22 mistakes that lead to high energy bills


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Keeping your home feeling comfortable is expensive.

Living space heating accounts for about 43% of a home’s energy bills, on average, and air conditioning consumes another 8%, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Bills can vary greatly, of course, depending on your home, fuel type, and the weather in your part of the country. Your costs may be higher, especially if you ignore easy, low-cost adjustments and maintenance tasks that can increase your energy bill in no time.

Here are some mistakes that can cause your bill to go up — and suggestions on how to cut energy consumption in heating and cooling to make big gains.

1. Neglecting the programming of the thermostat

Woman adjusting her thermostat
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Save up to 10% annually by setting the thermostat back to 7 to 10 degrees for eight hours a day, such as during periods when you’re away or asleep, according to Energy.gov.

Or just set and ignore temperatures with a programmable thermostat.

2. Use hot water for washing

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Use cold water instead of hot to wash clothes. Several wash loads of cold water can be done for the wash and rinse cycle. There are times when you need hot water for the wash cycle — as we detail in “6 Tips to Get Rid of Coronavirus from Your Clothes,” for example — but you can always switch to cold water for rinsing.

3. Using old and ineffective light bulbs

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Photodiem / Shutterstock.com

LED lights won’t help with your home heating costs, but they will certainly make a difference to your lighting electric bills. According to the US Department of Energy:

“Residential LED lights—particularly ENERGY STAR-rated products—use at least 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent lighting. Extensive use of LED lighting has the greatest potential impact on energy savings in the United States.”

4. Failure to Shrink Wrap windows

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Mikhail Varensov / Shutterstock.com

Windows – especially inefficient windows – are responsible for a large percentage of the heat that escapes from your home as cold glass loses warm air. According to Energy.gov:

“Heat gain and heat loss through windows are responsible for 25%-30% of energy use in heating and cooling.”

However, replacing windows—or even adding energy-efficient honeycomb shades or heat-lined blinds—can be prohibitively expensive.

One cheap way to reduce heat loss is to install window film designed for this purpose. It’s like a plastic wrap and helps keep heat inside during the winter. Apply it to the inside of the glass. See Lowe’s for application instructions.

If keeping your home cool is a bigger concern, there is also window film to control heat. Lowe explains:

“It reflects the sun’s heat, which helps reduce your home’s overall heat gain. As a result, your home feels cooler and your air conditioner runs less.”

5. Set the water heater to a very high level

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nikkytok / Shutterstock.com

Hot water is a huge energy user. The US Department of Energy recommends keeping the water heater thermostat at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything higher is unnecessary. Water that is too hot can be dangerous.

6. Ignore cracks and leaks

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Digital Reflections / Shutterstock.com

There are many places where air from a home can leak, allowing cold air to infiltrate during the winter and vice versa during the summer.

So, before it gets too cold this fall, double-check the inside and outside of your home for any cracks and gaps, paying particular attention to areas around chimneys, furnace chimneys, pipes, electrical outlets, windows, and doors.

Fill small leaks with caulk. The Department of Energy explains how to seal leaks the right way.

7. Loss of large gaps

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serato / Shutterstock.com

Use spray foam—look for it in cans at the hardware store—to seal openings that are too large to seal with a caulk. Energy.gov says, in the instructions for sealing air leaks in the home:

“Use foam sealant on large gaps around windows, baseboards, and other places where air might leak.”

8. Skip insulation on the attic door

Attic bedroom
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Even if your attic is insulated, it’s easy to overlook an attic door. Add an insulating layer to the inside of the door to prevent expensive heated air from rising from the living quarters to the attic.

9. Leave the damper open

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AlexMaster / Shutterstock.com

Enjoy the fireplace. But when you’re not using it, keep the damper closed so that super-hot indoor air doesn’t escape the chimney.

10. Using a ceiling fan incorrectly

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wirawan / Shutterstock.com

Using ceiling fans in the summer can keep you cool. They can also help keep you warmer in the winter. But this will only work if you set the fan correctly.

Most ceiling fans have a switch so you can change the direction the blades rotate. In the winter, you want to push the warm air near the ceiling down toward the floor so you stay warm. In the summer, the fan blades can be adjusted to do the opposite.

Find the switch on the fan body. In winter, set the blades to rotate clockwise. Home Depot explains that in summer, reverse direction so that the blades move counterclockwise.

Since fans consume electricity, turn them off when you leave the room.

11. Discard soiled air conditioner filters

A big man changes the folded dirty air filter in the HVAC furnace system in the basement of the house
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Your air conditioner runs overtime to keep you cool when outdoor temperatures rise. Return the favor by keeping it running efficiently. Bonus: an efficient HVAC system keeps your energy bills low.

Changing the air conditioner filter is probably the easiest form of air conditioning maintenance. Filters should be replaced every month or two during the cooling season for your air conditioner to run smoothly, says the U.S. Department of Energy.

You can order replacement HVAC filters online.

12. Non-insulating water heater

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Minerva Studio / Shutterstock.com

Wrap old water heaters in an insulating jacket to prevent heat from radiating. This project only requires an hour and a half and $20 to $30, but it can save you 7% to 16% in energy costs each year, says the Department of Energy.

13. Hot water pipes are not insulated

Installation of insulation for home heating on the pipe
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Insulating the hot water pipes that run from the water heater into your home can raise the water temperature by 2 to 4 degrees compared to uninsulated pipes.

Pipe insulation reduces heat loss and allows you to lower the water temperature, saving energy, Energy.gov explains in the instructions for insulated pipes.

14. Overlooking the door sweepers

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V_S / Shutterstock.com

You can prevent cold drafts from escaping by installing a door cleaning system under exterior doors.

Some utility companies offer these services for free to customers, so call to inquire before purchasing one.

15. Skip the precautionary weather

Install weather strippers to reduce energy costs
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Installing a weather barrier around the edges of windows and doors is another way to block cold leaks from outside during the winter and keep cool air inside during the summer.

Bob Villa, host of the Home Improvement TV Show, tells how to apply weather to doors. Lowe’s shows how to apply it to windows.

16. Not using blinds properly

A man opens the curtains
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Here’s a simple solution for winter: reduce heat loss by keeping blinds closed at night, or when the sun isn’t pouring in. When it’s sunny, open the blinds or blinds and let the sun’s warmth flow into your home.

17. The heat ducts are not tightly closed

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Kevin_Hsieh / Shutterstock.com

Sealing the ductwork so it doesn’t leak is especially important if the ducts are in an unconditioned attic or crawl space.

It’s easy to make simple duct repairs, says Energy.gov. But “qualified professionals should seal and insulate ductwork in unprepared spaces to ensure that appropriate sealants are used.”

18. Not insulating the basement

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Kelly MacDonald / Shutterstock.com

HouseLogic says that up to 30% of a home’s heat loss can be due to an uninsulated basement. The site says you can isolate in one of two ways:

  • Treat the basement as an outdoor space by insulating only the basement ceiling, which prevents the house’s heat from escaping into the cold basement.
  • Treat the basement like a room in the house, and insulate the walls instead of the ceiling. As a bonus, you can get more living space by insulating and enclosing the walls.

19. Overlooking the electrical outlets

electrical outlet
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Here’s a surprise: Electrical outlets, switches, and electrical boxes can all be sources of air leaks. The solution: isolate them and seal the leaks. Family Handyman demonstrates how to do this with the illustrated instructions.

At the very least, add ready-made foam gaskets to your wall outlets. Measure the outlet before purchasing and remember to turn off the power to the circuit breaker box when doing this task.

Also, easily removable child safety stoppers located in unused wall outlets can help seal areas with leaks.

20. Forget about AC condensing lines

Young woman cleaning the air conditioner indoors
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A blockage may occur in the tube carrying condensation away from the air conditioner. If the pipe is clogged, it could go back into the air conditioner — or in your house — and you’ll have a mess and a big repair bill.

To combat this, mark where the tube is coming out and make sure it drains properly. Energy.gov shows how to clean lines, files, and other parts.

21. Not cleaning the external air conditioning units

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During the summer, check your unit outside for debris at least once a month. Plants, leaves, tall weeds, and other debris near the outdoor unit can reduce HVAC performance.

Before you start your air conditioner again after winter, cut the lawn, clean up any debris, and consider removing plants clogging the unit.

22. Neglecting the HVAC fins

HVAC fins
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Cleaning the fins on the outdoor unit helps to improve the operation of the air conditioning. Dirty fins can be cleaned—and damaged fins straightened—with a tool called an air conditioning fin comb or fin straightener.

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