Can't decide if you really need that new washer or refrigerator? Consider this: When you replace an old energy- puzzling appliance with a high-efficiency model, you're cutting utility costs. According to a recent U.S. Dept. of Energy report, appliances account for roughly 20 percent of a home's energy consumption. But thanks to special refrigeration insulation designs, pilotless ranges, thermal-retention dishwasher tubs and automatic dryness sensors in dryers, today's models require less power to operate than their predecessors do. Not only will replacing an appliance lower your monthly overhead, you'll be doing your part for the environment: New products help reduce smog, acid rain and other air pollutants by placing lower demands on electrical power plants.
For starters, shop for appliances that bear the federal EnergyStar logo. You can be sure you're buying a product that uses at least 15 to 20 percent less energy than a standard model. There are other up-front savings, too: Buying an EnergyStar-labeled clothes washer, dishwasher or fridge may make you eligible for a rebate from your local utility company.
Here are more ways to shave a few bucks off your utility bills:
If you're thinking of getting a second refrigerator to keep spare soda cold, consider replacing your existing refrigerator with a larger unit instead. That spare fridge can cost you an extra $50 to $150 a year in electricity, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. This nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., says it's generally less costly to operate one big refrigerator than two small ones.
Flip the Energy-Saving Switch
Since your refrigerator runs 24/7, it's one of the greatest power guzzlers in your home. So use the energy (or power) saver button when it's cool outside. This feature turns off a heat element that prevents condensation from forming around the unit's door seal. (Note: Some models have automatic systems and won't have a switch.) But in the late spring, summer and early autumn -- when humidity is high and condensation often forms -- you may want to turn the power saver off.
To maintain a temperature from 37 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in your fridge, install your unit away from a window, the range or wall oven. If you don't, you're making the refrigerator's compressor work harder than necessary to keep its temperature setting - and boosting your utility bills.
Keep Air flowing
Although it's best to pack your freezer with foods, don't stuff refrigerator baskets and shelves to the point that air circulation around food is blocked. This reduces the strain placed on your refrigerator's compressor to keep foods cool and decreases your costs.
Minimize Door Openings
To prevent cold air from escaping the refrigerator (again causing your unit to work harder than necessary), "think about what you need before opening the door" suggests Sharon Franke, the food appliances director at the Good Housekeeping Institute. And while the door is open, grab several items at once. If you have small kids, they may need a constant reminder that gets tacked onto the fridge door.
Clean the Condenser Coils Monthly
These serpentine-like coils, usually found on the bottom of newer fridges, allow the hot refrigerant inside their tubes to cool off. If the coils are covered in dust - especially in homes with pets - the dust acts as insulation and prevents heat from escaping. This, in turn, makes the refrigerator work harder and requires more juice to run (it can even cause the system to prematurely fail). To clean the coils, simply unplug the unit, remove the grill under the door(s) and vacuum or brush them.
"Today's dishwashers are much better equipped to tackle heavy soil than older models," says Carolyn Forte, Good Housekeeping Institute's home care director. So there's really no need to waste tap water (and time) rinsing off food debris by hand.
Air Dry Dishes
Unless you plan to use your dishes immediately after washing, forget the heat dry option. Instead, use the air-dry feature, which recirculates heat that's retained within the unit from the wash cycle.
Run Full Loads
Running a full load set to the right cycle saves water and electricity. If your cookware is only lightly soiled, avoid selecting the pots and pans cycle, which uses more energy than a regular cycle to clean heavily soiled items with longer, hotter washes. Of course, small families and singles may accumulate only a few dishes each day. In that case, buy a dishwasher with a rinse and hold feature (which pre-rinses heavily soiled dishes until the dishwasher is full) or the split-load option (designed to wash partial loads).
Don't Use the Temp Boost
Another way to save energy is to run the kitchen faucet until the water is hot, rather than use the temperature boost button. This way, your dishwasher's electric heater doesn't have to run as long.
Size Up Your Pans
When using an electric range or cooktop, match the size of your pot or pan to the burner or element you're cooking on. If the pot is too small, energy will escape the sides. "And if it's too big," adds Franke, "you'll need more energy to heat the outside of the pan."
Preheat No Longer than 10 Minutes
Avoid burning energy unnecessarily. Conversely, turn the oven off as soon as you're through cooking.
Determine Your Self-Cleaning Schedule
Since the oven's self-cleaning function requires energy, avoid overusing it. Hit that self-cleaning button only when your oven's interior starts to look grimy -- or when you've done a lot of baking or roasting.
Wash Warm; Rinse Cold
Why heat water unnecessarily? "Unless you have heavy stains to remove, you generally don't need hot water to wash," insists Forte. "And rinsing clothes in warm water doesn't contribute to the removal of detergent, either."
Avoid Skimping on Soap
You'll only end up having to rewash clothes. Instead, use enough detergent to clean your clothes with one wash -- and spend a few minutes pretreating heavy stains.
Go for high-spin speeds
Extract excess water from towels, jeans and heavy work clothes. "It'll save energy used by the dryer," advises Forte.
Run Full Loads
But if you have only a half load, adjust the water level accordingly.
Select "second rinse" sparingly. This should be reserved for bulky items, such as pillows, jackets and down comforters. Otherwise, you're wasting water and electricity.
Load to Capacity
Granted, there are times you don't have a full load. Then, select the timed-dry cycle and set it to the shortest time necessary.
Batch Your Laundry
By drying several loads consecutively, you're recycling heat that's retained in the drum from one load to the next.
Don't Over Dry
Why burn energy and put unnecessary wear and tear on your clothes? If your dryer features an automatic cycle that senses when items are dry and shuts the machine off, use it.
Lose the Lint
If your machine seems to take forever to dry, you may be suffering from lint build up (and wasting energy). The solution: Clean the lint filter after each use, and vacuum behind and beneath the unit and inside the dryer vent at least once a year.