Thaumas P. Ehr, Landscape Architect

Twenty Ways to Reduce Your Energy Bills

There are hundreds of simple chores—or quick phone calls to qualified contractors—that can make your home safer and healthier for your family. Here are 20 to tend to right away:


1. Change for the better. Just as important as changing your air conditioner’s filter every month is the kind of filter you use. A $1 spun fiberglass filter won’t do much to clean the air that circulates in your home. When it’s time to replace the filter this month, upgrade to a $4 or $5 pleated paper filter. The pleats increase the surface area exposed to the flowing return air. The larger the filter area, the more filtering occurs.


2. Grab onto this. If the grab bars in your shower and next to the toilet are loose, they’re not going to support someone who’s holding on for dear life. Don’t just tighten the molly bolts or screws that you used to install them. Instead, screw the bars into walls studs. If the studs don’t match the length of the bar (24 inches is best, and installed on an angle is best), reinforce the wall with plywood, and screw into that.


3. Lighten up. It’s no accident that so many accidents happen in poorly lighted rooms. Many bathrooms have one overhead fixture to light the whole slippery room. You use huge, sharp knives to slice and dice on your kitchen countertops—as your head and body block the overhead light from illuminating the surface. It’s simple to stumble on a staircase that relies on a light at the other end of a hallway. Solution: Add lights closer to work surfaces, on the steps—not over them.


4. Read it and reap. Safety instructions, that is. It is my personal experience that the safety warnings getting plastered on everything from baby pacifiers to coffee pots usually go unheeded. Every product comes with manufacturer’s safety instructions. Read them before you install, maintain, move or repair anything.


5. Cover your eyes. Before you swing a hammer or twist a screw, cover your eyes with safety glasses. Even if you’ve never had a DIY mishap, take measures to preserve your perfect record. Here’s what else you should keep on hand while doing home maintenance and repairs: first-aid kit, earplugs or noise-reducing earmuffs, dust masks or a respirator, work gloves and a hard hat.


6. Clean the carpet. Even if you vacuum every day (and you should, with a HEPA-filter vacuum cleaner), your carpets cling to dirt, dust, allergens and other indoor air pollution culprits. Hire a pro to clean them once or twice a year with a “dry” extraction of dirt or a power shampoo followed by a hot-water extraction.


7. Visit your vents. An uncleaned dryer vent can catch your house on fire. When lint accumulates in your dryer vent, it prevents air from flowing through the vent. Lint can easily catch on fire. So it’s important to clean your lint trap after every load of laundry, and to clean the dryer vent and make sure nothing is blocking it on the outside of the house where it exhausts. Do it once a year or when it takes longer than one cycle to dry clothes.


8. Brighten the bowl. Few things are nastier than a smelly, stained toilet bowl. To get it really clean, remove more than just the stains. You need to clean what you can’t see. Once a month, turn off the water supply to the toilet and flush several times until the bowl is empty. Use a strong toilet cleaner and a stiff brush to scrub every inch of the bowl, inside and out.


9. Say bye-bye to bugs. Keep moths and carpet bugs out of your closets with natural, insect-repelling cedar. Keep spiders away by killing the crickets, which are gourmet food for spiders. Keep bugs outside by sealing cracks and holes around doors and windows; inspecting grocery bags, suitcases and anything else you carry inside; tightly covering the garbage and taking it out every night; storing unrefrigerated food in metal, glass or hard plastic containers; and fixing plumbing leaks.


10. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Don’t forget about these little bloodsuckers while you’re keeping your home and family safe from pests. They hide in mattresses, fabric-covered furniture and even luggage. To get rid of them, try sanitizing the infected areas, vacuuming your mattress and sealing it with a cover. Wash clothes and bed linens is hot water, and lay sticky traps around the bed to snare any that have jumped off. Your best bet, though, is to buy a new mattress.


11. Undeck the halls with care. When the holiday parties are over and it’s time to undeck the halls, pack your decorations carefully so they’ll stay safe in storage and operate safely when you unpack them next year. A few post-holiday precautions: Burn your holiday lights for no more than 90 days. Inspect strings of lights for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires and loose connections. Replace worn or broken light sets. Do not place a faulty set of lights back into the storage box for next year’s use. And never store electrical decorations near water.


12. Sweep your troubles away. Keep the home fires burning safely by burning only wood—never gift wrap, boxes or packing--in a wood-burning fireplace. Have your chimney inspected for cracks in the masonry, damaged dampers, worn-out chimney caps and other problems every couple of years, and have it swept of creosote and ash buildup. If you’ve converted to a gas-burning fireplace, call a plumber or fireplace retailer to do annual maintenance.


13. Make it a ritual. Every year on your birthday, replace the batteries in your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Test both devices monthly. While you’re in testing mode, do a monthly check of the GFCIs that are installed on your bathroom, kitchen and laundry room electrical outlets.


14. Stay legit. Keep yourself and your property safe from scam artists who will take your home-improvement money and run. Hire only contractors who are licensed by the state Registrar of Contractors to do the kind of work you need.


15. Waste not. Not all “trash” is safe to send to the landfill. Some household items, like paint, batteries, old computers and appliances have to be disposed of carefully so any hazardous chemicals they may contain don’t get into the air we breathe. That’s why most Arizona cities collect household hazardous waste separately from regular garbage. Arrange to properly dispose of your antifreeze, paint, car batteries, pool chemicals and other hazardous waste.


16. Ban the bleach. Don’t use bleach to clean up mold. It will kill the mold, but the bleach can cause the dead spores to create microtoxins, which can be worse than the mold itself. It’s far easier to prevent mold than to get rid of it. The best way: Keep your house clean and dry. Repair leaks the second you spot them. Mop up standing water under cabinets and sinks and around the toilet.


17. Forget the tip. Wall-mounted flat-screen TVs fall so easily that your children could be at risk. If you hung one yourself, call a certified installer to check it out. It should be on a sturdy mount right in the center of a stud so it won’t fall, and all cables and cords (except the power cord) should be behind the wall so nobody can see them—or yank on them and put themselves at risk for a head injury.


18. Lighten the load. Overloaded or double-tapped circuit breakers can easily catch on fire. Instead of plugging so many electronics into one power strip that you overload the circuit, call a licensed electrician to add more outlets.


19. Don’t cut the cord. Electrical cords can pose both a fire and a tripping hazards. A few “don’ts”: Don’t hide a cord under a carpet, where it can get trampled and damaged; don’t plug in a cord that’s frayed, torn or has a loose plug; don’t keep an appliance that sparks when you plug it in or unplug it; use extension cords only temporarily. They’re not designed for permanent use.


20. Know what’s what (and where). Every member of your family should know where and how to turn off the gas, electricity and water to the house. The only time you’ll need to shut off the gas is if you smell or hear leaking gas leak. If you have a gas leak or a flood from a plumbing leak, it’s a good idea to shut off your home’s electricity. Turn off the main water valve only during an emergency; if you’re repairing a toilet or washing machine, you’ll find shut-off valves that will kill the water supply just for that area.