10 Free (or Nearly Free) Ways to Save Money on Heat and Hot Water

10 Free (or Nearly Free) Ways to Save Money on Heat and Hot Water

It’s likely going to cost more to heat your home this winter, and with the prices of oil, natural gas, and electricity all expected to rise in the coming months, millions of Americans will surely be looking for ways to save.

While smart bulbs, low-flow showerheads, smart thermostats, and other energy-saving devices help reduce your utility bills, tweaking some of your daily habits can lower them, too—from a few bucks a month to as much as a few hundred dollars a year—often with little to no upfront investment. You’ve probably been nagged by a loved one to turn off the lights when you leave a room, but here, Wirecutter experts offer several other pain-free (and often cost-free) suggestions that take the sting out of your monthly bills.

1. Open and close curtains, shades, and blinds strategically

Don’t leave your windows untouched! A Department of Energy study found that “75% of residential window coverings remain in the same position every day,” representing missed opportunities to conserve home heating and take advantage of heat from the sun. Get into the habit of opening window treatments in the morning (especially where you receive direct sunlight) to let as much sun into your house as possible, says Jon Chase, editor of our smart-home coverage. When late afternoon rolls around, close curtains and shades to keep the heat in.

2. Deal with drafty windows and doors

Applying weather stripping around door frames or replacing old, cracked, or improperly hung windows can improve your home’s insulation, but doing so can be expensive and time-consuming. We recommend double-celled blackout shades as an easy way to insulate windows, but it’s fine if you want to get the job done with a few cheapskate shortcuts instead. Staff writer and Bostonian Thom Dunn recommends the “classic New England move” of using a hair dryer to shrink plastic wrap over the gaps on your windows. Senior staff writer Rachel Wharton tucks folded-up towels or blankets along windowsills and the bottoms of doors.

3. Keep windows clean and remove the screens

Who forgets to wash their windows as part of their housecleaning routine? (Most people, quite possibly.) Jon notes that regularly removing dirt, dust, and grime from your windowpanes is an easy way to allow in more light (and thus more heat) during the day. Another seasonal chore not to skip: Remove your windows’ screens until spring; some evidence suggests that they block substantial amounts of passive solar heat from entering your home.

4. Cook with countertop appliances

“If you already own smaller electric appliances like a toaster oven, air fryer, rice cooker, or an electric pressure cooker such as the Instant Pot, consider using them for certain tasks instead of your larger electric oven or electric range,” says Marilyn Ong, supervising editor for kitchen coverage. “For instance, reheating food in a toaster oven rather than your full oven saves you from preheating all that extra space. And pressure-cooking a stew for one hour in an Instant Pot uses less electricity than simmering something on the stove for hours.” (The energy savings compared with gas ranges or ovens is harder to measure, since the relative costs of the two energy sources can vary from region to region.) The Department of Energy reports that convection ovens and toasters use “one-third to one-half as much energy as a full-sized [electric] oven,” and they recommend “using the microwave oven when possible,” as well as an electric kettle to boil water, noting that it’s “faster and uses less energy” than letting your gigantic water heater do the work.

5. Use a space heater (wisely, and not too much)

The infrared technology in space heaters is designed to heat people and objects, not space, so they’re best used as a spot treatment for situations like warding off a chill in a drafty home office.

“They work most efficiently when pointed at one or two people in a smaller area,” says Thom, who co-wrote our guide to the best space heaters. “Line up the space heater so it’s directly pointed at you and close doors to keep the warm air in.”

Still, Thom advises against running a space heater for an entire day due to the cost—the nonprofit utility service Silicon Valley Power has estimated that running one just during work hours can add $30 to $40 (PDF) to your monthly electric bill—so use it for no more than a few hours at a time in tandem with window insulation, solar heat, and extra layers of clothing. And if you really feel you need one to warm up a large space for a long time, consider an oil-filled radiator heater, which warms the room with a gradual radiant heat that will stick around even after you turn the heater off. Thom also notes that many space heaters today are equipped with timers so they shut off automatically, which can save you money and, much more importantly, keep you safe.

6. Lower the temperature on your water heater

The next time you’re near your water heater, take two minutes to check, and maybe reset, the temperature. “Water heaters are often set very high: 140 °F or sometimes much higher,” Jon explains. “Then a mixer lowers the water temperature before it’s sent to your various fixtures. Anything 120 °F or higher can scald.” (Water for a bath is typically around 100 °F.) You can cut out the middleman, so to speak, by manually lowering the temperature yourself. Keeping the temperature right around or just above 120 °F still gives you “plenty of hot water,” he adds, “but you’ll save dramatically.” Don’t dip below 120 °F, or you run a slight risk of allowing the bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease to fester.

This one adjustment can save a household more than $400 annually on the cost of heating water for everyday use, according to the Department of Energy, plus another $36 to $61 annually in “standby heat losses.” Says Jon, “This is actually a double play. You’re saving by not having to heat water stored in your hot-water tank, which saves a modest amount—as much as $30 a month for every 10 degrees you lower the water temp. But then you also get to add in the savings from not heating up the water used by all your fixtures and appliances: the dishwasher and laundry and of course tubs and showers.” (The Department of Energy has a short, helpful video that walks you through changing the temperature on your water heater step-by-step and points out a few health concerns, like respiratory or immune-system problems, that might make it more advisable for some households to keep the temperature at 140 °F.)

7. Wash laundry in warm water

Making the switch from hot water to warm on your washing machine can cut a load of laundry’s energy use in half, the Department of Energy says—and cold or warm water is almost always better for your clothes anyway. “Hot water in general can tackle really dirty clothing better than cold, but it can also degrade fabrics—performance fabrics in particular—over time,” explains Ingrid Skjong, supervising editor on our appliance team. “Cold can typically do the trick.”

8. Vacuum forced-air grates

If your home is heated through forced air, vacuum the intake register covers, which are usually located on the floor or along your baseboards and can get clogged with dust or pet hair over time. Better airflow prevents warm air from getting trapped in the ventilation, allowing it to travel to the places where you actually need it. You can vacuum the intake register covers with a handheld vacuum or a hose attachment on a floor vacuum—whatever’s easiest for you.

9. Instead of raising the thermostat at night, add more bedding

Shivering in bed is a flat-out miserable experience, but brisker air (around 60 to 67 °F) actually helps lower your core (aka internal) temperature, which is part of the body’s natural sleep cycle. In fact, reducing the body’s core temperature has been shown to help you fall asleep faster. If you have forced air, lowering the thermostat by 7 to 10 degrees from its normal setting for 8 hours every night shaves about 10% off your heating bill, according to the Department of Energy. (But if you have electric baseboard heating, steam heat, radiant heating, or a heat pump, the feds note that setting the thermostat back likely won’t result in savings.)

Regardless of what kind of heating you have, we advise that you use bedding rather than your thermostat to get comfy. Consider dressing your bed with an additional flat sheet, comforter, or blanket made of natural, breathable textiles, such as cotton, linen, or wool. If you suffer from cold feet at bedtime, wool or cotton socks are another great way to achieve a toasty feel while actually reducing your core temperature; they bring blood flow (in other words, heat) to your skin’s surface, drawing it away from your core.

10. Stash extra blankets and sweaters around the house

Your mom was right, you should just put on a sweater—but keep it where you’ll actually use it, so you don’t impulsively crank up the heat. Hoodies and sweatshirts that normally live in your dresser can be draped on your home-office chair or hung near your front door for when you come home, while blankets that have been sitting in a hope chest all summer can wait for you on your couch or folded elegantly in your favorite reading nook. Think of it as a way to literally embrace winter by wrapping yourself up in something extra cozy.

This article was edited by Catherine Kast and Annemarie Conte.

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