Updated: Jun 5
Much of modern life is built upon a stable supply of energy: for electricity, heating, transportation, manufacturing. Unfortunately, the consumption of energy — particularly from nonrenewable sources like coal, natural gas, and petroleum — is responsible for a large share of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions and, in turn, climate change. It also damages the environment through accidents (like oil spills), unsustainable resource extraction (like strip mining for coal), and pollution (like groundwater contamination from fracking). And it often comes at considerable cost to personal and public health.
Although this is a systemic problem demanding systemic solutions, one aspect over which individuals have a great deal of control is energy consumption at home. 17% of total energy consumption in the U.S. in 2020 was attributed to residential buildings. Using less energy at home can save consumers money, improve their health, reduce dependence on nonrenewable energy sources, and have a significant, positive impact on the environment. Here’s how:
Audit Your Home’s Energy Usage
Before making any changes, first evaluate how much energy your home uses and identify opportunities for improvement. Every home is different, depending on the particulars of their design and construction as well as the local climate, so it’s better to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Start with a DIY assessment to find obvious problem areas and potential upgrades. Go through every room in your house, including attic and basement spaces if you have them, and make a list of any issues you find:
Air leaks — detectable as drafts — especially around windows, doors, plumbing/lighting fixtures, and junctures between different building materials
Faulty or insufficient insulation, especially of attic floors/hatches and around pipes/ducts that pass through uninsulated spaces
Inefficient or unnecessary lighting, such as incandescent bulbs, lights that are too bright, and lights that stay on when they’re not needed
Energy-intensive and/or -inefficient appliances, especially those that run for many hours a day like water heaters, air conditioners, and refrigerators
When in doubt — or just to be thorough — consider a professional energy assessment. Certified auditors leverage specialized tools and techniques, as well as insights gleaned from your DIY assessment and past energy bills, to more fully analyze your home’s energy usage and make better recommendations. You can find auditors in our area through a few sources:
Elevate Energy — a Chicago-based nonprofit org that advocates for clean, affordable energy and water — offers free energy assessments for building owners
Residential Energy Services Network provides a searchable directory of member home energy rating companies
An audit’s findings will help you prioritize changes to your home that save the most energy at the lowest cost. The following sections describe the most common, impactful solutions.
Insulation and Sealing
Air leaks and insufficient insulation allow heat to escape in winter and enter in summer, forcing your HVAC equipment to work harder in order to maintain comfortable, if drafty, indoor temperatures. This translates into ~15% more energy consumed and hundreds more dollars per year in utility bills, depending on the age/size of the home as well as the local climate.
Seal air leaks, most often around doors, windows, outlets, and anywhere that wires, pipes, and ducts punch through walls. Use caulk for cracks and openings between stationary components (e.g. around window frames and baseboards) and weatherstripping to seal components that move (e.g. the bottom edges of doors). Install foam gaskets behind electrical outlets and light switches. Take special care when sealing up your basement ceiling and attic floor — in fact, this task is sufficiently tricky to do well that it may be better handled by a professional. If you have a fireplace, ensure that the flue is tightly closed when not in use, and also consider covering the opening with an inflatable chimney balloon to prevent air leakage.
Add more insulation, especially in walls and floors adjacent to unfinished spaces like a garage or basement, and in places where current insulation is specifically lacking. This typically requires a professional audit and/or visually inspecting the insulation in the walls. Keep in mind that you’ll need different amounts — and potentially types — of insulation, depending on the part of the home being insulated as well as the local climate. (Chicago is located in Zone 5, which puts it on the higher end of insulation requirements.) In practice, it’s often easiest to start in your attic. See here or here for more detailed instructions.
Install double- or triple-pane windows to reduce the rate of heat transfer through the glass, which is typically much higher than for walls and accounts for ~25% of a home’s heating and cooling energy use. When in doubt, go with an ENERGY STAR qualified window. If that’s not feasible — new, energy-efficient windows can be expensive! — install window coverings like blinds or curtains on existing windows, which also reduces heat flow but at significantly lower cost. This approach does require manual intervention to work: during the winter, close coverings at night to keep heat in; during the summer, close them during the day to keep heat out, especially on windows with direct sun exposure.
These sorts of improvements are sometimes referred to as “weatherization”, and they’re relatively common for homes in areas with cold winters, like Chicago. Resources exist to help homeowners weatherize their homes, both practically and financially:
The Chicago Conservation Corps put together a hands-on guide to home weatherization, available here (pdf)
The Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County (CEDA) offers a variety of programs and services in our area, including a Home Weatherization Assistance Program for homeowners and homes meeting income and structural requirements, respectively
The state Department of Commerce’s Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program offers similar services for lower-income homeowners
The Chicago Bungalow Association’s Energy Savers Program also helps with winterization for lower-income homeowners, specifically for vintage (>50 years old) single-family homes
Heating and Cooling
Heating and cooling indoor air accounts for about 50% of a household’s annual energy consumption, while water heating accounts for another ~20%. A great deal of energy can be conserved by making these systems work less, and by making them work more efficiently. Technological upgrades, regular maintenance, and minor behavior changes go a long way!
Change your air filters regularly, since dirty filters force your heating/cooling system to work harder (and consume more energy) when pushing air around. This is also cost-saving preventative maintenance, since dust and dirt build-up can lead to premature system failure. And it helps to improve indoor air quality. An easy triple-win!
Install a smart and/or programmable thermostat, and set it to heat/cool your home less when you’re not home or at night while you’re asleep. Some such thermostats have an “eco” mode that automatically maintains your home’s temperature within a comfortable range, like 66–78ºF. (Of course, a regular thermostat can be used to similar effect, but you’ll have to fuss with the temperature throughout the day — much better to automate it!) Some also let you customize temperatures in “zones”, giving you further control over energy use based on your needs and habits.
Reduce your hot water usage by installing low-flow, energy-efficient plumbing fixtures, particularly on your faucets and showers. Check for — and fix — any leaky fixtures. Simple changes in behavior can also help. For example: Take showers instead of baths, and make those showers short. (If you lose track of time, a basic clock timer can keep you on schedule!) For further reductions, look to changes in your appliances and how you use them — see below for details.
Replace your furnace and central air with a heat pump, which provides both heating and cooling in an integrated, highly efficient system. Though there is upfront cost, heat pumps pay for themselves in savings over time, while also requiring less repair/maintenance and eliminating indoor air pollution and safety risks from burning fossil fuels. In the same vein, replace your old water heater with a modern, energy-efficient heat pump water heater. This technology has come a long way in recent years — it’s a huge improvement over fossil fuel-powered equivalents!
After heating and cooling, lighting typically accounts for the next largest chunk of energy consumption at home. The old-fashioned incandescent bulb is incredibly inefficient: it converts electricity mostly into heat rather than visible light!
Replace incandescent and CFL lights with LED lights, in every room of your home. LEDs are long-lasting, energy-efficient, and varied in shape, brightness, and color — and they’ve gotten much cheaper over the past decade. They easily pay for themselves over their lifespan, and allow for more adaptable, comfortable lighting throughout your home. There are no downsides to making this change, only upsides.
Light only as much as you need, when you need it, since unnecessary lighting wastes energy and money and is considered a form of pollution. Use timers and motion sensors to automatically turn lights on/off. Select bulbs that have appropriate brightness for the room and use case, and install dimmers to give you finer control. During the day, leverage natural light whenever possible; at night, keep lights low and warm, and turn them off before you go to sleep.
Appliances and Electronics
The last big chunk of at-home energy consumption is associated with appliances, especially those that are hard-wired into your home’s electrical system: refrigerators, ranges, dishwashers, and washer/dryers. Energy efficiency varies widely by model. Major electronic devices like TVs, computers, and printers also use a lot of energy, even when you’re not actively using them.
Use existing appliances more efficiently: Only run your dishwasher and washer/dryer for full loads, to minimize the number of times that they’re run. Wash your clothes using cold/cool water, which significantly reduces the energy needed to heat the water — and better protects your clothes from fading, shrinking, pilling, and transferring color! Avoid putting warm items into your fridge since it requires more energy to cool down the interior air afterwards; this is as simple as putting items back quickly after use and by allowing warm items like leftovers to cool down before storing them.
Unplug electronics that you aren’t actively using or charging: Many devices are “energy vampires” that consume energy whenever they’re plugged-in, even when turned off. Disconnect and/or shut your computer down when not in use; unplug your TV and home theater system until you need it; stow your printer in a closet, and only take it out when you need to print things. If that’s too much hassle, instead plug these devices into surge protectors, especially “advanced” power strips, since they’re able to actually cut power to devices when not in use.
Replace your old appliances with energy-efficient, all-electric models: The efficiency of appliances has broadly improved over the years, such that newer models are generally more efficient than older models. Stoves in particular have seen a major revolution in the form of induction stoves, which are significantly more efficient than gas stoves, not to mention safer, more precise, and without significant indoor air pollution as a side-effect. A reliable starting point is the ENERGY STAR product finder; if you want the leading edge, check out the “Most Efficient” list.
Clearly, there are many drivers of wasteful and/or inefficient energy consumption in homes, and many ways to address them. Don’t feel obligated to do all of these things at once! Start with an energy audit, then tackle items in your list of improvements one by one, as able and sensible. It’s worth acknowledging that some of the changes described above are expensive and/or labor-intensive; fortunately, some utilities, nonprofits, and government agencies have resources to make it easier on folks:
ComEd offers rebates and discounts to customers on a variety of energy-saving products, including thermostats, LED lights, appliances, and more
Peoples Gas has a Home Energy Rebate Program that helps pay for weatherization and HVAC upgrades
DSIRE (the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency) features a filterable database of government regulatory policies and financial incentives relevant to energy efficiency
Achieving more sustainable energy use at home is a journey, so choose your path thoughtfully and walk it confidently.