Although the green movement has been trumpeting the importance of energy conservation for years, it popped up on Americans' radar screens in a major way after oil-price spikes in 2008 caused utility companies to add fuel surcharges to customers' bills.

Add to that droughts and water shortages in many regions of the country that forced strict water use restrictions, and homeowners have plenty of incentive to save money on their utility bills any way they can.

Here are 10 large and small changes you can make to help your home be more energy efficient and cut utility bills for years to come.

Paint your Roof White

A 1999 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Heat Island Group found that in sunny climates, buildings with white roofs required up to 40 percent less energy for cooling than those with black roofs. At current utility rates, that means you could save $120 or more per year in cooling costs.

An inexpensive white, elastomeric coating will do the job and can be found at most hardware stores in states in the southern half of the U.S. Elastomeric coating is a blend of polymers that is durable, flexible and waterproof, and offers the fringe benefit of helping to increase your roof's life span and water resistance. All you'll need to apply it is heavy-duty paint rollers on an inexpensive old paint roller frame, with an extension pole attached to save wear and tear on your back.

Install an Irrigation Meter

Do you know that you are charged twice for the water you use every month -- once to pump it into your house and again to pump it out as sewage?

"The assumption is every gallon of water that you run out of your faucet is going to go back down the drain," says Eric Liskey, deputy editor for garden and outdoor living at Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

But if you use water to irrigate your lawn or garden, that water never makes it into the sewer system.

To save money by making sure you're only paying for the sewer capacity you're using, many utilities offer the option to get a separate meter to measure water usage for irrigation, swimming pools and other outdoor uses, says Liskey. Once installed, the meter will be read every month by your utility company and its reading subtracted from your sewage bill.

The meter will cost you several hundred dollars upfront. But since you'll no longer be charged for sewage capacity you're not using, it should pay for itself within a few years, especially if you use a significant amount of water in the yard.

Do a Nightly Energy Sweep

We all have left fans, lights or appliances on at night while we sleep, but doing so wastes increasingly expensive energy.

To save money, do a nightly sweep through the house to make sure all your electric devices are turned off before you go to bed. It may be a pain, but the savings from simply turning everything off can add up quickly. It takes about $9 per year to run just one compact fluorescent lightbulb through the night, $21 for a conventional bulb and $35 for a big ceiling fan on high, according to the energy calculators at MichaelBluejay.com.

Set your Water Heater at 120 Degrees

Not only does heating your water too hot create the danger of scalding, it can cost you cash.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a heater set at 140 degrees or higher can waste $36 to $61 annually in standby heat losses to keep water at that temperature, and more than $400 to bring fresh water up to that high temperature. To save even more money, you can turn your electric heater off or turn your gas heater down when you go on vacation to save even more.

Use Reusable AC and Furnace Filters

How many times have you put off changing out the filter on your heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system because you didn't want to buy a new filter?

Problem is, waiting a long time to change your filter makes your HVAC system less efficient and costs you more in electricity. Dirt and neglect can even cause your expensive HVAC unit to die an untimely death, said Maria Vargas, spokeswoman for the EPA's Energy Star program.

Instead, spend a little more to get a reusable filter than you can simply hose off when it gets clogged up with dust and other particles.

Using a permanent filter, you'll save money in the long run, cut your utility bill and prolong the life of your HVAC unit. If the disposable AC filters that must be changed every three months are around $4 each, you can recoup the $20 to $40 cost of a permanent filter in as little as 15 months.

Upgrade Your Appliances

Many state and local governments and utility companies offer financial incentives for homeowners to upgrade their appliances to newer, more energy-efficient models.

These incentives usually take the form of rebate checks for homeowners who can provide proof of purchase. To save money, find incentives offered in your area by checking the online Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, or DSIRE.

For instance, searching within the state of New York, DSIRE shows 47 separate tax incentives, grants and rebate programs. That includes a state program that offers a rebate of $105 for an energy-efficient refrigerator if you recycle the old one, $75 for a freezer and $100 for a clothes washer.

Don't Let Cash Slip Through the Cracks

When you add up the cumulative effect of all the small leaks in your home, it has the effect of leaving a window open all year long, the EPA's Vargas says.

To save money, you can use inexpensive expanding foam or caulk available at your local hardware store to seal cracks in the following areas where cold or warm air typically escapes.

Those places include:
* Around windows and doorframes.
* Around the top of the basement wall where the cement or block contacts the wooden frame, known as the rim joist.
* Around the holes in walls where pipes enter and exit your home.

Do Your Meter and Utility Bill Match Up?

Utility workers make mistakes just like the rest of us, and when they make mistakes reading your meter, it can be costly. While you'll probably notice a big error on your utility bill, you may not catch more subtle errors.

Make sure you're only getting charged for the electricity you actually used by comparing the meter reading on your utility bill to what you actually see on your meter. If the amount on your meter is lower than the one on your bill, that's a dead giveaway that you're being overcharged.

Reading a meter isn't exactly child's play, but the Jacksonville, Fla., utility company JEA has a handy primer.

Buy Energy Star-Certified Products

You've probably heard of Energy Star, the partnership between the EPA and the U.S.

Department of Energy that identifies energy-efficient products, especially as it relates to energy-intensive items like water heaters and clothes dryers. But Energy Star labels won't just help you save money on big, expensive appliances, says Vargas.

"Energy Star now offers the label on over 60 different kinds of things, so lightbulbs, TVs, clothes washers, refrigerators, furnaces, fans -- all those -- can earn the Energy Star rating," says Vargas.
And while an Energy Star lightbulb won't yield as much savings as an Energy Star refrigerator, those savings do add up, she says.

What's more, many of the Energy Star-qualified products don't cost any more than conventional products, says Vargas. If they do, the EPA won't grant the Energy Star label unless its figures show you'll recoup that extra outlay within five years or less on electricity and water costs.

Buy a Programmable Thermostat

Growing up, you probably had a frugal relative who enforced strict limits on how high or low the thermostat could be set. If you don't have one now, a programmable thermostat can play this role for your home automatically. Based on your family's schedule, you can program it to automatically set the target temperature higher in the summer and lower in the winter when your family won't be home.

Prices on the thermostats have come down so much -- you can buy one at a hardware store for as little as $25 -- that installing one is a no-brainer, especially because the EPA estimates the average homeowner can save $180 per year with a properly programmed unit.

 

Copyright 2010, Bankrate Inc.