My parents grew up in southern India during the 1960s and '70s. Water was scarce in their villages and power outages common throughout the state of Karnataka, where they lived. To save water, they showered once a week. When the power went out, they studied by candlelight. Decades later, as I grew up on the outskirts of Chicago, my parents badgered me to shut off the faucets while brushing my teeth and turn off the lights when leaving the house. It was easy to take these things for granted.
Now an adult, I'm reminded of their stories as I take care of my own home and pay my own bills. In my head, I hear my mother's voice: "Think about people when you use water or electricity," she would say. "Not everyone has access or money to afford these things."
In 2009, U.S. households spent an average of $2,024 on energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's most recent energy consumption data. (That's a 6 percent rise from 1993, after adjusting for inflation.) Home appliances, such as refrigerators, water heaters, and heating and cooling systems, constantly guzzle up energy from the power grid. With recent tech innovations, we now have affordable, "smart" options that can help us be more eco-friendly without breaking the bank. Here, five experts provide their recommendations for smart home devices and upgrades that can improve our standard of living — and make our parents proud too.
Before you jump into any home renovation: Do a home energy audit and check your home energy score. Not all recommendations are necessary for everyone, so the U.S. Department of Energy recommends assessing your home's existing structure, heating, cooling and hot water systems. And if you find these upgrades a bit too pricey, the DOE suggests looking into your state's financing, incentives and assistance programs, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program. Private financing can also help foot the bill through programs like Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE).
Let's start in the kitchen, where appliances suck up the most energy. The best time to run, say, a dishwasher is just before you leave for work or during the day. (The same goes for appliances elsewhere in the home, such as a clothes dryer.) That's when fewer people use these appliances, so it's helping the grid work more efficiently. And that's a no-cost change in habit that benefits everyone.
But if you want an upgrade, most major companies offer so-called smart kitchen appliances. For example, GE's WiFi Connect smart fridge sends alerts to your phone if the temperature is too high, if it needs maintenance, if the door was left open, and most importantly, when it's time to heat the water for your morning cup of coffee. GE's smart dishwasher monitors cycles and notifies users of leaks. Whirlpool and Kenmore offer similar products with similar capabilities. These appliances can cost as much as $3,500.
If you want to save energy on a budget, look for appliances certified by the EPA's Energy Star program.
— Jason Isaacs, California State University Channel Islands Computer Scientist and Jack Brouwer, University of California, Irvine Mechanical and Aerospace Engineer
The standard toilet uses 1.6 gallons of water per flush. (That's an improvement from seven gallons per flush in homes built before 1987.)
Installing a high-efficiency toilet is a simple money-saving solution. These toilets range from about $200 to $500. In a single-person household, you could save about 590 gallons of water a year, according to the EPA's WaterSense calculator. Some toilets have a dual-flush option that reduces the water usage to 0.6 gallons. Other, more expensive "smart toilets" add heated seats, water sprayers, and foot warmers to mood music and Bluetooth features.
— Clint Wolfe, Texas A&M University Texas A&M University AgriLife Research Program Manager and Fouad Jaber, TAMU Biological and Agricultural Engineer
Smart thermostats, such as Nest or Ecobee, can easily be retrofitted into these spaces and allow for total remote control. They connect to your existing boiler, but you can control them from your smartphone or a smart assistant, such as Google Home or Amazon Echo's Alexa. You can set presets for times and days when you're at work or on vacation. These thermostat also learns some of your behaviors and adjusts accordingly. Smart thermostats range from $150 to $250.
— Jack Brouwer, Jason Isaacs and David Laverty, Queens University Belfast Engineer and Computer Scientist
Smart shades respond to changes in lighting conditions to save energy. For example, Serena Shades adjusts the shades as sunlight and room temperature varies by day and by season. The company claims that these shades can save up to 10 to 30 percent on heating and cooling costs throughout the year.
— Jack Brouwer
If you want to know how much energy your TV, computer or microwave consumes, use an electricity monitor such as the Kill-A-Watt. For under $20, you plug your gadgets into this device and then into an outlet. Its LCD screen then informs you of your average energy use. So if, for example, Kill-A-Watt discovers that your toaster is consuming energy when plugged in and not in use, it might be a good idea to keep it unplugged.
Similarly, the FLUID smart meter clamps onto water pipes to send real-time water usage information right to your phone. At $260, it keeps tabs on excessive water use and leaky or burst pipes.
And if you worry about forgetting to turn off the lights, the $70 Philips Hue starter kit connects to your router and allows you to control your lights even when you're not around. According to the DOE, the kit uses LED light bulbs, which on average use 75 percent less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs. And by controlling when the lights are in use, smart lighting systems can save energy and money.
— Jack Brouwer, Jason Isaacs, Fouad Jaber, David Laverty, Clint Wolfe
Editor's Note: Information for these recommendations were provided by Clint Wolfe and Fouad Jaber of Texas A&M University, David Laverty of Queens University Belfast, Jack Brouwer of the University of California, Irvine and Jason Isaacs of California State University Channel Islands.
Editor's Note: This story stated originally that the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a state-funded program. PACE is a privately funded financing program.