Keep Your Utility Bills From Skyrocketing During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Keep Your Utility Bills From Skyrocketing During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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With so many of us staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had to recalibrate a lot of things, including our household budgets.

On the one hand we may be saving money by not commuting to work or dining out. On the other hand, since we’re eating all our meals at home and likely cleaning more than usual, we’re using more water and energy in the process.

And that means a bigger utility bill each month. But there are a number of things you can do to keep those bills in check, say the experts from Consumer Reports.

For instance, “one of the best ways to save on energy costs is to simply lower your thermostat by a few degrees if you have the heat on, and when it gets warmer, raising it by a few degrees,” says Jim Nanni who oversees CR’s major-appliance testing, which includes tests for energy usage.

Of course there may be some new expenditures that aren’t optional. As a safety precaution against the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds each time, which means using more water.

And doing your laundry following expert guidelines—the CDC advises using the warmest setting that's appropriate for the fabric and drying laundry completely—is a must, especially if someone in your home is sick. Heating the water consumes more energy, too.

Still, you can make small adjustments to your routines and monitor your energy and water use to avoid a big utility bill. Below, we show you how. Plus, we highlight the best smart and programmable thermostats from CR's tests.

Easy Energy Savers • Find and Fix Leaks • Save Water Around the House • Change Filters • Thermostats From CR's Tests 

Easy Energy Savers
Tweaking some of your habits can go a long way to saving on your energy bill. Some suggestions:

Heating and cooling: This is typically a home’s biggest expense. If you have a manual thermostat, adjusts it at various times to fit your new routine, says Peter Anzalone, who oversees CR’s thermostat tests. With a programmable thermostat, you can just change it to your current schedule.

It’s even easier to save on energy if you have a smart thermostat. “Smart thermostats, such as the Nest, learn your schedule and adjust based on your activity and behavior,” says Anzalone. “Meaning if it senses you are home all the time and/or that you are manually adjusting the thermostat it should eventually adjust to your new stay-at-home schedule.”

Whatever type of thermostat you have, experiment with turning it down or up a few degrees. According to the Department of Energy, you’ll save about 3 percent on your utility bill for every degree you raise the set temperature for your central air or, in colder weather, about 3 percent for every degree you lower the set temperature of your heating system.

A few other easy ways to save: If it’s still chilly where you live, open the curtains to let the sun in. If it’s getting warmer, run your ceiling fans if you have them and close your curtains during the day to keep the sun from heating up the house. And seal any leaks around windows and doors, which helps keep the cold or heat out.

Cooking: If you’re cooking a small amount of food, avoid using the oven in your range. Cooking a meatloaf in a full-size electric oven for an hour costs 24 cents while cooking it in a toaster oven for about the same amount of time costs 11 cents, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

That can add up over time, especially when you’re cooking most meals at home. Cooking something in a smaller appliance such as a slow cooker, toaster oven, or microwave costs less than heating up your oven. If you do cook something in the full oven, try to resist peeking because each time you open the oven door, heat is released, so you’ll end up prolonging the cooking time.

When you’re cooking on top of the stove, always match the size of the pan size to the size of the element or burner. For example, a 6-inch pan on an 8-inch burner will waste over 40 percent of the heat produced by the burner, according to the ACEEE.

Cooling: Do your family members like to hold the refrigerator door open while they look for something to eat? Letting all that cool air out can really raise your energy costs. A simple fix: Remind everyone to stop holding the door open while they’re pondering their next meal.

Also, once dinner is over, let your leftovers cool a bit before putting them into the refrigerator so it doesn’t have to work harder cooling hot food. Just don’t leave food out for more than two hours because bacteria can start to grow. And cover any liquids you put into the refrigerator so they don’t release moisture into the refrigerator, which also makes the appliance have to work harder to maintain the temperature.

Dishes: If your electric company offers lower rates at night, take advantage of that by timing your dishwasher to run when rates are lower.

Laundry: “The best way to save energy in the laundry room is to use the highest spin speed available on your washer,” says Rich Handel, who oversees CR’s washer tests. “That shortens the drying time by removing more moisture.”

Other ways to make your dryer more efficient: Clean the lint screen before every load to improve air circulation. And wipe off the dryer sensor (usually somewhere in the drum) periodically, especially if you use dryer sheets, which can leave a residue that interferes with performance.

Always use the sensor to tell when a load is dry, rather than setting a time. “Moisture sensors are better at detecting dryness, and they promptly end the cycle," says Handel. "That saves energy and is also easier on fabrics.”

Find and Fix Leaks
One of the easiest things you can do to save water is to check for leaks and fix the simple ones. If you need to call a plumber, though, take the proper precautions before you let someone in your house.

Toilets: Typically, toilets begin leaking when the toilet flapper or valve seal becomes old or worn out. To check, put some food coloring in the toilet tank and wait 15 minutes to see whether color shows up in the toilet bowl. If it does, you can order a replacement flapper or valve seal online at home improvement stores to fix the leak.

Faucets: Old and worn washers and gaskets are frequently the cause of faucet leaks. This is a simple fix but before you get started, turn the water off under the sink. Faucet washers cost pennies and you can buy them online. If you’re not sure what to do, you can find how-to videos on YouTube.

Showerheads: Make sure there is a tight connection between the showerhead and the pipe stem, which is often where leaks occur. To make a tighter connection, you can wrap Teflon tape around the showerhead pipe and then screw it into the pipe stem. You may also need to replace the washer.

Outdoor faucets: Check your garden hose for leaks at the connection to the spigot. If it leaks, try replacing the washer to ensure a tight connection to the spigot.

Save Water Around the House
If you're normally out of the house most of the day, you're likely using more water just in your daily routine now. Try making the following small adjustments to conserve water.

Showers: While you could probably use a long, relaxing bath every night during these stressful times, showers use a lot less water. Limit them to 5 minutes if possible, and turn off the shower when lathering up or shampooing.

Faucets: At the sink, turn off the faucet when you’re brushing your teeth or shaving instead of leaving it running.

Toilets: Don't use your toilet as a garbage can for tissues or dental floss, etc. You waste water flushing them down (plus things like wipes can seriously clog your pipes).

Dishes: Skip prerinsing dishes. You can use up to 7 gallons of water a minute when you run your kitchen faucet on full blast. But a dishwasher uses just 5 gallons or less for a full cycle. Most dishwashers come equipped with a soil sensor that adjusts the cycle according to how dirty the dishes are. So you don’t have to worry that your dishes won't be clean if you don’t prerinse.

Start your dishwasher only when you have a full load of dishes. And be sure to place dishes and utensils according to the instructions in your owner’s manual so everything comes out clean in one wash. If you have a small household and don’t have enough dishes to run a full load after one or two meals, use the rinse and hold cycle, which uses only one to two gallons of water, to prevent food from getting caked on. Then run a full cycle when you're ready.

For pots and pans with stuck on food, soak them instead of scrubbing them under running water.

Washing machines: While you may have to do more smaller loads of laundry if family members are coming and going from the house or if someone is sick, try to run full loads whenever possible. If your washing machine does not have a sensor that adjusts the wash based on load size, remember to pick the appropriate water level setting—small, medium, large—for each load of laundry.

Also pick the right soil setting for the load. For example, choosing the heavy-duty setting can use more water and extend wash time. The normal setting works for most loads.

Only use the amount of laundry detergent needed for the size of your load and be sure to use HE detergents for HE machines. Regular detergents are too sudsy, and using too much can cause HE washers to use more water by extending the rinse cycle.

Lawns: You don’t need to water your lawn a lot to keep it looking lush. According to the Lawn Institute, which studies turf grass, an established lawn needs only 1 inch of water per week during the growing season, including rain. Over-watering can actually harm your turf because the roots of the grass don’t grow as deep; too much water also encourages weed growth.

Also, consider keeping your grass longer. Taller blades of grass help shade each other, thereby reducing evaporation and keeping moisture in. Raise your lawn mower cutting height to keep your grass between 3 and 4½ inches tall.

Other outdoor tips: Don’t use water to clean off your driveway, steps, or deck. Sweep them instead or use a leaf blower. And instead of hosing off your car, wash it using a bucket of water and a sponge.

Change Filters
Make sure all the filters in your appliances are clean so they run as efficiently as possible. A dirty filter can interfere with optimum performance by, for instance, blocking air flow. You can wash filters for room air conditioners, over-the-range microwaves, range hoods, dehumidifiers, dishwashers with manual filters, and some vacuums. But the filters on refrigerators, water filters, air purifiers, gas furnaces, and most vacuums need to be replaced. Check your manuals to see when it’s time to replace these filters. You should be able to order replacements online. For more information read, The 12 Filters You Should Be Changing.

Thermostats From CR’s Tests
Since managing the temperature inside your house is one of the best ways to save on energy costs, consider upgrading to a smart or programmable thermostat if you don't already have one. Here are the best performers from CR’s tests, listed in alphabetical order.

Best Smart Thermostats Best Programmable Thermostats
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2020, Consumer Reports, Inc.
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