Tuesday, September 26, 2006

7-Year-old Guru Delivers Energy Lesson

Jared, a 7-year-old neighbor, offered profound advice as we shared an elevator ride.

''Some people just evaporate their fun,'' Jared told his mother and me.

The adults in the elevator exchanged glances, laughed, then sighed. His comment stayed with me: Fun and funds are often mindlessly squandered in our fast-paced world.

I began thinking about the ''evaporations'' in my own life. My list included costly, last-minute shopping for birthday gifts, late fees on overdue videos and a higher energy bill, reflecting higher rates.

Yet each household could shave hundreds of dollars from utility bills a year through careful consumption of power.

For instance, even when not in use, many appliances still consume energy when plugged into a wall. ''The concept is called standby power,'' said Jill Notini, director of communications and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Standby power is the energy needed to run built-in, ongoing features such as timers, lights or remote censors in many appliances.

Standby power costs about a penny a day per appliance, according to a consumer rep from Pacific, Gas and Electric Company. Real Simple magazine estimates that consumers can save $175 annually by unplugging idle gadgets. The biggest culprits: DVD players, cable-TV boxes, television sets and microwaves. Additionally, wall warts (plug-in islands that contain multiple outlets) should be turned off or disconnected from the wall when not in use.

It depends which is more valuable in your house -- time or money. Or, as Notini says, ``The consumer really needs to balance the need to be energy conscious with the need for convenience.''

Bankrate.com, a Florida-based consumer website for finance and savings, estimates that consumers could save more than $200 annually by turning off the tube when no one is around to watch.

You can save up to $500 annually by upgrading your central air with a more fuel efficient system. Older refrigerators (pre-1993) cost about $140 to operate annually, compared to $60 for newer models, according to Real Simple.

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers estimates that on an annual basis, late-model room air-conditioning units cost an average of $26 less to operate than units built in 1980. The savings can be dramatic if there are several units in your home.

Sally, who writes the consumer blog, Through a Glass Darkly, told me she and her husband have put in a programmable thermostat to save energy costs. ''Can't tell you about the savings yet, but it definitely is more accurate at keeping our house a constant temperature than our former (probably 1950s!) thermostat,'' she wrote in a comment. ``It's better to keep [the system] at a stable temperature. It doesn't have to work so hard to reach the desired temperature.''

Meanwhile, if you need help cutting your energy bill, FPL offers a free online evaluation of your home. The ''Online Home Energy Survey'' is available at FPL.com and generates a personal analysis of your energy use, with specific suggestions for cutting costs.

Or you can just take a cue from Jared and conduct your own reality check. The next time I see him, I plan to tell him I've stopped evaporating fun and money from my home.

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