15 Ways To Save Energy (& Money)

It’s October 15th and that means we’re back to share some earth friendly info courtesy of Almost-Doctor Dan for Blog Action Day 2009 (click here for more details on the big event). Since we consistently cover ways to live greener and give back to the planet (we have an entire section devoted to Eco Living on our How To page) this little online event seemed to fit right in, but we really wanted to go beyond ever-present eco encouragement like “use CFLs!” and “don’t forget to recycle!” (which are both great suggestions, they’re just a bit tried and true). So we looked no further than my brainy scientist brother to see what sorts of things came to mind on the subject of energy and how to conserve it (along with your hard-earned cash of course).


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the genius that is my brother (growing up in his shadow was tough but I survived), here’s a brief synopsis of his brain power: we introduced him here (and revisited his giant brain here and here), basically he went to Cornell and graduated with the highest GPA of his entire graduating class (a 4.21 if you’re wondering). Yup, out of all of the kids in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he was the Valedictorian. Yeah, he’s brainy. Now he’s a graduate student at Columbia with a Master’s degree under his belt, steadily working his way up to his Doctorate in chemistry with a full scholarship from the National Science Foundation. Not only do they pay for his education but they actually pay him a stipend for rent and food- all in return for wearing a lab coat almost 24/7 and messing around with molecules and polymers all day. Sweet deal huh? Serious Einstein stuff going on.

So we thought he was definitely up for the task of bringing something new to the table when it comes to saving energy and explaining the science behind his suggestions. And he didn’t let us down! In fact a lot of his save-energy strategies will also simplify your life and save your moolah. What’s not to love? Here’s what Almost-Doctor Dan had to say on the subject:

Tip #1: Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, regardless of how fast it is boiling (changes in altitude or substances like salts or sugar dissolved in the water have a slight impact on this, but it’s really quite small). Every time you make pasta, hard-boiled eggs, corn on the cob or anything that requires boiling water, the food cooks at exactly the same rate whether the water is at a rapid, rolling boil or just a simmering boil. Most people aren’t aware of this and waste a lot of gas/electricity converting water to steam without cooking their food any faster (in fact, here’s a usatoday.com article that agrees once water begins to boil, all of the energy being added by the stove goes into turning water into vapor, not into heating the water). In short: a simmering boil should be the goal since you can save substantial gas/electricity by keeping your water from boiling too rapidly (which doesn’t change the time that it takes to cook things at all).

Tip #2: Along a similar vein, the hottest part of a flame is right at its tip. When using gas burners, if your flame has a larger diameter than the pot you are heating, you are wasting most of the heat produced by the flame, since it’s just going around the pot. A smaller flame that is completely under the pot will heat it faster and more efficiently than a larger one that protrudes from underneath. In short: make sure the pot you’re heating doesn’t have flames licking out around it or you can be sure you’re wasting gas and producing unnecessary heat that isn’t doing a thing to whatever’s in the pot.

Tip #3: A lot of people make a big deal about using less AC in the summer to save electricity. In the northeast, anyway, about 5-10 times more energy goes into heating homes in the winter than cooling them in the summer. Think about it – if an average summer day in NYC is 80 degrees and you use your AC to make it 70, you are using enough energy to maintain a ten degree differential between inside and outside. If an average winter night is 30 degrees and you use your heat to make it 70, you are using enough energy to maintain a forty degree differential between the air inside and the air outside (this is actually way more than four times as much energy, since the energy transfer is faster when the differential is larger so you are using exponentially more energy). In short: setting thermostats a few degrees lower in the winter can save a lot of energy/money, and raising it in the summer isn’t a bad idea either.

We also dropped our friend Kristin a line (she’s another Almost-Doctor who’s getting her degree in Germany, first mentioned here) to see what she suggests since this is also something she has studied. Here’s what she had to say on the subject:

At my department, we’re trying to make blue-green algae produce hydrogen by sunlight energy – which would be a great future energy source if we could get it working (no major breakthrough yet, but we’re doing our best). But of course, there are many small things that anyone can do in their everyday life to make a difference without breaking out their lab coats and beakers.

First there are some tips that are quite well-known, just as a little reminder:

  • Keep your windows closed and well sealed in the winter
  • Consider using a clothesline instead of a dryer (or air drying just a few things a week to cut down)
  • Compost kitchen scraps to reduce waste and the need to buy fertilizer
  • Install a programmable thermostat to save money and energy
  • Plant fruits and vegetables in your garden instead of just flowers

Then there are a few more tips that are directly connected to climate change and greenhouse gas:

  • Use furniture from local wood (try to avoid tropical wood such as teak when you can)
  • Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables from local farmers
  • Eat less meat (cattle produces methane gas when digesting their food, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide)
  • When it comes time to replace your heating or water system, get informed about energy-saving possibilities which can actually save you money in the long run (you can install a heat exchanger, insulation or solar panels which can be hugely efficient)

And then there are some things that are advertised as eco-friendly but are not – or at least, they’re less earth-conscious than you might think:

  • Local (but unseasonal) fruits and vegetables – surprisingly they are not always better than imported ones- I can only speak for Germany, but here scientists calculated that cooling local apples for three months or more actually calls for more energy and thus produces more carbon dioxide than transporting fresh apples from Chile or New Zealand (which don’t have to be cooled for three months). Only when your local vegetables are seasonal can you can be sure they produce as little carbon dioxide as possible.
  • Bioethanol, biodiesel or any “biofuel” for your car – many rainforests are cut down to create farmland for corn, oil palm etc. Good future energy sources for cars might be electricity or hydrogen, as both of them can be produced using fossil as well as renewable energy sources, so the same car with the same engine can be used before and after the switch (which means less waste).
  • E-recycling – thinking about recycling your computer is a good thing since the metals (aluminum, copper etc) are released from the hardware and reused, reducing energy consumption and thus global warming. However, most e-recycling takes place in India, where millions of people do this work for little money with little or no protection (meaning they literally cook the hardware, releasing not only the metals but also arsenic, lead and other toxic components which poison the workers there as well as the air). I don’t know of an alternative for broken computers, but try to use yours as long as possible (and sell or donate them to people who cannot afford a new one for a much more beneficial take on “recycling”).

In short: Kristin isn’t suggesting that no one eat meat and that everyone get solar panels. But if each of us took one or two tips and subtly worked them into our lives (like enjoying a “meatless Monday dinner of pasta or pizza for example, or letting large items like comforters air-dry instead of running the dryer for hours) we really could save money, live better, and help make a difference. Even remembering to do something as simple as using craigslist or freecycle to give our old electronics a second life or choosing to enjoy the most seasonal fruits and veggies that they have at the store (or the farmer’s market) will make us feel good and do the world some good at the same time. Remember: every little bit counts! And we’d love to know if you guys are doing anything else to help save money and the planet while you’re at it. Do tell!

Psst- if you’re looking to really make a dramatic change, check out this video and take on the no-impact challenge right here. It’s not for everyone, but it certainly is inspiring to hear about how living so simply can be so rewarding!


  1. says

    First of all, thanks for all of the wonderful tips. Very informative! Secondly, thank you for letting us know about Blog Action Day. My husband is the blogger in the family and has joined the ranks of those who are doing their part to help the cause today.

  2. Tiffany says

    I love that you oh so subtly remind people that you’re not asking them to change their entire life..just a few simple things make a difference if everyone chips in. I struggle with getting my friends to get that concept. I believe one person can make a difference.. and in this case one blog..yhl. Thank you so much.

  3. Marian says

    I am sorry. Tip #3 is not correct. If it is 30 degrees outside your home will not be 30 degrees inside. You are not taking into account insulation, the big fireball we have in the sky during the day, etc. AC is also much less efficient in cooling a home when it is hot outside than heat is at heating your insulated home when it is cold outside. Your lovely example would only apply if you lived in a cardboard box my dear and you did not exhale warm air or produce body heat.

    Also, your energy estimate of 5-10 times more in the winter is probably because not everyone has AC but everyone has heat or space heaters.

    • says

      Hey Marian,

      Almost-Doctor Dan didn’t say that it would be 30 degrees in your house, he just said that “if an average winter night is 30 degrees and you use your heat to make it 70, you are using enough energy to maintain a forty degree differential between the air inside and the air outside.” Of course the air inside a home would never be 30 degrees if that’s the temp outside (with body heat, insulation, etc) but the point is that your system will be working much harder to make up for the extremely cold temps outside than it would on a summer day when it’s only 10 degrees hotter outside than you want to keep your house.

      In addition, Almost-Doctor Dan didn’t get into the fact that “air-conditioning is inherently more efficient than heating (that is, it takes less energy to cool a given space by 1 degree than to heat it by the same amount)” but you can read more about that here: http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/16-06/ff_heresies_02ac. It’s just another reason why reducing the temp on your thermostat in the winter just a bit can majorly save energy (and money to boot). Hope that helps clear things up for you!


  4. Marian says

    You are not using energy to maintain a 40 degree differential Sherry. Your home’s insulation is doing a lot of that work. It takes less energy to keep a home at a steady temp regardless of the cold outside than it does to cool a home when it is hot outside and the sun is out…


    • says

      Hey Marian,

      The differential between the air inside and the air outside would still be 40 degrees, which is all Dan is pointing out, not that your air inside would be 30 degrees, just that the same insulation that would pad that differential would also pad the ten degree differential in the summer, so clearly the house would still work harder to make up for a larger temperature discrepancy.

      I’m not sure if there’s an article that you can link to that says that it takes more energy to cool a home when it’s hot outside (did you check out the one we linked to that said the opposite? you can see that url in our response above) but by personal experience I know that we use heat in the winter faaar more than we use air conditioning in the summer (and we spend hundreds more on heating than we do on cooling even though we live in the south with extra long spring, summers and falls and winter is only around 2-3 months here). Perhaps you live in a totally different climate than us?


  5. Trina says

    Set your thermostat at 65 degrees in the winter and only turn it up when you are home and want it warmer…. biggest waste of energy is a home’s huge flux in temperature. Period.

    AC is wasteful. Keep blinds and windows closed during the day and open them all at night to use cool air to cool home. Only use AC when you have to. Sun outside in summer heats air outside and inside your home and beating sun on windows raises temp of your home. AC can’t combat that. AC uses way more energy to keep home at cool temp then heat does to warm a cool house.

  6. Kevin M says

    Thanks for this blog post. I just wanted to add that this past weekend I painted 2 rooms of our home with Olympic Premium paint – it is no VOC and had great results. It is a little pricier ($5 a gallon I think) than the normal Olympic paint, but a price I gladly paid to avoid the stinky fumes.

  7. Jenni P says

    I’m loving Almost-Doctor Dan’s tips! How can you argue with science? No more over-boiling my water, firing up my gas range too high and raising my heat. I’m a changed woman! Great post YHLers!

  8. Marian says

    What is quoted in the article is not a home in our environment. That is in fact true of a box in a lab heated by a bunsen burner… We are talking about a home here and day/night climate in the winter versus summer. I live in the same climate as you. My home is new so it is most likely better insulated and our heat/cool central air is new as well so that may explain our difference in experiences. That is a bummer you have to use so much energy during the winter.

    This is the second post of this kind I have had a problem with and might have to say farwell to YHL. I very much enjoyed your home improvement posts over the past year…

    • says

      Hey Marian,

      We’re very sorry that you have a problem with this post but we blog about things that we’re passionate about: home improvement, decorating on a dime, being kind to the planet, sprucing things up on a serious budget and generally living well and learning as we go. Almost-Doctor Dan’s tips were heavily requested in our recent reader survey but that’s not even why we went to him for Blog Action Day, we turned to him and the lovely Almost-Doctor Kristin because we love to learn and do our part to make whatever small difference we can. We don’t expect that everyone will agree with everything that we share on our blog but we do plan to keep covering topics that interest us and keep us excited because we truly believe that’s what has gotten us here today! We hope you understand and we respect your decision, whether it’s never to come here again or to continue to drop in on us.


  9. Katie says

    Great tips! Thanks for devoting so much of your blog platform to helping educate others about easy ways to become a little more green.

    I also really appreciate how respectful you always are of other opinions and your thoughtful, kind, and prompt responses :)

  10. Sherri says


    you have to compare the same change in temp to really compare. You have to take into account sun, insulation, heat pump heat produced, appliances in home on such as TV producing heat, etc. On a hot day sun heats home constantly while thermo trying to cool.

    Most new home heating cooling systems have central air so they re-heat air in home or re-cool air in home rather than constant bring air from outside in. Warm air in a home takes less energy to heat than the 40 degree differences you are claiming. You are not considering homes or how these systems work. You can’t make this claim based on something done on a lab bench.

    • says

      Hey Sherri,

      Thanks for the link. The purpose of this post was just to make people aware of small changes they could make to use less energy and we still believe that lowering your thermostat a bit in the winter is a great tip. How could it not be? Of course Almost-Doctor Dan can’t account for everyone’s different heating & cooling systems or the amount of insulation that each house has, but we still wholeheartedly believe that his point is just that a house has to work extra hard to maintain a certain temperature when the air outside is dramatically different. And because there are more dramatic differences between the temps that we want our house to be and the outdoor temps in the winter in our climate here in VA, it still makes perfect sense to us- not on a lab bench but by personal experience (as we mentioned above, we spend hundreds more heating our house than we do cooling it although the winter is extremely short and the summer can drag on and on).

      Again, our intention here was to toss out a few simple suggestions to get people to cut back a bit here or there (like enjoying a non meat meal once a week- pizza and spaghetti? yes please- or even craigslisting their computers) and even if 10% of our readers adopt one little change we’ll be thrilled. By no means did we expect everyone to adapt each idea to the letter. Hope it helps keep things in perspective!


  11. says

    just adding my 2 cents…i live in sacramento, ca. it gets very hot for many months throughout the year and we spend a ton more on air conditioning to cool the house than we do on heating the house in the winter months. we have an older house (built in 1939) and our bedrooms are on the second floor in a converted attic. it’s the hottest place in the house. last year we installed new insulation and also put an attic fan in the crawl space. we noticed a slight difference in how hot the upstairs would get, but still, it’s hard to go to sleep when your room is still upwards of 90° at 10pm.

    another thing we did was install separate ac/heating for the upstairs – meaning we now have a two zone house for controlling the temps. this works nicely for us to be able to control the temps in the areas of the house we need to.

    we are investigating getting a whole house fan. we’ve heard from neighbors that have them that it is a great cost effective solution because you can run it at night and open up the windows to help pull in cool air and push out the hot air. do you have any opinions on the whole house fan idea? just wondering if it’s worth the one time big expense to install.

    we don’t have much problem in the winter we just add more blankets on the bed and keep our house pretty cool – around 68° and lower when we go to bed.

    • says

      Hey Patti,

      That makes perfect sense! Almost-Doctor Dan was talking about NY weather, and even here in the south we have a far higher challenge of heating out house than cooling it, but we totally agree that if your California weather is much hotter it would definitely effect the energy and money you spend heating and cooling your home. We love the idea of installing separate ac/heating systems for each floor (efficiency like that makes my heart go pitter patter) and we also have heard that whole-house fans are super amazing when it comes to having an even more efficient and comfortable home. Definitely let us know how it goes if you get one. We’re jealous!


  12. says

    I think a great take away from the AC versus heat is energy hog is that decreasing your furnace temperature in the winter and increasing your AC temperature in the summer is a great way to save energy and (woohoo!) oodles o’ moolah!

    If you’re cold in your house in the winter, throw on a sweater! If you’re hot in the summertime, go to the movies! Don’t just immediately turn up/down the thermostat.

    Thanks, Sherry! Great post today! Happy Blog Action Day ’09!

  13. Virginia says

    First, I want to say I enjoy your blog and read it often. You guys have an amazing platform here to reach a lot of people.

    Not to criticize, but I feel like the science stuff is very different from the design stuff, which is more subjective. If you want to bring in experts, bring in experts.

    I wonder if Marian’s concern is similar to my own, when I read your posts on energy/science tips – when you make the case that these tips are scientist and/or doctor-endorsed, unless your scientists are specialists in the areas they’re opining on, I think it’s fair to say these are reasoned opinions, but they are being passed off as fact.

    It almost seems like these tips would be better coming from you guys – this is an area of interest to you all that you’re passionate about, these ideas make sense to you. . . I think when you imply that a scientist or doctor or almost-doctor is behind an idea b/c of “x”, and “X” is rebuttable, it’s easy to discount that other ideas may be good ones.

    • says

      Hey Virginia,

      That’s funny to us because we’ve learned that everything we blog about is subjective. We’ve seen people disagree about everything from color pairings and brick-painting to being green and the boiling point of water! I think the thing we’ve learned from over two years of this old blogging thing is that everyone has an opinion on almost everything that can be blogged about. We know that we can’t possibly embody every single belief of every single one of our readers when we post two times a day, so we’ve learned to respect everyone’s right to their own opinions and just keep writing about what we feel is important. Going into Blog Action Day our only intention was to share helpful tips that might help a small percentage of people make teensy little changes for the better, and although it seems as though a handful of people are upset about one small point in this one post out of over 1000 that we’ve written we’re still extremely happy to be involved with Blog Action Day and we’ve learned that you just can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time.Of course that doesn’t keep us from trying!

  14. Brittany says

    Loved the post! Great tips that aren’t just the same ones you hear every day! I also appreciate your timely, thoughtful responses to everyone’s questions and concerns, and how respectful you are of other’s opinions. Keep up the terrific work!!!! : )

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