Winter temperatures are setting in quick, which means it's once again time to fire up the heater. But that isn't cheap.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, the average U.S. household spends just over $2,000 a year on energy, and as much as $2,700 if you live in New England. For the greater United States, just over 40 percent of that is for space heating, and in New England it's 60 percent.
So, anything you do to cut cost can really pay off. Here are five simple steps that will shave dollars from your monthly energy bills.
1. TAKE CONTROL OF THE TEMPERATURE
One of the easiest ways to lower your heating bills is to install a programmable thermostat. These can range anywhere from $20 for a basic model to several hundred dollars for a top-of-the-line "smart" thermostat, such as the Nest.
With a regular programmable thermostat, you can drop the temperature while you're away at work or at night when you're in bed. A "smart" thermostat will learn your routines and preferences, so no programming is required. Either way, you're only heating the house when you actually need the warmth.
Also, if you want to reduce the temperature on the thermostat without sacrificing warmth, you can use a portable space heater in specific rooms. Set your thermostat a few degrees lower than you normally would. Then, position the space heater nearby to make up the difference. That way, you won't waste money heating up rooms you rarely use, like that empty guest room.
2. LIMIT 'PEAK HOURS' USAGE
You can lower your heating bill this winter simply by turning the heater back a few notches during the evening, or saving the laundry for the weekend. Most power companies set electric costs based on the time of day. Running your electronics and appliances during "peak hours" can cost you 30 percent to 60 percent more.
Peak hours tend to run between 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Holidays and weekends are usually off-peak. Check with your provider for the exact times since every company has slightly different peak hours. Again, this is where a programmable or "smart" thermostat can help you adjust your usage without requiring your attention every day.
3. BUY ENERGY-FRIENDLY GADGETS
You probably already know that Energy Star appliances can help lower your bills, but replacing appliances is expensive. You'll have to weigh the upfront cost against future energy savings.
You might be able to get some help on that upfront cost, though. Many energy-efficient appliances can qualify you for a rebate from your power company. You might even qualify for a small rebate for switching to compact fluorescent bulbs or LED bulbs, which are going to be less expensive to run during the long dark hours of winter. The amount will depend on your power company, so you should definitely ask.
If you're shopping for new appliances, check out the Department of Energy's website. It has plenty of great tips on buying energy-saving gadgets and making your home more efficient.
4. SLAY VAMPIRE ELECTRONICS
You might think you're saving energy by turning off unneeded lights and easing back on the thermostat, but your home is filled with dozens of sneaky energy-draining gadgets. We like to call them "vampire electronics."
Vampire electronics quietly suck up hundreds of kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, even when you're not using them. The biggest culprits are TVs, computers, gaming consoles, cable boxes, and audio and video equipment.
You can detect these vampires with the phantom power indicator or keep track of your power usage for an entire computer or home theater setup. Once you've identified them, unplug them when they're not in use to stop them from driving up your bill.
You'll find yourself with money to spend on heat. Of course, many people simply don't want to take the time to unplug and plug in every gadget before using it, especially hard-to-reach ones like a TV, although you can make plugs easier to reach with this handy swivel outlet.
If that's the case, use a power switch or timer switch that plugs into the outlet. Use several switches around the house to get more savings. Click here for more ways to slay vampire electronics and save money.
5. REIN IN YOUR COMPUTER
You can lower your bills even more by targeting one of the biggest energy-suckers in your house. Or at least one you can turn off without spoiling your food. We're talking about your computer.
Your computer actually doesn't use a lot of electricity at once, as long as it's relatively new. However, people tend to keep them on for days and weeks, which means a steady drain. That's why when you aren't using it, it's a good idea to make it use as little electricity as possible.
Speaking of computers and energy saving, should you be shutting your computer down at night? Learn the final answer to this long-running debate.
If you're living in an area with severe cold or blizzards, make sure you're prepared. For example, get an emergency app that will help if you're stuck in the snow. And be sure to stock up on gadgets that protect you in an emergency, such as an emergency radio, a strong power source and a light that won't go out.
Also, know how your gadgets react to cold and what you should do if they get frozen. And don't let the opportunity pass you by to take stunning winter photos.
On the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show, Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com. Kim also posts breaking tech news 24/7 at News.Komando.com.