Taking simple steps can help reduce your energy costs, both at home and in the car

PERSONAL FINANCE

July 10, 2005|By Eileen Ambrose

MEL COLWELL of Baltimore gave up road trips to the countryside about a year ago when gas prices grew too steep. And though the 83-year-old retired steelworker says he has always driven the speed limit, he has begun to lighten up on the pedal to conserve fuel.

Colwell used to spend less than $20 to fill up his '92 Pontiac Grand Am. Last week, he paid $29 for less than 13 gallons - not even a full tank. Pointing to the pump, Colwell predicted Americans haven't seen the worst of the rising gas prices.

"You will see more motorcycles on the road," he said.

Summer traditionally has been a time of heavy energy consumption. Vacationing Americans take to the highway, racking up miles and visits to the pump. The average price of a gallon of regular, unleaded gas last week reached $2.22, up from $1.88 a year ago, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

But it's not just on the road that Americans burn energy.

"You think of your car as something that uses a lot of energy and causes a lot of pollution, but you don't think of your house that way," said Cheryl Hystad, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. "A lot of people don't realize your house can use as much energy as your car."

This summer, don't just complain about higher fuel bills on the road and at home. Take some simple steps, many of which cost little or nothing, to reduce energy consumption. And if you're one of the many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, these conservation measures can have a noticeable impact. Your wallet will thank you, and so will the environment.

Begin at home.

When you leave for work, turn up the thermostat by five to eight degrees so that "you are not paying to cool your plants," said Wendy Reed, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "When you come home at night, turn it back to a comfortable temperature." At bedtime, when the temperature outside dips, turn the thermostat up again a few degrees, she said.

If you don't want to fiddle with controls daily, install a programmable thermostat that automatically adjusts the temperature throughout the day.

Change the air filter in the air conditioner, which can be as often as once a month, depending on the filter's instructions, the EPA says. The air conditioner is like the lungs of the house, and a dirty air filter makes breathing difficult, Reed said. "And if your system is working harder, you are paying too much to cool your home," she said. Plus, a clogged filter can cause early equipment damage.

Seal cracks - most often found in the attic and basement - so cool air doesn't escape. This also keeps heat in during the winter.

Ceiling fans cool occupants in a room because the wind moves against their skin, Reed said. By using ceiling fans while you're in a room, you can turn up the thermostat. Once you leave the room, turn off the fan so you don't waste energy, she said.

When it's time to replace appliances, look for products carrying the Energy Star label, which identifies products that exceed federal standards of efficiency, experts said. The label appears on more than 40 product categories, from air conditioners to VCRs. Sometimes Energy Star products cost more than others, but consumers can recover that expense through energy savings in a couple of years, Hystad said.

As much as consumers can save around the house, they can do the same for their cars. The typical two-driver household spends about $3,000 a year on gas, compared with less than $2,000 two years ago, reports HowtoSpendLess.com.

The most important change one can make to save on gas is perhaps the most difficult - change driving habits, said Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, an online resource for automotive information.

That means curbing those aggressive Type A-personality moves such as jack-rabbit accelerations or speeding up to a red light and slamming on the brakes, which "wears out the brakes quickly and wastes gas," said Reed, not related to the EPA's Reed.

Driving tests show that motorists can nearly double the miles they can get per gallon by driving in a more relaxed, conservative fashion, he said.

Use cruise control on the highway to avoid the temptation to rapidly accelerate. "It kind of puts your mind in cruise control," Reed said. "You are less anxious that every space in traffic must be filled up and you have to accelerate up to the bumper in front of you."

Make sure your tires are properly inflated. Underinflated tires wear more quickly and cause more friction. "The more rubber on the road, the more resistance there is ... and the harder the car engine has to work," Reed said.

Empty the trunk of unnecessary weight, such as sand bags for traction. "It's like carrying an extra passenger or two around. Get them out," Reed said.

And turn on the air conditioner. Sure, it uses more energy, but you'll still get better gas mileage than with the drag created by driving with the windows open, Reed said.

Be on the lookout for pricing zones. Gas prices from one neighborhood to another can differ by 20 cents a gallon, because the price is determined by area income, traffic and other factors, Reed said. If a lower-priced station is not out of your way, make it a habit to fill up there, he said.

Check out GasBuddy.com, a Web site where volunteers post gas prices at various stations around the country. Last week in Maryland, for instance, a gallon of regular ranged from a low of $2.06 to a high of $2.48, according to the site.

Buy premium gas only if the car manual recommends it; otherwise it's not worth paying the extra 20 cents per gallon, Reed said. About 10 or 15 years ago, drivers bought premium gas because it was the only grade that contained detergent to clean the engine. Now, most states require detergent in regular gas, he said.

To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen. ambrose@baltsun.com.

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