Starting Small: 3 Best Appliances to Replace to Reduce your Carbon Footprint at Home (Plus Bonus Tips)
By Tony Gilbert
It’s not always easy to stick to a decision to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Starting a zero-waste journey or committing to eating sustainably requires significant lifestyle changes, and no matter how much you’ll appreciate the end result, change is hard. But even making small changes in your home can have a big impact on reducing your carbon footprint, and reducing the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere is more important than ever before.
One way to take the first steps toward sustainability is to replace some of your appliances with more energy-efficient models. This isn’t a massive change in your day-to-day, but over time, the lower electricity requirements add up, reducing the demand to burn fossil fuels. But which appliances should you switch out for the biggest impact?
Your HVAC Is the Biggest Energy Hog in Your Home
A whopping 46% of the average U.S. energy bill goes to heating and cooling costs. If you want to take a big step toward reducing your carbon footprint, upgrade your HVAC system to a more efficient model.
The typical HVAC system uses about 850-1,950 kWh per month, as it runs two or three times per hour in 10–15 minute bursts. That adds up to 10,200–23,400 kWh per year. High-efficiency HVAC systems can slash the energy usage by half, depending on the region and the energy source used by the old system.
However, if replacing the system isn’t on the table yet, there are other ways you can reduce the energy used by your HVAC:
- Keep your system well-maintained. Replace filters regularly and make sure vents aren’t blocked or clogged.
- Turn your thermostat up higher in summer and down lower in winter. Blankets, sweaters, and tank tops can all help you maintain your personal temperature without making your HVAC work harder.
- Consider if you really need your HVAC running all day. The hottest part of the day is usually between 12 and 4 p.m., for example, so run your HVAC only when necessary.
- Close the curtains or blinds when the sun is facing the windows to reduce how much heat is let in. Conversely, keep the curtains open to take advantage of passive solar heat.
- The reason that smart thermostats are so popular is that they allow users to more precisely control when the HVAC runs and make it easy to create a “set it and forget it” schedule that’s still optimally efficient.
Next Up Is Your Water Heater
While it’s not as dramatic as the near-50% of the HVAC, the water heater still consumes more than a tenth of the average energy bill at 14%.
The most egregious offenders when it comes to wasted energy are the water heaters with tanks, as the full tank is heated no matter how little water is actually needed. A typical household will have the water heater running for three to five hours per day.
Tankless water heaters, also called on-demand water heaters, don’t have this issue, as they heat the water as it travels through the pipes. The heat is only on when the tap is open, and it only heats the amount of water that’s needed. This results in a considerable reduction in energy consumption.
Even better is to switch to a solar water heater, which can reduce the energy cost by up to 80%. Solar water heaters are most effective in warm, sunny climates, but they can be used in cooler areas with the help of a backup system for cloudy days or during the winter.
Just like with your HVAC, there are some things you can do to reduce the amount of energy your water heater uses even if you don’t have a tankless model:
- Reduce the temperature of your water heater. Manufacturers typically set the temperature to 140°F, but The U.S. Department of Energy recommends 120°F, which is hot enough for most needs.
- Wrap your water heater and the pipes leading to and from it in an insulation blanket. Done properly, this keeps standby heat loss to a minimum and keeps the water hot all day from one heating.
- Only run the dishwasher and washing machine when they have full loads. This not only saves water but also cuts down on the energy needed to heat the water.
- Get in the habit of taking showers instead of baths. A standard showerhead uses about 25 gallons for a 10-minute shower, while a bath uses about 35–50 gallons. Use a low-flow showerhead to reduce water usage further.
Tied for Third Are Your Washer and Dryer
Your washer and dryer together account for about 13% of your home’s energy use, making them nearly as important as the water heater when it comes to efficiency.
The biggest issue with clothes washers is that they use a lot of water, and most of that water needs to be heated. A full-size top-loading washing machine uses around 30–45 gallons per load. Front-loading washers are quite a bit better, using only 10–15 gallons, which is in the same range as high-efficiency top-loaders.
If you’re looking for the biggest impact, though, a high-efficiency front-loader can use as little as 7 gallons of water. If you swap an older top-loading machine for one of these, you can see up to an 85% reduction in the amount of water the machine needs to heat.
Dryers have a significant energy draw, too, and switching to an energy-efficient model can save around 20% on energy without sacrificing functionality. Here are some tips for increasing the efficiency even further:
- Air-dry some or all of your laundry on a drying rack when possible. In terms of energy, this is free.
- Clean the lint trap before every load. A clogged lint trap makes the dryer work harder. If your clothes are still taking a long time to dry or aren’t getting dry, check the dryer vent behind the machine and clean as much of the duct as you can.
- Use the appropriate setting for the type of clothing you’re washing and drying. High heat is generally not necessary, and can actually damage some types of clothing. If you can get your clothes clean when washing on cold, that’s less water that needs to be heated.
Reconsider How You Use Your Lights
While not an appliance per se, lighting consumes about 12% of the average home’s energy budget. Switching to LED light bulbs is an easy way to reduce this number. Not only do they use less energy (up to 75% less than an incandescent bulb), but they also last much longer than standard incandescent bulbs—up to 25 times longer.
More importantly, though, you can reduce your home’s energy consumption by changing how you use your lights. Consider the following:
- When you leave a room—and especially when you leave the house—check to make sure the lights are off. If you’re not going to re-enter the room within a few minutes, the light doesn’t need to stay on while you’re gone.
- Use natural light from windows during the day instead of turning the ceiling lights on. This is especially effective in rooms that face south or have large windows. If you have a home office, set it up in a room like this if possible.
- If you have outdoor lighting, make sure it’s only on when you’re outside during the evening and need it. Solar lights don’t draw on your home’s electricity.
Common “Energy Vampires” That You Should Keep an Eye On
The term “energy vampire” is used to describe devices that draw power even when they’re turned off. With these appliances and devices, it’s not so much switching to a more efficient device that will save you power; it’s making sure that the energy usage actually stops by unplugging it when you’re not using it.
Televisions: Even when it’s off, a TV still consumes power, and the bigger the screen, the larger the draw.
Devices with clocks or standby lights: One of the most common examples of these is the microwave. Even when it’s not heating food, the clock is still on and drawing power.
Set-top boxes, DVD players, VCRs, and video game consoles: VCRs also use quite a bit more energy than DVD players in general, so consider digitizing your home videos.
Chargers such as phone or laptop chargers: These consume power even when they’re not attached to a device. If there’s a “brick” in the middle of the cable or the prongs are attached to a large box plug, it’s safe to assume it will draw power whenever it’s plugged into the wall.
If you think you won’t remember to unplug these when they’re not in use, an easy fix is to use a power strip. You can plug multiple devices and chargers into the same strip and then turn the whole strip off with one switch.
A Journey to Sustainability Begins with Small Steps
Reducing your home’s energy consumption is one of the first steps to sustainable living. Making small changes in your everyday life can help you build toward making bigger changes that may seem overwhelming at the beginning. By committing to using less energy, you can help reduce your carbon footprint. Start by replacing high-energy appliances with more efficient ones, or finding ways to avoid using energy in certain areas of your life altogether. Every step counts, so take the first step today.