Ask the Expert text
Keeping Warm for Less
Illustration of Steve Durfee
Illustration: Joel Kimmel
" " When it comes to efficiency, good enough is never enough for Steve Durfee, Bucknell’s campus energy manager. He’s constantly on the hunt for ways to make the University more sustainable, whether it’s replacing more than 35,000 lightbulbs around campus with LEDs in the last two years or a $5-million chiller plant upgrade to cool campus buildings with less energy. Now, in the grip of winter, Durfee offers tips for reducing your utility bills.
Question 1: What's the simplest way to save?
Look for leaks, especially around windows and doors. If the top part of your window slides down a little, it will cost you. Use a flashlight around doors to look for gaps or, if you want to get really sophisticated, you can buy a thermal camera attachment for your smartphone. If you find a leak, seal it. You want a tight envelope with no gaps.
Question 2: What's the best thermostat setting?
As low as you can go and still be comfortable. I keep mine at 68, but some people keep theirs lower. Turn it down at night and when you’re not around, ideally ahead of time. If you go to bed at 11, turn it down at 8 or 9. The new internet-connected thermostats make this even easier; you can even adjust them on your phone if you’re away.
Question 3: Are space heaters really bad?
It depends, but not really. They’re much less efficient than, say, a gas furnace, but if you’re staying in one place for a while, using one is better than heating empty rooms. Just make sure to never leave them unattended.
Question 4: Anything not worth doing?
People talk a lot about phantom load — energy that’s passively consumed just by having things plugged in. Will unplugging all your devices reduce your electricity usage? Sure, in the larger sense, if hundreds of thousands of people do it. But on an individual level you won’t notice more than a few dollars’ difference in your monthly bill.
Question 5: What else can you do?
No. 1 is behavioral change. Can you wear a sweater instead of a T-shirt in your house? Do you turn off the lights when you leave a room? Don’t forget about exhaust fans in your bathroom — leaving them running sucks the heat out of your home in winter. I installed timer switches on mine so they shut off automatically. Small changes add up.