Smart Saving

New technology makes energy efficiency and saving money easier
By B. Denise Hawkins
Smart Saving

Stop. Look around your room. More than likely there is a programmable thermostat on the wall, a plug strip on the floor and a light bulb in your lamp. These are three of the most common products you can use to help reduce daily household energy costs. The trick is figuring out how to make them work for you.

With a little savvy consumer shopping and research, choosing and correctly using programmable thermostats, replacement bulbs and plug strips can be easy to do, says Brian Sloboda, a program manager specializing in energy efficiency for the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), the research and development arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Programmable thermostats

There are plenty of brands and types to suit your home and lifestyle. But one thing you won’t find today is a programmable thermostat that carries the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) familiar blue Energy Star seal. The EPA dropped the label from these products in 2009. Why?

Programmable thermostats can potentially save buyers up to $180 a year on heating and cooling costs, according to EnergyStar.gov, but many customers miss out on savings by failing to correctly install their new thermostats. “Most people failed to use the programmable capabilities,” Sloboda says. “They didn’t know how or didn’t want to.” This led to poor EPA consumer surveys, and ratings drops and the loss of the Energy Star seal for most products.

Enter “smart” thermostats, which are intended to be an easier-to-use alternative. They come with motion sensors that help do the work of detecting and setting the temperature in your home. Nest is one such brand of thermostats.

“Sensors will start to turn the thermostat up or down, depending on the season,” Sloboda says. Within a few days of installing the device, he says, the system will begin to learn your schedule, automatically dialing your thermostat back when you’re not home.

The addition of phone and iPad apps are other smart thermostat features helping to make temperature control easy, Sloboda adds. “Using an app interface should be more intuitive than the old-fashioned programmable thermostat.”

So, what about energy savings?

“A thermostat will only save you money if you allow it to program,” Sloboda says.

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LED bulbs use about 75–80 percent less energy than traditional bulbs.

Residential interior lighting

By now you know that Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb has dimmed. January 2014 marked the end of the bulb’s run under a federal provision to phase out and replace them with more energy efficient options starting this year. Currently, there are three consumer choices — halogen-incandescents, CFLs and LEDs. But to get the energy savings and lower electric bills you want, you’ll have to pay more up front.

That includes LEDs, the equivalent of the 60-watt incandescent, the most widely used of the phased-out bulbs. And, Sloboda warns, buyers beware.  They are long-lasting, more energy-efficient and most will have the iconic look of the old incandescents.  But as a new generation of lighting technology evolves, the brand you choose will matter.

“There is a whole lot of junk out there,” Sloboda says. “You can buy name-brand LEDs for around $10 and more expensive ones from not-so-reputable companies.” But don’t take chances on your lighting or waste your money. Lighting experts recommend sticking with brands you know and trust. 

GE and Sylvania have been longtime consumer lighting choices, but Sloboda says don’t overlook the lesser-known Cree lighting products, made in Durham. A 60-watt (800 lumens) Cree replacement bulb can cost about $10 at a big box store and is guaranteed to last at least a decade or more.  The Department of Energy and manufacturers are making it easy to make the transition from the old incandescent to the LED — just spend some time reading the “lighting facts” on the back of the bulb box. It will come in handy when you want to narrow your lighting choice by temperature and color, which has nothing to do with the wattage. It means whether you want your bulbs to have a warm or cool tone when lit or have the look of “daylight” or “soft white.”

If you’ve been light shopping lately, you’ve probably noticed that “smart” devices have even come to the light bulb aisle. Manufacturers like LG, more known for their appliances, and light bulb giant Philips are among those turning out LEDs that can be controlled by your cell phone and change colors to suit your mood.

“Today’s lighting is really starting to become part of a home’s entertainment system,” Sloboda says. With smart lighting, many come with software packages, he adds. “You can do things like create a party mode, a romantic mode, a reading mode, a mode for watching TV, all with the flip of a switch.”

Added features like these can make turning on the lights an experience. And over time, energy savings will add up. With new light bulb standards in place in the U.S., the Department of Energy estimates that consumers will save between $6 billion and $10 billion a year in lighting costs.

Smartpowerstrip

The LCG Smart Strip goes beyond serving as a surge protector. It senses the current in one designated outlet and switches on or off anything else using the strip. For example, plug your TV into the designated outlet and turn it on, and the LCG Smart Strip activates everything else with it. Turn your TV off, and everything else shuts down at the same time.

Power strips

They are usually trapped behind a desk or your TV, but traditional power strips work hard to affordably expand the number of electrical outlets in your home. Unfortunately, their convenience can encourage you to leave electronics plugged in all the time — and many devices keep drawing power even when you’re not using them.    

Continually unplugging household appliances and gadgets is one solution, but it’s not the best option for saving money, power or your time. “Smart” power strips can help. They’re bigger, color-coded and designed to reduce usage by shutting down power to products that go into standby mode.

Most feature three outlet colors, each with a unique task. The blue outlet serves as a control plug, and is ideal for a heavily used device like a TV or computer. Anything plugged into red outlets stays on — electricity to these receptacles never cuts off — making them perfect for satellite boxes or other appliances that need constant power.

The remaining outlets, generally neutral or green in color, are sensitive to current flowing through the blue outlet, so turning off the TV or computer cuts power to them as well. With added occupancy sensors and timers, some smart power strips can be even more efficient. Costing about $20, these products can determine when to cut power to various devices. Sloboda says you can start to see a payback on your investment in about a year.

About the Author

B. Denise Hawkins writes on energy efficiency issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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