7 creative ways to save energy costs, even in your rental!

Updated Jul 15 2016
Guest post by Cass

energy-costs-obhlI am a serial renter. I have rented nine rooms, apartments, or homes in the last six years. That means I have gotten to see a lot of nasty, old-school building, heating, flooring and wiring that comes with student housing.

With a little practice, I have been able to save around 20% on my energy usage each month. Imagine if your electric bill for your one-bedroom apartment is $100 in the winter. These few tricks will save $20 right away, which means an extra $240 in your yearly budget. You could do things like: treat yourself to a nice dinner out, buy yourself that fancy new tablet, or just load up on the geeky swag of your choice!

There are basically two ways to save on your energy use:

  1. Use less energy. (This is where things like wearing a sweater in the winter, using CFL or LED lightbulbs, and turning off lights in rooms you're not using comes in.)
  2. Be more efficient with the energy you do use.

The first method is much less sexy than the second method, but putting them both together gains the best benefit. Here are some things you may not have thought of to help you use less in your rental, and they'd also work in your home…

1. Install a programmable thermostat.

One of these babies will set you back about $30, and you might need someone to help you install it. But the upside is that you may be able to get your rent discounted for your out-of-pocket expense. And you can program the heat or air conditioning to turn off during the day when you are at work or school, and then it automatically kicks on to just the right temperature 15 minutes before you get home! Or utilize it to cool your digs at night to help you get better sleep. All while helping you use less and save your moolah.

2. Use that crock pot your grandma gave you.

Did you know that using an electric stove-top burner for 30 minutes (think about how long that dinner skillet takes!) uses the same amount of energy as your crock pot uses in eight hours? And crock pots are so easy, helping you make one-pot dishes that save on prep time and cleanup. So go ahead, roast that brisket all day, and save on your electric bills.

3. Think about the sun.

Depending on your light-exposure, you may be needlessly heating and cooling your apartment with electricity. Is it cold and winter right now? Open your shades during the sunniest part of the day to let in heat. Is it blistering hot outside and you need some respite from all that heat? Close your shades and keep the sun's incidental heat out of your home.

4. Use a door draft jam to keep the air you want in, and the air you don't want out.

Right now I live in an apartment building with a shared enclosed hallway between living spaces. My neighbor likes to smoke indoors, and that smoke comes right in my apartment. But NO MORE! A draft jam helps keep his smoking habits out of my home. And an added benefit, my heat stays in my apartment, while the cool air of the hallway stays out there, helping regulate the temperature and stop leaks.

5. Put up thermal curtains.

Check with your lease if you can install curtains or window treatments in your apartment. But thermal curtains, again the principle much like the draft dodger, helps keep drafts from the window. It can also help with #3, keeping the sun out on hot days, or keep warm air in on cool nights. As an extra perk, many of these block out light, helping you get some extra shut-eye when the sun rises earlier than you do.

Read this post and the money you spend on the most awesome thermostat ever might be able to be totally recouped in your energy bill savings!
Read this post and the money you spend on the most awesome thermostate ever, might be able to be totally recouped in your energy bill savings!

6. Keep your refrigerator full.

Remember that lesson in high school physics about water's heat capacity? Well, employ that same principle with your fridge! If you live with just you, or you and a partner, one large fridge may be more than you actually use. So if you find your fridge looking empty come grocery day, add some jugs of water. You can hack this yet further by keeping filled water bottles in your fridge. Not only are they helping keep your fridge temperature nice and steady, but you have a nice, cool bottle of water to bring to the gym. You have my permission to use other liquids, too: juice, beer, stock from that chicken you cooked in your crock pot (see #2).

7. Extra credit for you science nerds: pay attention to the air flows in your space.

Check the vents to see if they are pointed optimally to get your heating/cooling to just where you want. If you find your vent register situation lacking, look into using a fan to boost the air flow. If there is a particularly hot or cold space in your home, consider how the air is supposed to go there or leave there. A fan may be an easy solution to even out the temperature of your home. And if you've got register heaters from 1980 — stop using those. Modern space heaters are so much more efficient than register heat. You can either use one big heater for your whole space, which uses more energy, or you can use a smaller, more efficient space heater and bring it room-to-room with you.

Any other serial renters out there with good tips?

  1. We too are renters and these are great tips. We don't have air conditioning so I am obsessed with opening windows at night in the summer then closing everything up and lowering the blinds all day. It helps quite a bit.

    Also, it helps to not keep things plugged in that don't get used often. Like, we don't use our toaster much anymore, so, that doesn't stay plugged in, even though it's on the counter. And, we have a power bar for charging that gets turned off when not in use. When we are away for more than a day or two, i tend to run around and unplug things as well. No more tiny usages for items not in use.

    I live in Toronto, so it may vary, but, our electricity company (Toronto Hydro) has printable coupons for energy efficient items, so, take advantage of them!
    http://www.torontohydro.com/sites/electricsystem/electricityconservation/residentialconservation/pages/coupons.aspx

    Also, see if your electric company has time of day discounts, again, we do here, so we always charge our devices and run our dishwasher overnight – when electricity is cheapest!

  2. Great tips! My boyfriend and I have lived this way for the past two years. My boyfriend and I haven't used our AC/heater yet. Most days we wrap up in fleece and wool. Most nights we partially shut the bedroom door and turn on a tiny room heater. Summers are pretty disgusting but we both prefer to use cold water showers and sit in the shade. Meals are made in bulk over the weekends using crockpots and then stored in the fridge. We only hit 100$ on our power bill during December (party month). Most months it's 70$. If we could kick the Internet habit I'm sure it'd plummet!

    Sounds spartan, but it's really not that bad!

    • Although we must use heating and cooling for some special instruments we own, the rest of this story sounds just like my husband and me.
      It really isn't Spartan, so long as you're comfortable.

    • We own two cats who stay perfectly comfortable even with our programmable thermostat.
      When the temps go down, they curl up with each other in their bed. When the temps are too warm, they cool off by sprawling on the bathroom tile.
      So long as the animals aren't caged, they can usually find a way to adapt when you're not home.

    • Unless your rental gets truly extreme temperatures inside without the heat or A/C, most pets will be fine. Even if your home gets super hot/cold, you can program the thermostat to moderate temps that are not blasting heat/cold while you're away — dogs & cats tend to be more adaptable than picky humans.

      The real point of the thermostat is to adjust the temperature to the time of day & the actual required heat/cold needed, which you can't do with a non-programmable thermostat that leaves the temp set at one spot.

  3. So like in most houses with a dryer ours vents to the outside, this means that when you get within 8 ft of the dryer in the kitchen you feel the cold seeping into the room through the thin flexible vent hose and from the dryer itself. It means that to dry anything you are fighting against cold damp air coming up the hose and that all the heat from the dryer is just being wasted. So I took some old socks, put them in a grocery bag and while Alex disconnected the vent hose from the wall I went out side and blocked the hole, we covered the inside with foam and could immediately feel the difference in temp. We used stockings to cover the end of the hose and ran it out to the side of the dryer (we have a very effective lint trap) and now not only is that part of the room not freezing but the humidity is helping me breath better as it warms up the house. I check the end of the long vent hose after every cycle so I am being careful. Win win I'm my opinion

  4. My electric blanket saves me a lot! Its pointless for me to try and maintain heat in my old drafty apartment with super high cielings, so I resort to my heated blanket most nights, I'm basically obsessed with it…

    • When I get into bed in the winter, I use a heating pad set on 'low', so I can really let the heat in the house go down at night. The heating pad turns off automatically, and I'm usually asleep by then. (Using a corn/beans/rice-filled pad is an even cheaper option, since it only warms in the microwave, once.) The cool temperatures through the night really help with better sleep!

      Then I have the heat kick back on 15 minutes before my alarm so I actually am OK with emerging from my warm bed-cocoon. I used to always sleep in just so stay in the warm covers when I wouldn't let the apartment warm at all until later in the day.

      • at an old apartment i lived in, my bedroom was *really* cold in the winter. I used a hot water bottle at night (well, 2 sometimes – one at my feet and one snuggled against me). Those things are classic for a reason! They work.

      • I've also done the heating pad in the bed trick; it helps a lot, especially if you put it in the bed 10-15 minutes before bedtime so it has time to warm up the space.

        One year I made it my goal not to turn my heater on until December. I had a big sweatshirt with one of those hand pocket/pouch things in the front. I used to heat up a rice-filled heating pad in the microwave and then slip it in the pouch on the shirt. That way it traveled around the apartment with me instead of warming the whole place, and I could tuck my hands in there with it if they got too cold. I looked kind of pregnant, but it kept me warm!

  5. Up north, the big energy bills are really during the winter!

    1-Only heat the rooms you use. Bedroom, stair case and bathroom are at 59F. You'll either be in transit, in a hot shower or in your beds in these rooms.

    2- Get dressed. Put one (or two) sweaters and those ugly slippers your granny gave you last winter. The rest of the apartment is at 68F!

    3- If you are in a rental but plan to live there a couple of year, consider investing in "plastics" for windows. They really do wonders if your windows are old and cold. They are reuseable each season but costs around 5$ per window.

    • Using plastics on windows with a large amount of condensation is not a good idea, though. The water gets trapped between the plastic and window and mildews, which can cause damage to your rental.
      Because of the need for /some/ air flow around our windows, we opted to invest in the thermal curtains. Its about $15 per panel, and about $7 per curtain rod. But these can be used in all seasons, and can be moved from home to home.

    • Slippers and comfy fuzzy socks are key if you want to set your thermostat a couple of degrees cooler. I actually keep 1-2 extra pairs of slippers around for guests in winter.

  6. We keep our heat off most of the time. I turn it on for 30 minutes in the morning so I can get showered and dressed without freezing, then we turn it on a bit in the evening when we get home. The rest of the time it's big blankets, socks, and hoodies! Also, I'm more motivated to work out and clean in winter because it helps me stay warm.

    I keep rice bags in the freezer to keep me cool in the summer as well. Seems to work pretty well.

    • While I didn't get to putting this in the post:
      If you get free water (included in your rent), or don't have air conditioning, fill all your sinks/tubs with cold water in the morning to act as a heat sink. As your apartment gets warmer, that heat gets saved in your sinks, that you can then just drain down the sink and fill with more cold water.

      However, this isn't a money-saving technique if you have to pay for your water & sewer.
      And I would sooner use air conditioning in the summer to keep things cool (and less humid).

      • As someone who grew up in central California this sounds like a terrible waste of water to me, but maybe it is more reasonable in places that get rain all year round and aren't subject to frequent droughts?

  7. No sure if I'm an energy saving master but I live in a 3 bd (1300 sq ft) apartment in an old Victorian in Buffalo, and last month my gas bill was $46, all I did was turn the temperature down 2 degrees, to 58, it's not too cold or too hot in my house & it knocked almost $20 off my bill. I also don't have plastic on my windows so I know thats not saving me. I swear just 2 degrees makes a world of difference!!!

  8. Don't use the dryer. Hang your clothes up! It's better for them anyway. We have set up a little portable washing line on our upstairs veranda that we dry our clothes on and when it's monsoon season (now!) my staircase and laundry get turned into washing lines!
    Pedestal fans use less electricity than ceiling fans and make sure you have the airflow set up so that hot air moves OUT of the house. My other tip for keeping cool is to put plants in or in the garden in front of any windows that get full sun in the middle of the day!
    I have an electric fryingpan I use rather than the stove top (it's better to control the temp on anyway. And check what the usage of your microwave is, you might find it uses more than your stove, in which case, stove away!

    • You need a lot of space for this to work. (I lived in an apartment complex where the dryers barley worked, so I know how much space my laundry took up: every surface I could use to hang damp things on.) So it's probably not that workable if you have a small apartment with no balcony. (Then again, if that is what you have you probably don't have a dryer in the apartment so you aren't paying for the electricity for it, just paying to use the laundry room or laundromat.)

      Also, some clothes just don't feel right if they haven't been dried in the dryer (jeans and a number of other types of pants, for example).

      • we have a small apartment and we use a fold out hanging rack for most of our laundry. not sheets or towels but almost everything else usually. our fold out rack holds two loads if we load it properly and effectively (and we hang DHs dress shirts on hangers right out of the wash and hang them on the shower curtain rod – which means he almost never has to iron, plus, they last a long long time.) if you have a corner of a room, it isn't too bad!
        for us, we don't pay for the power, but we pay $2 per load to dry, so even hanging a couple loads per week adds up over a year.

      • I hate how my jeans feel after drying in the dryer. My pllace is small but in the wet season I just hang my clothes before I go to bed so they don't bug me. We don't have whatever a laundry room is in Australia.

  9. Great tips! However, #1 really should contain a similar note as #5 does about checking first. I can imagine some apartment complexes would have a problem with tenants changing out the thermostat, as they might want all the apartments to have the same equipment. They might be more okay with it if you promise to put the old one back when you move out, but unless the complex is paying part/all of your electric bill they have no incentive for tenants to save energy. (Hence the old energy wasting things this post starts off mentioning.)

  10. Does anyone have any tips for cooling down/heating up a room with a vaulted ceiling? The room I rent is at the very apex of a vaulted ceiling on the second floor. It's supposed to be an office so the left "wall" is actually fold out wooden doors that overlook the downstairs living room, so LOTS OF AIR escapes/gets in. On hot days all the heat just glomps there and stays there. On all the cool days, the warm are seems to escape into the rest of the house. This means constantly running either our air conditioner or space heater. Bad for bills. Any suggestions?

    • Puh – that sounds pretty tough. Maybe a good start would be to hang some heavy fabric over the air-leaking "wall." You could also use a series of curtains if a whole block of fabric would be too much. Then at least you'd have the main leaks covered.

    • I would rig up two fans in the space. The first would be pointed "up" to get the temps from downstairs to go upstairs. This fan should be on the side of the room with the air register. The other fan would be pointed "down" to get the wrong-temp air to leave the upstairs, and be away from the register. This will create some cyclical movement in the air, making for more-even heat distribution.

  11. Though they aren't right for every situation, window plastic really can make a difference in cold dry places. The heat they save is noticeable.

    As a landlord, I'll second the request that you not install a new thermostat without permission. If something goes wrong and we have to have a technician come fix an installation mistake, that costs us a few hundred dollars. Depending on your landlord, they might prefer that they do the installation even if you offer to buy the thermostat. I'm all about programmable thermostats–but don't do it without permission!

  12. One thing we do to save energy is dry our clothes on the line – even inside during the winter months. It takes some well-organized laundrying and window-opening, but it works like a charm.

    Oh, and if you're not too worried about money at the moment, think about buying new energy-saving appliances. I am longing for an induciton cooker – replacing our regular stovetop would cost about 300 bucks, and if I had them, I'd do it in a pinch. Less energy as well as faster and more spot-on cooking – my own nerdy kitchen dream come true. ^^

    • Replacing appliances might not be feasible in every rental. But I agree that any gadgets should be "EnergyStar" efficient, or unplugged when not in use.

    • I think that rentals much work much differently in parts of the world other than the US. Most US renters cannot replace the appliances that came with their rental. (With the odd exception of some apartments in Southern California that don't come with refrigerators and force you to buy your own.) There is very little you area allowed to change in a rental in the US.

  13. A lot of electric companies offer great incentives to save money. PEPCO, at least in the DC area, had a program last year where they installed a programmable thermostat, free of charge, and had a program that you could opt in that cycled your A/C for 25, 50, or 75% of the time during "peak usage" (aka heat waves). In my rental, at the time, it was during the day when we weren't home and it only raised the temp about 3-5 degrees. We also received a $65 credit on our bill the first month we enrolled!

    Our management company was fine letting us have the new 'stat installed (it was put in by a PEPCO tech), so long as we replaced it with our old one when we left. PEPCO didn't want it back, so now I have a free 'stat! Huzzah!

  14. If you bake something in the oven, leave the oven door propped open when you have finished and turned the oven off. All that heat can escape and warm your kitchen/help your heating system out.

  15. A toaster oven. Especially when cooking for one or two, almost anything you can bake in your oven you can bake in a decent toaster oven. I even use it to bake cakes, bread, muffins, cookies. It makes a huge difference!

    Also, if you have a balcony or porch, you can plug in your toaster oven or crock pot outside in the summer to avoid heating up your home (obviously you want to be around to ensure no animals sneak into your food)

    • I use my toaster oven so much for cooking for myself and my husband! Toast, bake, broil, keep warm – all the basic functions. I even got single-serve ramekins so we can make a big batch ahead of time, but reheating can be done whenever we want in the small toaster oven.
      (Unfortunately, mine's on it's last legs now. I'll probably replace it with a more efficient/insulated one.)

  16. *sigh* Alas, our apartment right now is not energy efficient at all. We're living in a guest apartment in someone's horse barn (former dairy barn). The apartment section used to be the milk room. Sooooo…there isn't really a foundation underneath our kitchen/living room, so the floor is always freezing. That room also has a beautiful arched picture window that is an antique window that used to be installed in the state capital building….so, now very energy efficient there either. The force hot air furnace is in a garage alongside our apartment, and I suspect that a lot of that heat gets lost along the length of the heating duct from the furnace to our apartment. None of these things are easy fixes.

    ALSO, I should mention that our pipes froze yesterday early morning. Here (in Maine) we've had below zero temps for a couple of days, and that combined with a complete lack of (insulating) snow means that the ground froze very solid right down to the water line from our well. *sigh* We got that fixed, but not before the water line running from the well up over the barn through an unheated attic space to our apartment also froze up. Hopefully it doesn't crack or burst before we can get it thawed out!

    • Oops, I meant to say that the reason why we're putting up with the poor efficiency of the apartment is because it's only $500 a month (in an area where one-bedroom apartments run for about $700 a month in crappy apartment buildings where you get one parking space), and we have privacy (no other tenants but us), all of the parking space we could want (my car, his truck, his work truck, his work boat, his work ATV and snowmobile), and a good sheltered barn for our old slightly incontinent beagle to spend the day when we're not home. Also, ocean views from that inefficient picture window…

    • I would recommend, for the floors anyway, put down some throw rugs with thick mats under them. It will add extra insulating, and does nothing permanent to the rental.

      Another trick for extra insulation, is put any tall furniture on "outside" walls instead of "inside" walls. So it uses what you already have, but puts an extra barrier between you and the outside temps.

  17. I emailed my landlord yesterday and asked if we could change the thermostat. He said sure, but at our cost and we'd need to replace the old one before we move. Whatever, I think $30 will be worth it and we'll probably save the $30 over the winter anyway.

    • Start with a vent deflector – it's a cover that "points" the air coming from the vent either down or up. They come in many styles and attachment methods. A quick & dirty fix would be cardboard + tape perched on an angle to force the flow in the direction you want.
      Then look into a low-wattage fan that you could turn on while you're home to give the air some "oomph" from the ceiling to the floor. Many fans come with brackets on the back so you can attach them to the wall – look for a style like that. (It will likely be something akin to a table fan that rotates and has a knob for speed settings. Big box fans aren't so easy to mount.)

  18. All of these are insanely helpful. I haven't rented much before so I have nothing to add to the conversation. I second drying your clothes on a rack (1.50 per load really adds up in drying and my room ended up smelling super nice with fresh clothes laying around anyway).

  19. Wow… Are you guys telling me $100 a month is an average or even large electricity bill in the states? If so… Energy is super cheap over there!

    We use mains-supplied natural gas for our cooking and hot water, and try to be fairly energy consious the rest of the time. (Turn off tvs/stereos/pcs/lights at the wall when not in use, use only ceiling fans for cooling unless its absoultly nessicary, same with clothing and blankets for heat.) It's just the two of us, in a small 3 bedroom house… Our bills come quarterly (3 months) our gas is usually about $150-$200 per quarter, and our electricity is usually around $650-$750 per quarter. :-S

    • As I understood it, the implication of what the original post said is that $100 a month is a very LOW electricity bill for a one bedroom apartment.

    • At the time I wrote this post, my husband and I lived in a large 2-bedroom apartment in Michigan, USA and our electricity bills were anywhere from $80 to $150, averaging about $120.
      But of course we use all the techniques I posted above, and some others. I'm a big nerd about economics, and love seeing how low I can get that number.

  20. I use a space heater near my chair so I can warm me and not the entire house.
    I point it at my feet so my poor cold-even-in-heavy-socks toes stay nice and toasty:)

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