Power Struggle

You can go broke going green.

Solar panels cost tens of thousands of dollars. And who’s got the money to buy all new appliances?

Don’t despair. There is a lot you can do, right now, with very little cash outlay, to make your home energy efficient and cheaper to run.

Go fluorescent. You’ll save as much as 75% on the lighting portion of your electric bill by losing those incandescent bulbs.


Your old pool pump sucks. Energy, that is. You can save an average of $50 a month by leasing the latest technology.

Then there’s that banged-up fridge in your garage. Unplug it and throw out the stale six-pack chilling inside. You’ll be sipping bubbly on New Year’s Eve with the dough you’ll pocket by year’s end -- easily $100 or more.

“There are lots of simple things that people can do to save energy,” said Mark Bernstein, managing director of the Energy Institute at USC. “It’s not that hard and it doesn’t require big changes in behavior.”

Sure, old-school energy efficiency isn’t as exotic as a home wind turbine or as fun as driving a Prius. Still, it’s an easy way to pinch pennies in a lousy economy while helping the environment. Experts say reducing the U.S. appetite for fossil fuels will depend not only on developing clean, renewable sources of power, but in getting Americans to go on an energy diet as the population and economy grow.


“The only way to keep up with demand is to cut it,” said Bill Tauber, founder of Tustin-based Progressive Lighting & Energy Solutions, which helps businesses slash their energy bills. “It’s the only way we’re going to get energy self-sufficient and not destroy the planet.”

A good place to begin is your home or office. Buildings consume about 40% of all the energy used in the U.S., according to the Department of Energy. And they account for nearly half of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because the nation burns copious amounts of fossil fuel to heat, cool and light these boxes.

The No. 1 fuel source for producing electricity in the U.S. is coal, which spews more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than the gasoline in your car. CO2 is the stuff that’s helping melt the Earth’s ice caps. That’s why leaving your iPod charging for days on end is helping make life tough for polar bears and penguins.

Even if you don’t believe in global warming, energy efficiency is still good for your wallet. Constructing new power plants and transmission lines costs billions of dollars. Ratepayers foot the bill.


“The more energy we use, the higher the prices are going to be,” Bernstein said.

Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to cut your home energy bills and give the planet a little love.

Get an energy audit

State regulators reward utilities for reducing their customers’ energy use. The result is loads of consumer-oriented efficiency programs, including the home energy audit.


Customers of Southern California Edison Co., Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. can arrange for an auditor to visit their home free of charge.

SCE contractor Jon Arnett recently stopped at the La Canada home of retiree Rebecca Martin and found a dozen ways for her to cut her electricity, gas and water usage. Most were simple things that would cost little or nothing. Those include using energy-efficient light bulbs, turning down her water heater’s temperature and switching to low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators.

A few, such as insulating the garage attic and ditching her old refrigerator for a newer model, will cost some money. Others, such as encouraging Martin’s 21-year-old son Mike to give up his energy-sucking 45-inch plasma TV, just aren’t going to happen.

Still, if Martin is like most SCE customers who implement recommendations, she’ll save roughly $100 a year. The retired bank manager is placing a higher value on the effort. She’s been motivated by President-elect Barack Obama’s calls for Americans do their part to help the environment and work toward U.S. energy independence. “That really brought it home,” Martin said.


SCE and other utilities offer online energy audits for customers who don’t have time for an in-home inspection. Check your utility’s website.

Install better bulbs

Lighting accounts for more than 10% of U.S. residential energy spending, government figures show. One of the easiest ways to save is by changing those old incandescent lightbulbs. Consumers have two main options: compact fluorescent bulbs, also known as CFLs; and light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

Those twisty CFLs might look funny, but they last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs and use up to 75% less electricity. At less than $2 each for some sizes, they’re fairly inexpensive. The big drawback is that CFLs contain small amounts of mercury and have to be handled and disposed of carefully.


LED bulbs contain no mercury. They’re also the cheapest over the long haul because they can easily last a decade and use even less energy than CFLs. But the hefty upfront costs -- the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent can cost $50 or more -- is a deal breaker for many consumers.

To learn more about energy-efficient lighting, check the federal government’s Energy Star website:

Corral energy hogs

Sweating the small stuff such as bulbs is smart. But don’t forget the gluttons.


In Southern California, the biggest offenders include your air conditioner, water heater, refrigerator, big-screen TV and pool pump. A simple rule for all of them: Turn it down, or off, when you can.

First the AC. Unless you’re hanging beef in your living room, there’s no reason to crank it like you’re running a meat locker. Don’t buy a bigger window unit than you need. Have your central air serviced annually to keep it in tip-top shape. Change the filter frequently. The same goes for your furnace. And while you’re at it, plug all the air leaks with caulk and weatherstripping. Try to get by with ceiling fans on all but the most brutally hot days. Shade the sunny part of your house with awnings or trees.

Want to save up to $200? If you allow SCE to install a turn-off device on your central air unit so that they can shut it down during energy emergencies, they’ll credit your bill. Learn more at

As for your water heater, dial it back at least to the normal setting. Wrap an insulating blanket around the tank. Better yet, consider a super-efficient tankless heater, which doesn’t sit around all day boiling the same vat of water. Use less hot water around the house. Install low-flow faucet aerators and shower heads.


Now for your refrigerator. If you can’t afford to buy an energy-efficient model, do more with what you have. Gradually increase the temperature to find the warmest setting that does the job. Lighting expert Tauber keeps his fridge on a timer, running it at 30-minute intervals eight times a day. He claims his milk is plenty cold.

Keeping the fridge full helps it run more efficiently. Items inside form a critical mass of cool so that the compressor doesn’t have to work as hard.

That’s why hanging onto that old, second refrigerator is such a waste. Chances are you have only a few things in it. And since you probably keep it in the garage, which gets hot in summer, it’s working even harder to chill a few sodas or beer for your barbecues.

A typical U.S. refrigerator uses about $90 a year in electricity, according to the Department of Energy. Older models can slurp twice that amount.


“That’s a pretty expensive six-pack,” said Gene Rodrigues, director of energy efficiency for SCE, who recommends at least unplugging that beater when you’re not using it.

That big-screen TV may offer a fabulous picture. It’s also sucking juice faster than Jack LaLanne in his latest infomercial. Liquid crystal display sets use 43% more electricity on average than conventional TVs. Plasma sets burn three times as much.

Swimming pool filtration pumps are also energy hogs. One way to conserve is simply to use yours less and put up with a dirty pool. A better option is buying a new variable-speed pump, said Ben Honadel, owner of Santa Clarita-based Pools by Ben Inc.

Honadel said old-style pool pumps cost his customers an average of $95 a month in electricity to operate. The newest ones can cut that monthly electricity cost to around $25, he said, for an eye-popping 74% reduction. At $1,800, the variable-speed pumps are about twice the price of conventional ones. That’s a hard sell in a tough economy, even though the payback period is relatively short and utilities offer generous consumer rebates -- Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for example, refunds customers $300. SCE offers $200.


So Honadel has started leasing the units for $19.95 a month, a cost that is more than paid by the energy savings. Customers “walk away with money in their pockets,” he said. “It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

Grab those rebates

California utilities offer incentives to encourage you to make energy-saving home improvements and to buy efficient appliances. Besides pool pumps, rebate categories include insulation, roofing, furnaces, refrigerators, air conditioners, dishwashers, water heaters and clothes washers.

Utilities also offer coupons and help with financing. Some will even pay you to take antiques off your hands. DWP, for example, will pick up your old refrigerator for free, give you $35 for it and throw in some compact fluorescent bulbs to boot. Log on to your utility’s website for more information.