The Best Way to Save Energy: To NOT Think About It

Let these energy-monitoring devices do the work for you.

A home energy monitor helps you change your energy use behaviors in ways that will save you money. When this orb glows green, energy pricing and demand is low, signaling that it's a good time to run appliances like the washer and dryer. Image: Ambient Devices

Save money nav bar

Here’s a head scratcher: In spite of all the energy-efficient technologies available that can reduce home energy use by up to 20%, Americans’ energy-saving habits are on the decline.

We’ve been covering energy efficiency for a while here at HouseLogic, and it’s clear many folks are overwhelmed and bewildered both by how best to save energy and by the infernally rising costs of energy.

We feel so powerless, says Suzanne Shelton, CEO of The Shelton Group, a marketing and advertising agency that specializes in energy-efficiency issues, that we’re making fewer energy-efficient improvements.

Certainly things like better appliance labeling and the ballyhooed smart grid, which won’t become a reality for at least a decade, would help us all. But in the meantime, we’ve created three different energy-management strategies you can choose from based on your lifestyle and budget.

Need a little convincing to get started? The types of systems we suggest can help you control energy use by making energy efficiency part of your routine. And best yet, some practices can trim up to 20% off your annual power costs.

1. The Set-It-and-Forget-It Homeowner

Lifestyle profile: You’re happy to save energy as long as you don’t have to think about it. Demographer and business consultancy McKinsey & Co. calls you “non-green selective energy savers.” Bottom-line: You like options that do most of the work.

Your energy-management solutions:

Smart programmable thermostat. If you’re one of the majority of Americans who hasn’t programmed your thermostat, a thermostat that learns your behaviors is for you.

How does it work?

  • Although each brand’s product operates differently, these self-programming devices turn themselves off when they sense no one is home and self-adjust based on humidity levels.
  • Since they’re also Wi-Fi enabled, you can operate the thermostat remotely using an app on your mobile device.

Potential energy savings: Up to 15% with a heating and cooling strategy, according to

A programmable timer switch lowers electricity consumption by turning on lights and electronics when you need them.

How does it work?

  • Program an on-off schedule or use a preset schedule. Newer models come with a motion-control sensor. Brand names include: Belkin, Honeywell, and Lutron.
  • For lights and appliances that plug directly into outlets, you’ll need a plug-in switcher. This one by Belkin can be programmed using a mobile app or a motion-control sensor.

  • For hard-wired lights, you’ll need to replace your current light switch with a wall-mounted programmable switch. They typically offer preset scheduling, such as auto on/off at sunrise and dusk, and can be operated manually.

Potential energy savings: Although doesn’t quantify savings, the Feds recommend timers because they keep lights on only when needed. Some manufacturers suggest that with timed or motion-sensing lighting you could save up to $100 per year.

Tradeoffs if you want easy:
Set-it-and-forget-it comes at a price. Programmable timer switches start at about $40 and only control a single electrical device, so you might have to buy several. Smart thermostats cost around $250. Extra charges may apply if you need a pro install.

Set-it-and-forget-it tip: Using dimmer switches can reduce a light’s energy consumption. The amount varies depending on which source you consult — some say by as much as 20%.

Dimmer switches also extent lightbulb life: Incandescent and halogen bulbs will last up to 20 times longer when used with a dimmer, says Make sure to buy CFLs and LEDs specified for use with dimmers.

2. The Penny-Wise Homeowner

Lifestyle profile: You’re motivated by cost savings. Period. Demographics analyst McKinsey refers to you as a “traditional cost-focused energy saver.”

You energy-management solutions:

Digital programmable thermostat. It costs significantly less than its smart counterpart, but programming it is one of the top-five things you can do to take back your energy bills.

How does it work? You input a heating and cooling schedule based on your needs and lifestyle. Use HouseLogic’s guide to program your thermostat for real savings.

And here’s a video primer:

Potential energy savings:The EPA pegs savings at up to $180 per year. Other government sources say as much as 15% or $330, assuming an annual average household utility cost of $2,200. Either way, with thermostat prices ranging from $20-$120, the payback is short.

A home energy monitorgives you the big picture about what your electricity usage costs you per hour. That way you can identify the behavioral changes that will save you money.

There are also portable, handheld monitors, like Kill A Watt, but they tell a limited story — for instance, how much energy a particular lamp is using when it’s on.

How do energy monitors work?

  • A wireless system ties into your home’s breaker panel so you can monitor real-time electricity use via a computer, mobile device, or the system display screen.
  • These systems let you measure consumption three different ways: by your home’s total use, by individual circuit, and by individual room and appliance based on your electrical setup.

Here’s an example of how such a system works:

Potential energy savings: Up to 15% per year on electricity costs, assuming you make behavioral changes, according to Energy Circle, which studies energy efficiency.

Tradeoffs if you want to boost savings:

  • You have to spend money to save money in this case. Monitors cost around $150-$200 for homes with one electrical panel. If you’re not comfortable installing your own digital programmable thermostat, it can cost up to $200 for pro install.
  • A monitor itself won’t save you energy. You have to make changes based on what you learn from it.

Penny-wise tip: Curb your runaway standby power consumption by unplugging ubiquitous devices like tablets, computers, cell phones, and DVRS. Americans spend about $100 per year on passive energy use, says Energy Star.

Bonus tip:Check with your utility about whether it offers off-peak rates so you can run appliances like washers and dryers when customer demand for power is low. 

3. The Tech-Savvy Homeowner

Lifestyle profile: You’re interested in home technologies that focus on comfort, control, and convenience, So it’s a bonus if those technologies also help you consume less energy. McKinsey dubs you “home-focused selective energy savers.”

Your energy-management solution:

Home monitoring system. These systems offer energy-saving features, like remote lighting controls, and home security features, such as remote door locking.

How does it work? You can pick and choose what you want to monitor — from your electrical consumption to the comings and goings at your front door via video. Of course, more stuff means more add-on costs.

Among your options:

DIY home management starter kitsoffer basic security and energy-efficient features, like window and door sensors and a smart thermostat that you can program via your computer or personal device. Kits like these cost around $170, and they’re available from some big-box retailers.

If you’re interested in more sophisticated features, like real-time energy reports, you’ll need to buy a $150 meter reader, basically an energy monitor that plugs into your circuit breaker. Though some systems offer basic monitoring and scheduling, there are limits. For instance, you can’t see your system history — that is, how much energy you used last month. You can only see a few days at a time.

If you want to use advanced system features, like voice control, or access your entire system history, you pay a monthly fee. For example, the Iris by Lowe’s kit is $299 with a monthly fee of $9.99. Here’s a CNET review:

Subscription packages from local cable providers, like Intelligent Home from Time Warner, let you customize a home management system. The standard TWC Intelligent Home package (which they’ll install at no cost) includes items such as a system display screen, two wireless door/window sensors, and one wireless motion detector. Additional features like smoke detectors, a thermostat, and programmable lighting modules are extra. Monthly subscription fees start at $33.99 for the standard home package.

Subscription packages by home security companies. As with cable packages, you can pick security, energy-efficiency, and home automation options a la carte. For example, offers a package that lets you manage your electricity use. Its geo-services feature tracks your location via your cell phone so the system can automatically adjust thermostat settings when you leave or return home.

Installation costs can start at $400 and monthly fees can be more than $30. Here’s a video that explains its features:

Tradeoffs for having comfort, control, and convenience:

  • If your Internet connection goes down and your DIY kit system is on Wi-Fi, it’ll go offline. If the control panel runs on batteries, the system can shut down when the batteries run out of juice. 
  • Cable and security packages are pricey.
  • Energy management systems use energy, though Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory spokesperson Allan Chen isn’t aware of any studies on how much — it may be nominal. So if the energy-monitoring components of these systems are important to you, what matters is whether you can make behavioral changes to at least recoup any added costs.

Related: Should You Switch to an Alternative Electric Supplier?

Save money nav bar