appliances, and systems they interacted with most frequently used the greatest amount of energy. When assessing devices like computers, televisions, and lights, which are used regularly throughout the day, the respondents often overestimated the amount of energy they consumed. And when assessing systems that are “out of sight, out of mind,” like HVAC systems and hot water heaters, the amount of energy was generally underestimated.
In an article in The Washington Post, study co-author Dan Schley explained the phenomenon in terms of one of the most widely practiced energy conservation techniques: turning off the lights when you leave the room.
“For example, consumers have long thought that turning-off the lights is the most effective strategy for curbing their electricity consumption,” Schley said. “Our article suggests that part of the reason consumers believe this might be because consumers are constantly turning lights on and off. Because they use the lights a lot, they tend to infer that lights consume a lot of energy. On the other hand, consumers tend not to think about their water heating (other than when they run out of hot water) or interact with their water heater very often, as a consequence they tend to relatively underestimate the consumption of their water heater.”
Focusing Your Efforts
To get the greatest returns for your energy efficiency efforts, it’s important to focus them on the areas where you already consuming lots of energy. In the majority of North American homes, home heating and cooling account for more than half of all energy expenses, followed by water heating and refrigeration. You can still practice energy conservation by turning off lights, unplugging electronics, and disabling “always-on” settings on certain devices, but those steps may not make a big difference in your utility bills.
To make bigger gains, start with your HVAC system. Make sure you’ve sealed cracks in your home and gaps in your ductwork that allow treated air to escape. If you have an older HVAC system, consider upgrading to a more efficient furnace and/or air conditioners. For your water heater, ensure it’s properly insulated and maintained.
If you want more personalized and detailed data about your home energy consumption, one way is to contact an expert electrician to conduct a home energy audit. You can also purchase smart appliances or use smart plugs that can deliver energy consumption data directly to your smartphone or computer. There are even new disaggregation devices that can collect this data throughout your home and help you pinpoint even more opportunities for efficiency.
No matter which strategy you pursue, remember the devices and appliances you think use most frequently aren’t necessarily using the greatest amount of energy. Pay attention to how and where your home uses the most energy, and focus your efforts there when possible.