Energy Smart Savings
Peruse all of our tips on the following topics to reduce your energy use! Click the + to expand each menu and explore tips, tricks and resources. This information was originally developed as part of the pilot round of our Energy Smart Challenge.
Understand Your Energy Use
Saving energy is easier when you first understand where and how you use it! The resources below will help you get started.
Know Where You Stand: Understand your Energy Bill and Energy Use Patterns
Begin by logging on to your energy provider’s online account and reviewing your energy usage over the last year, or however long you’ve lived in your current home.**
- Step 1: Get oriented. What patterns do you notice? How much energy do you use in the winter compared with the summer? How much of your bill is gas versus electric? (It’s more accurate to compare actual usage amounts instead of costs, since rates vary. For Northwestern Energy (NWE) customers, the “usage history” tab under “my energy account” makes this easy.)
- Step 2: Calculate your approximate annual usage of electricity (measured in Kilowatt-hours, or kWh) and natural gas (measured in therms). Simply add up the last 12 months’ numbers under “usage history” to get the total annual amount. (In the example here, the annual electricity usage would be 1406 kWh.) If you don’t have data for the last 12 months, add the highest and lowest months and divide by 2 to get an average, then multiply that number by 12 months to get your approximate yearly usage.
- Step 3: Compare your annual usage to Montana averages. Montana households use an average of 10,320 kWh/year of electricity and and 1150 therms of natural gas. How does your home stack up?
What if I don’t get my utility bill?! If your landlord pays your utilities, or you pay a fixed fee each month as part of your rent, you can still get a basic picture of your energy usage. It can’t hurt to try asking your landlord to send you a copy of a few bills or tell you how much energy you use (if you do this, let us know how it goes!). Otherwise, start by making a quick inventory of your major appliances, heating and cooling systems, and lighting, noting approximately how many hours a day you use each. Which appliances are gas and which are electric? What do you have control over? Use our nifty simple worksheet or dive into a more detailed online home energy calculator like this one.
** Register online for electronic access to your energy utility account(s) if you haven’t already done so - both Northwestern Energy and Missoula Electric Co-op have online account and billing options. While you’re at it, nix the paper and sign up to get your bills electronically via the e-bill option.
More Energy-Use Resources
More Energy-Use Resources
Do a DIY Home Energy Audit
Complete your own home energy audit
Download our DIY Energy Audit Checklist and get ready to do some sleuthing around your home for places where you may be wasting energy! Estimated time to complete: 15 minutes to 1 hour, depending on your home
A Google search for “DIY Energy Audit” yields an overwhelming number of results, which is why we put together our basic DIY Energy Audit walkthrough checklist. Want to go further? Here are a few resources we’ve found particularly helpful:
Did you know...
NorthWestern Energy offers free home energy audits for qualifying customers. Residential customers who have not had an audit in the past and whose home is at least five years old are eligible for an on-site audit. See what they have to offer here.
Beat the Heat
As summer temperatures increase, for many the first instinct is to turn on the A/C - not exactly energy smart! But while toasty temps inside may just be an uncomfortable annoyance for many of us, we also know heat can pose real health risks for some folks. Whether you’ve got central air, a window A/C unit, or neither, check out these tips for maximizing energy-smart cooling.
Low-Tech and Natural strategies to stay cool
Nearly half of the heat that enters your home during the day comes in through windows, especially those that face south and west. Try these passive cooling methods to keep outside heat out. Shading strategies like these can keep the inside of your home up to 20 degrees cooler!
Build or grow shade outside
Build or grow shade outside
- Install an awning or shade sail/screen on south and west-facing windows. Awnings can reduce solar heat gain— temperature rise because of sunlight —by as much as 65 percent on windows with southern exposures and 77 percent on those with western exposures, which translates into a saving of cooling energy of between 26 to 33 percent!
- Trees create great natural shade! Plant deciduous trees on the west and south sides of your home - they’ll keep you cool in the summer and allow the sun’s heat through when leaves drop in the winter. According to the NRDC, the net cooling effect of a single, young healthy tree is equivalent to 10 room-sized air conditioners, running for 20 hours a day. Amazing. Remember: keep those shade trees watered! Watering deeply once a week will help keep trees healthy in our relatively dry climate, especially as summer temps rise.
Use window coverings effectively
- Keep curtains, shutters, and/or blinds closed during the day to keep the heat out. The best choices are opaque, light-colored, reflective materials. Highly reflective blinds can reduce solar gain by up to 45%! Exterior blinds or shutters (mounted on the outside of windows) may block heat even more effectively, while also allowing some light through so you don’t feel like you’re living in a cave.
- Though they’re generally less effective than blinds or shutters, curtains or drapes can make a big difference: depending on the fabric, they can reduce heat gain by 25 to 33 percent. If you’re at all handy with a sewing machine, you can make simple curtains for just the price of the fabric and thread and some basic mounting hardware.
If you can't stand the heat, get (it) out of the kitchen
Avoid cooking and baking on hot days. The more energy you use indoors - especially for cooking - the hotter your house gets!
- Your oven and stovetop put out a ton of heat - try cooking with a microwave instead, or barbeque outdoors. A caveat: charcoal bbqs may make food taste great, but they aren’t known for being climate-friendly. The good news is there’s lots you can do to reduce the carbon footprint of your outdoor meals. We like this environmentally-friendly guide to grilling. (If you’re super into outdoor cooking, consider using a solar oven to go completely off the grid! There are some pretty cool options.)
- Even better, avoid cooking entirely! Summer is a great time to eat your veggies - go local and eat like a king from the farmers’ markets. If you need meal ideas, try Google searching the names of ingredients you’ve got on hand plus the word “recipe”. Or try out this neat recipe generator from FOODWISE. The internet is a wonderful thing!
Use heat-producing appliances sparingly and wisely.
- Far be it from me to suggest going without your cup(s) of joe in the morning! Summer’s a great time to try making cold-brew coffee! Save yourself some cash and make it easily at home. If you need your coffee hot, don’t leave the coffee maker on - pour it into a thermos once it’s brewed. If you’re a tea drinker, make sun tea by placing water and some tea bags into a glass jar and leaving it in a sunny spot for a few hours. Pour over ice and enjoy!
Chillin' without being an energy villain: Energy Smart air conditioning
Use air conditioning more efficiently and less often, or not at all!
- Turn up the A/C to 78 degrees or higher when you are home. Try turning it up one degree per day to give your body a chance to acclimate. For every degree Fahrenheit you raise your thermostat, your A/C compressor cycles 10% less. Turn the A/C off when you’re out of the house, and don’t turn the temp way down when you get back - it won’t cool any faster and will just use more energy.
- Try a swamp cooler as an alternative to A/C. These devices, which you can buy or even make yourself, use evaporative cooling principles and work well in Missoula’s dry heat - and use up to 75% less energy than A/C!
- Seal off unused rooms. If you run central or room air conditioning and there’s a room you don’t use much, keep the door closed and/or seal off the register - no need to waste energy cooling a room you’re not in.
- Treat your A/C right.
- Your A/C likes shade, too! Shading your unit means it doesn’t have to work nearly as hard because the air it’s pulling in is cooler. The more area you can shade, the better.
- Clean or replace your A/C filter regularly to keep it running efficiently.
- Use ceiling fans to give your A/C a break. Running ceiling fans counter-clockwise allows you to turn up the temperature by 4-5 degrees and reduce A/C use by as much as 40%!
Turn off the heat
Save Water, Save Energy
What does water conservation have to do with energy savings? According to the EPA, the average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water a day. All that water is pumped to our homes, we heat it for showers and laundry, and energy is used to process and treat wastewater. One study found that U.S. water-related energy use is over 520 million megawatt-hours per year - equal to 13% of the nation’s electricity consumption. While water heating is the biggest energy-guzzler, any water that comes out of a tap or hose embodies energy. With these tips, learn how to conserve water and energy without neglecting your garden or hygiene!
Reduce outdoor water use
Here in the dry West, the percentage of water we use outside on landscaping and irrigation is often higher than the national average of 30 percent of household use. In Missoula, we’re fortunate to have a local source of clean water right under our feet - the Missoula Aquifer. It’s an abundant resource, but as our city grows, demand will only increase, so getting into water-saving habits now is essential. Plus, now that we own our water system, saving water helps balance the budget and keep our rates down.
- Time it right. Whether you’ve got outdoor landscaping, a community garden plot, or even thirsty potted plants on your porch, be sure to water during early morning (5-9am is best) or evening (7-10pm is 2nd best) to reduce evaporation. For larger areas, sprinklers that water low to the ground are good, but soaker hoses or drip lines are even better. You can buy an inexpensive timer at a hardware store and set it to water automatically, too, saving yourself time in the process. Wondering how much you actually need to water? Here’s one guide from the EPA, and another from Colorado which has a similarly dry climate.
Slash your hot water usage
Hot water systems are often pretty inefficient because of energy loss during standby (all that time the water’s just sitting in the giant heater tank, being kept warm) as well as distribution (water traveling along the pipes from the heater to the sink or shower). Water heating is the second-largest expense in the average home, accounting for between 16-18% of your power bill, or $400-$600 a year, according to the Department of Energy. If every home in the US installed efficient water fixtures and appliances, we’d cut nearly 44 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. the equivalent of taking more than 9 million cars off the road.
- Turn down your water heater temp to 120 degrees. Many water heaters are automatically set at 140 degrees, much higher than most of us need. Set too high, your water heater can waste anywhere from $36 to $61 annually in standby heat losses and more than $400 in distribution losses.
- Go cold when you can. Use cold water for washing hands - turning it off and sudsing up for 20 seconds gets rid of germs is more effective than a short burst of hot water anyway. For handwashing dishes, use just a small tub or bowl of hot soapy water for the wash, then rinse with cold. Laundry detergents these days are designed for cold water, and washing in cold will preserve your clothes, too.
- Insulate your water heater and the first 6 feet (or more) of hot water pipes. Foam pipe insulation is super cheap and insulating blankets for hot water run about $20 at a home improvement store. Insulating your hot water pipes can increase the temperature of the water reaching the tap by 2 to 4 degrees, and insulating your water heater can pay for itself in a year, with energy savings between 7-16%. If you’re the coupon-cutting type, both these projects are eligible for Northwestern Energy rebates.
- Looking to replace an old water heater? Most water heaters only have a lifespan of 10-15 years, so if you’re pushing it, best to do your research and pick out a new one sooner rather than later. Choosing the most energy-efficient new water heater is not always straightforward - it depends on where your heater is located in your house (in a conditioned space or not), whether it's gas or electric, and of course, your budget! Here’s one guide.
save water like a boss: Simple steps and long-term habits
- Fix your flush. Toilets use a lot of water - the average person flushes 5 times a day. If your toilet is from the 80s or 90s, it uses an average of 3.5 gallons for each flush - even more if it’s older! First, try to flush less often - it’s ok to let it mellow at home. Then, think low-flow. If you’re in the market for a new throne, by all means find a super efficient model - WaterSense high efficiency toilets use about 1.3 gallons, reducing the average family of four’s flush rate from 26,000 gallons a year to 9,000. But you don’t have to buy a new toilet to start saving today - simply using a half-gallon water displacement jug in your tank can save a family of four 3,600 gallons a year.
- Install low-flow faucet aerators and showerheads. How old is your showerhead? It might be time to replace it. Low-flow technology has gotten a lot better. Look for EPA WaterSense options that are under 2 gpm - options go all the way down to 0.9 gpm! Faucet aerators are another great way to reduce. Without compromising water pressure, a $5 (or less!) aerator will cut the amount of water rushing from your taps by as much as 75%! If you’ve got aerators already, unscrew them and check their flow rating - usually etched on the side. Newer ones can get down to as low as 0.5 gpm (though you may want a higher gpm for the kitchen so you’re not waiting forever to fill cooking pots).
- Take shorter showers. I know, I know...not exactly revolutionary advice, but using less water is, well, the easiest way to use less water. Most people assume showers are more water-wise than baths, but with a standard 2.5 gallons-per-minute (gpm) showerhead, it only takes between 8-12 minutes to use water equivalent to filling an average bathtub (20-30 gallons). Oy. Shoot for 5 minute showers. I know I’m guilty of spacing out under the spray; try using a timer to keep on track - you can train yourself pretty quickly. Turning the water off while you shampoo, soap up, or shave is also smart.
- Washers are big wasters. Standard top-loading clothes washers, even newer ones, use a lot of water - 40 or more gallons per load. Their design just isn’t very efficient. High-efficiency washers use much less - between 15-30 gallons per load. ENERGY STAR® estimates you could fill three backyard swimming pools with the water you save over the life of a new ENERGY STAR-qualified washer. If your washer is over 10 years old, investing in a new high-efficiency model makes sense. But no matter what kind of washer you use, make sure to always do full loads to maximize efficiency.
Electronics and Devices
Vanquish Energy Vampires
“Vampire energy” is the energy used by electronics - computers, TVs, DVD players, even some kitchen appliances - while they are plugged in but not in use. Here are a few tips that will help you eliminate vampire energy while also extending the life of resource-intensive electronics.
- Take a quick inventory of your home, room by room, and see what’s connected to an outlet. The average household has 25 electronic devices plugged in at any given time, which, according to the EPA, drain a whopping $10 billion collectively each year. Anything with a lit display or A/C adapter is an obvious culprit. Unplug anything that’s used infrequently.
- Focus on bigger electronics. Don’t worry about unplugging phone chargers or other small devices. Unless they’re truly ancient, it’s simply not worth the effort: most modern phone chargers don’t draw much, if any, power when they’re not charging, regardless if your device is connected. Computers are another story. Desktops are the worst power-suckers - best to shut down when not in use. Laptops use vampire power too - basically any device with one of those rectangular A/C adapters is going to be pulling in some amount of energy as long as it’s plugged in. Today’s lithium laptop batteries are happiest in a charging sweet spot, so leaving it unplugged while in “sleep” mode overnight could actually help your laptop live longer.
- Power strips are your friend - “Smart” power strips are your best friend. Power strips, when turned off, cut power at the outlet, giving you the ease of turning many things off at once. Want even greater customization and ease? Smart Power Strips automatically turn off electronics that go into standby mode, plus some allow you to group electronics that you’d want to turn on and off together.
- Learn more about standby energy and which electronics to prioritize.
Fine-Tune your Energy Settings
- Smart TVs aren’t necessarily energy smart. Today’s flat-screen TVs mostly use LED technology, which uses less than half the energy of earlier high-def monitors. However, “Smart” TVs that connect to the internet are often set to a “quick-start” default that enables them to boot up a teeny bit more quickly - and, no surprise, means they’re draining power when off. Find this option in your TV settings and disable it. Then, check the brightness - turn it down, or if there’s an automatic setting, enabling that will adjust the brightness to the level of light in the room, saving energy as days get shorter and evenings get darker.
- Netflix and...waste? If you enjoy streaming video services, avoid using gaming consoles like an Xbox - they can use up to 30 times more power than a smaller device that’s specifically for movies/tv. If you do have a gaming device, set it to “auto power down” (or put it on a smart power strip!) or just unplug it if it’s used infrequently.
- Calibrate your computer. Screen savers are so 1998! Set your computer to sleep/hibernate automatically after 10 minutes of inactivity and check out Energy Star’s directions for managing power settings for different computer operating systems.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Re-think your Electronic Devices
- Before upgrading, consider the devices you have: Can you install a new operating system on your old computer? Can you repair that broken screen? Do you need the latest phone model, or does your current one get the job done just fine?
- Avoid the old cell phone pile of doom. There are lots of options to donate or recycle old phones - here are a few ideas. Be sure to remove all your personal data before you donate or recycle any electronic device.
- It’s not quite as easy to donate computers as you might think. If you’re looking to get rid of one that’s less than 7 years old, your best bet is find a local refurbisher and ask if they’ll accept your donation. If it’s older than that, read on...
- Got an ancient computer or TV hanging around? Make sure it doesn’t end up in the landfill - check out Oreo’s Refining or Pete’s Electric for local electronics recycling.
- According to the EPA, recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year.
- For every million cell phones we recycle, 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.
- On the opposite end of the life cycle, we don't know exactly how much energy goes into manufacturing electronics - most companies don’t disclose or even calculate their carbon footprint -but we know it’s energy-intensive. For example, in 2016, Apple self-reported that 77 percent of their 29.5 million ton carbon footprint came from the manufacturing of their products, while only 17% came from product usage. Whoa! That’s a lot of energy embodied in each device.
Efficient Winter Heating
Get Smart about your thermostat
HEATING accounts for between 30-50% of most residential energy use here in our northern climate. No surprise: a lot of that heat is wasted.
Install a programmable thermostat - or learn to program the one you’ve got. This is one of the most cost-effective energy savers! Cut 10% or more of your heating costs simply by setting your temperature back 8 to 10 degrees below normal for at least 8 hours a day, and programmable thermostats make it EASY. No more wasting energy to heat an empty house just so it’s warm when you get home...or freezing while you wait for the heat to fire up in the morning. Even the most basic programmable thermostats allow you to set temperatures based on your schedule - when you wake up, leave for work, come home, and go to bed, weekdays and weekends. Here’s a thermostat guide to get you started.
- Intrepid renters: you can do this too - especially if you pay your energy bills. Ask your landlord, or DIY then bring it with you when you move.
- If you’re a Northwestern Energy customer and you have natural gas heat, take advantage of this rebate for programmable thermostats. Every penny helps!
- The recommendation to “setback” temperatures 8 or more degrees applies to most gas or electric furnace or boiler heating systems. Heat pumps, steam heat or radiant flooring systems may require smaller setbacks or different timing.
- Older dial thermostats often contain mercury - take them to Ace Hardware for recycling.
Keep your Heating System running Efficiently
Maintenance ain’t sexy, but it’s key to keeping your boiler or furnace running - not just smoothly and safely, but more efficiently energy-wise. Basic maintenance steps like these can reduce average heating bills by between 3-10 percent, plus extend the life of your system.
- Forced-Air Heating Systems
- Clean or replace air filters. Dust build-up forces the blower to work overtime. Check filters once a month during heating season. Basic filters are generally cheap to replace (as low as $1 apiece at hardware stores), or you may be able to use heavy-duty filters that last longer.
- Clean heating registers. Same principle applies - dust, debris, and drapes are all enemies of efficient airflow. Be sure nothing’s blocking your registers.
- Adjust airflow to unused spaces by closing dampers or registers. Keeping rarely-used spaces cooler saves energy - but all in moderation! Restricting too much airflow can also cause the blower/fan to run inefficiently.
- Hot-Water and Steam Systems
- Go easy on the DIY here - the hot water in these systems can be really dangerous. When in doubt, call a professional or your landlord!
- Like forced-air systems, cleanliness is key. Keep radiators and baseboards free of dust and away from furnishings so air can circulate under and over.
- Air gets trapped in radiators and, you guessed it, keeps them from working efficiently. Bleed trapped air least once per season, using a radiator key or otherwise opening the valve until all the air has escaped. It’s totally fine to have a technician show you how to do this on your system if you’ve never done it before!
- Adjust the aquastat that regulates your boiler water temperature. Like your water heater, it’s often set higher than necessary - turning the aquastat down to between 120-140 degrees can reduce fuel use by 5-10%.
- Follow any other recommended maintenance steps for your particular system. A full tune-up is a good idea every couple of years. Take a deeper dive into maintenance options HERE.
Low- and No-Cost Heat-Conserving tips
These inexpensive tips around tightening the “building envelope” and basic interior changes can make a big difference.
- Use window coverings and fans to your advantage. Close curtains/blinds at night to conserve heat, open them during the day to let the solar heat gain do its thing. If you’ve got ceiling fans, run them clockwise to circulate the rising warm air back down into your space.
- Weatherize windows and doors. Windows and doors are the most obvious culprits - and luckily easy to fix.
- Weather stripping for doors is cheap and easy to install.
- Got old, single-paned windows? If you are fortunate enough to have storm windows, they’re well worth installing each year. Otherwise, armed with a hair dryer and a shrink-fit window film kit (from any hardware store), it’s easy to insulate your windows yourself. One manufacturer claims this DIY project can save you $17 per window in heating costs. That seems awfully specific, but in any case, we agree it’s worthwhile!
- Seal leaky spots. Small cracks and holes - obvious and hidden - may be responsible for up to 30% of home heat loss!
- Ducts, pipes, exhaust fans, vents - these are all possible places where holes and cracks allow indoor air to escape. Scope out these spots, then use caulk or foam to close them up.
- The attic is another big heat-sucker, which makes sense, since warm air rises. If you’ve got access, find and seal any holes up there.
Want to go above and beyond? Check the insulation levels in your attic while you’re at it. It may require a little more time and money, but improving attic insulation is one of the biggest bangs for your buck in terms of energy savings. And, you might be eligible for a tax credit.
lUMEns, lamps, and Leds: Changing lightbulbs
Replacing just one 40-watt incandescent that’s on 4 hours a day with a 9-watt LED will save you about $75 over 10 years, and that thing’s still got at least 7 more years to go before it reaches the end of its lifespan. That’s a savings of 800 kWh, or at least 1000 pounds of CO2 over the lifetime of the bulb. And that’s just one light! What if you changed 10 of your most frequently used lights to LED?
Beyond the bulb: Lighting strategies to reduce energy use
- Dimmers, timers, and motion/daylight sensors are easy to install and more widely available than ever. LEDs are dimmable, while CFLs are not - another reason to go LED! Motion sensors or timers can be especially useful in outdoor settings.
- Turn off lights when you leave a room. The old adage is still true. You saveenergy every time you turn lights off, even if you’re going to turn them back on in a few minutes.
- Add light bulbs to your dusting routine. Really. Dirt absorbs light and reduces efficiency.
low-Impact Holiday Lighting
- Use timers and power strips for easier operation and greater energy savings. It gets dark early these days, and let’s face it, it’s just plain nice to come home in the dead of winter to a brightly lit tree, balcony or house. No need to have those lights on all day though - hook them up to an inexpensive timer, or combine multiple strands all on one power strip to easily turn them on and off.