When we hear buzzwords and phrases like “energy-efficient,” “sustainable,” “repurposing,” or “green design,” all we are really talking about is a bunch of fancy labels that mean “learning how to make do with less.” Yes, it is true: Phrases like these have been badly overused and weighed down with a lot of politically correct, hyper-environmentalist baggage. But whether you are a Sierra Club do-gooder or a down-to-earth Wise Use advocate, learning how to use fewer resources without making any real sacrifices in your overall quality of living is a good thing, pure and simple, and observing the principles behind these clichés is what has made going off the grid a viable and practical choice for a growing multitude of hardy individuals.
Thankfully, learning to get by with less does not always require a heavy investment of time or expense. While putting in a solar photovoltaic power system, designing your new home to maximize natural lighting, or purchasing a fleet of new Energy Star appliances could represent wise expenditures in the long run, there are steps you can take to improve your resource utilization efficiency that won’t cost you a finger and a toe, let alone an arm and a leg. Sometimes you do have to spend money to make money (or to save it), but a lot of other times it is just a matter of paying attention to details so you can correct all the little mistakes you are making that are bleeding you dry of money and precious resources.
Maximum Indoor Comfort, Minimum Energy Waste
Staying cool in the summer and warm in the winter can tax your power resources to the limit. Outside of going off the grid in Hawaii, the Fiji Islands, or some other perpetually moderate climate, there is really no way to avoid this reality completely, but there are some simple things you can do to make sure you are cooling or heating your home in a way that minimizes waste and inefficiency. Here are just a few ideas for you to consider:
- If you are making use of a forced-air heating system, perhaps in conjunction with a propane or outdoor wood-burning furnace , you will not save any energy by closing off the vents to rooms you are not using. Furnaces are set up to distribute the heat they produce equally throughout the entirety of their ductwork systems, and you will not be able to get by using less wood or propane if you shut some of your registers down. And besides, if you let some of the rooms in your house get cold while trying to heat the others, thanks to the temperature differentials, the warm air you pipe in will be quickly sucked away into the colder spaces, which will cause your home to feel drafty and probably force you to use more fuel to produce enough heat to make things feel cozy again.
- Everyone knows that keeping your thermostat turned down is a smart move, but rather than doing it manually, you should get a programmable thermostat that will take care of things for you automatically. A digital thermostat  is the most accurate of these devices, and while it might cost you $50 or so to get one, they can actually pay for themselves within a year because of how precisely and conveniently they allow you to regulate indoor temperatures. The great advantage with this type of thermostat is that you don’t have to just pick a temperature and leave it there all the time; you can program it for lower temperatures while you sleep, and make similar adjustments for the daylight hours when the sun’s natural warmth can enter through south-facing windows.
- For better cooling in the summer, you would be very wise to invest in a whole-house fan . These centrally located blowers vent upward into the attic, and they can increase the natural air flow through a home significantly when windows are open on lower floors. Air conditioners are energy eaters extraordinaire, which is why off-the-gridders avoid them like the plague, but strategically-placed fans can cool indoor spaces with a surprising level of efficiency while drawing very little electricity.
- Generally speaking, the more moisture there is in the air, the warmer it will feel, which is why Disneyworld is so much less crowded in July than in January. A house kept at 65 degrees with 30 to 40 percent relative humidity will feel noticeably warmer than a residence maintaining the same temperature with drier air, and this is why using humidifiers in winter and dehumidifiers in summer can make a lot of sense when temperatures outside are below or above average. Both will reduce power consumption requirements for heating or cooling enough to more than compensate for any energy they draw, and there are plenty of good cheap models available that won’t set you back much at all.
- Insulation is of course important all year round, but in order to function correctly, it must be kept pristine and dry. To provide your insulation with the protection it needs, basements should be waterproofed  and any leaks in the roof should be fixed immediately, because these are the areas where moisture can get in and potentially create some real havoc.
- Speaking of insulation and basements and attics, if you have an unheated basement, you will need to install blanket-style insulation between the floor joists to keep the cold air from chilling your floors in the winter. Meanwhile, if you switch from three-inch insulation to twelve-inch insulation in your attic, you could conceivably cut your wintertime heating demands by 20 percent and your summertime cooling requirements by about half that much.
- Caulking  and sealing cracks and other openings to keep the heat in and the cold out in the winter is a no-brainer, and you are probably doing it to some extent already. But are you really being thorough enough? High-quality weather stripping around doors, foam gaskets behind lighting fixtures, wall switches, and outlet faceplates, and caulking that completely frames each window in the house including those in the basement and bathroom should all be considered mandatory if you are serious about keeping your home airtight. And don’t forget, if you have any openings on the outside of the house, such as water faucets, holes drilled for pipes, or dryer vents, you should use expanding foam to plug all the gaps through which cold air could conceivably penetrate.
Energy-Efficiency Through Effective Appliance Management
Refrigerators, ovens, and hot water heaters are all big-time energy consumers, and no matter what kind of power source you rely on, any fine-tuning you can do that will increase the energy-efficiency of these machines is a positive thing for sure. Energy-saving models may be the way to go if you are getting ready to purchase something new, but regardless of what type of appliances you have in your home right now, it is clearly in your best interest to get the most out of them that you possibly can.
- When you open and close your refrigerator, you should do so with a purpose . If you are serious about not wasting energy, the whole process should go down something like this: first, know what you want and where it is exactly before you grab that fridge handle and pull it open. Second, after you open the door you need to reach in and snatch up your item with as much urgency as you can muster. And finally, you need to get that door closed again as fast as you possibly can before all of that nice cold air leaks out and starts cooling off your kitchen instead of your food.
- When you put leftovers inside, be sure to let them cool outside beforehand so your fridge will not have to do a lot of extra work just to cool them off for you. Also, when you want to defrost something that has been in the freezer you should do it in the refrigerator, which will allow you to capture all the cold that is radiated by frozen foods as they thaw.
- Locate your refrigerator away from the stove or any other object in your home that emits heat, as your fridge will have to strain to keep its interior cool if it is constantly being bombarded with warm air from the outside. On the other hand, you don’t want to keep your unit in an area where temperatures drop below 60 degrees either, because cool outer temperatures will also inhibit a fridge’s proper functioning. As you can see, a refrigerator is a sensitive appliance indeed.
- Don’t preheat, and always turn your oven off a few minutes before you think your food will actually be done so you are not generating excess heat that will never have the chance to do any meaningful work.
- Just as you lose cold when you open a refrigerator, you also lose heat when you open an oven door to check on food, to the tune of 25 degrees each and every time you take this action. It is much better to just rely on your oven light to help you keep track of how your food is doing – after all, that is what it is there for.
- Toaster ovens , electric frying pans, slow cookers , and microwave ovens all use considerably less energy (perhaps as much as 75 percent less) than a conventional oven. Therefore, whenever you have the chance you should turn to one of these alternatives when it is time to prepare a snack or a meal. These substitute cooking devices are all relatively inexpensive to purchase these days, so you will not have to invest much of your hard-earned cash to acquire one or all of them if you have not done so already.
Hot Water Heaters
- How high you want to set the thermostat on your hot water heater is entirely up to you. If you follow the usual advice to set it at 120 degrees, that may be much too cool for you, and what is the point of saving energy if doing so makes you miserable? But if you insulate the pipes that carry your hot water  to the various faucets in your house by wrapping them with fiberglass tape or neoprene foam, you can cut down on your heat waste enough that it will allow you to set your hot water heater thermostat a few degrees lower than you would normally have to, no matter how hot you like your water.
- Mineral deposits and sediment buildup  in the bottom or a hot water heater can reduce its capacity noticeably while causing a unit to run less efficiently and use more power. Even though you may not be able to see these deposits, the chances are good that they are there and will accumulate over time. So, once or twice a year, you need to drain a decent-sized bucket of water from your hot water heater by opening the valve at the bottom, which will allow you to get rid of the brackish water that is collecting at the bottom of your tank.
- If by chance you are getting ready to buy a new hot water heater, you may want to consider replacing your old conventional unit with either a tankless heater or a solar thermal system . Since our emphasis here is on tips for saving energy that don’t necessarily require a big investment in time or money, we are not recommending that you tear out a tank unit that is still in good working order. But if you are already planning to make a change, we would definitely suggest that you consider going in another (resource-conserving) direction.
Keeping It Clean
If you want to make sure that each and every power-consuming and/or producing appliance and device is giving you the bang for your buck that you expect, here is a piece of advice that you can’t afford to ignore: keep everything clean!
Just like the funniest stand-up comedians, machines that use energy work better when they work clean, and it is up to you to make sure that you dust, vacuum, wipe, and scrub everything you have so it doesn’t become plugged, corroded, rusted, clogged, or stuck. Filters in humidifiers, vacuums, furnaces, dehumidifiers, and oven exhaust hoods should be cleaned monthly at the very least, and you definitely need to get behind and underneath your refrigerator to get all the dust that will collect on the condenser coils and on the motor. Wood-burning stoves and furnaces can get extremely dirty  and may need professional intervention if they are not emptied and cleaned out frequently (like every other month), and electronic devices like computers and television sets are notorious dust hogs and can bog down quickly if you do not clean them weekly. And don’t forget to regularly vacuum out your vents and registers, because the dust bunnies that collect there can plug them up and inhibit air flow from your heating system significantly.
To sum it all up, you need to clean, and clean, and clean, and clean everything, and then after you are all finished you should clean it all again just for good measure. You would be surprised at how inefficient appliances and other power-drawing machines and gadgets can become when they are allowed to become dirty and dusty, which is why their care and maintenance requires a proactive approach.
©2012 Off the Grid News