If you're an eco-conscious renter, it might seem impossible to make your space more energy-efficient without breaking your lease or pouring money into a home you don't own. You probably won't spring for solar panels or an Energy Star-certified water heater if you're just renting.
But there are simple, relatively inexpensive steps you can take to reduce energy use in your home, helping the environment and probably saving you money on your utility bills.
"By using less energy, it means that the utility system has to produce less energy," says Lizzie Rubado, a manager at Energy Trust of Oregon. "And since a lot of the sources of energy that we use still come from fossil fuels or other energy sources that are emitting greenhouse gases, when you use less energy in your home, that means that it reduces overall our greenhouse gas emissions."
Here are ways to reduce your energy use while renting.
Change your lightbulbs.
Rubado says it's time to ditch those 60-watt incandescent bulbs. LED bulbs use 75% to 80% less energy and could save you between $60 and $125 for each installed bulb over its lifetime, according to Consumer Reports. If you're feeling overwhelmed by all the bulbs you'd need to replace, Rubado recommends starting with the five lights you use most frequently. Bonus tip: Store the original lightbulbs in a bag, then swap them back in when you move, so you can bring your LEDs with you.
It takes energy to pump water out to homes, so cutting back on usage conserves both energy and water.
Kathryn Kellogg, founder of Going Zero Waste, a platform promoting eco-friendly living, recommends switching to a low-flow shower head that dispenses less water. "We would just add on a new shower head that we would bring with us to each apartment," she says. Look for the WaterSense label on fixtures; the typical shower head goes through 2.5 gallons of water a minute, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, but WaterSense heads don't use more than two gallons per minute.
Meanwhile, Manuela Barón, founder of the Girl Gone Green, suggests putting a plastic water bottle in your toilet tank. Each time you flush, the tank refills with more water than it needs for the next flush, Barón says. Setting a filled water bottle inside the tank means it will take less water to reach the fill line and conserve your water usage - while still providing enough to flush the toilet.
Another tip: If your apartment has a dishwasher, use it. It uses less energy and water than washing dishes by hand, Rubado says.
Don't go thermostat crazy.
"Making sure that you're not heating or cooling your home when you don't need to is one of the biggest ways that you can save energy," Rubado says. "Even small changes can make a big impact on your bills and on your carbon footprint."
If your rental has a thermostat, Rubado recommends setting it between 65 and 68 degrees during the day in the winter, then lowering it to 58 or 60 at night. During summer, don't set it below 70 degrees, she says. And don't come home and immediately crank up the heat or AC. This won't heat or cool your home faster; it will only force your system to work harder and use more energy, Rubado says. If you have a programmable thermostat, such as a Nest, she recommends taking the time to set it up and learn how it works, so you aren't unnecessarily cooling or heating your house while you're away.
Insulate and cool.
"You lose a lot of your heating and cooling and energy through your windows," Kellogg says. She recommends renters install thick curtains and close them during the hot summer months to keep rooms cooler and darker, as well as closing them at night during the winter to trap in heat. Meanwhile, make sure your ceiling fan is spinning clockwise on a low setting in the winter, so it pushes down the warm air that has risen to the top, Rubado says, and counterclockwise in the summer to create a downward draft. Most ceiling fans have a switch or chain that will change the blades' direction.
And you can fix drafty, energy-wasting spaces without costly construction. "The typical home has enough small gaps and cracks in it that it's equivalent to leaving a window open all year round, winter and summer," Rubado says. She recommends placing removable draft stoppers under your doors. (You can take these with you when you move.) Or, if there's a gap between your window sash and the sill, buy a piece of foam from the hardware store, place it on the sill and close the window on it to seal the crack.
Don't forget the fridge.
Even if it doesn't make sense to spring for an energy-efficient refrigerator as a renter, you can still help yours consume less energy. First step: Vacuum behind the fridge and clean the coils, Kellogg says. This will help the fridge diffuse heat better and run more efficiently. Also, if your fridge has an ice machine, she recommends turning it off once the ice bucket is full to save energy. Only turn it back on once it's empty.
Check your cords.
Unplug items when you're not using them. Phantom energy - or power used by devices that still consume energy while plugged in and not in use, such as phone or computer chargers - can make up as much as 20% of your monthly electricity bill, according to Duke Energy. "On average, every home has about 40 of these phantom energy users," Rubado says. "That energy use can add up."
She suggests plugging nearby devices into a power strip, making it easier to switch everything off at once. And smart plugs are a good option, too, she says; they can connect to a smart-home assistant or an app to allow you to turn devices on and off remotely, so you'll never accidentally leave your light on while you're at work again.
Wash and dry smartly.
Again, a renter probably won't opt for an Energy Star-certified washer and dryer. But it requires energy to heat water, so wash your clothes using cold water whenever you can, Barón says. And although air-drying your clothes using a rack or line is the most energy-efficient method, you might not have the space to do that. If that's the case, Barón recommends throwing a dry towel in the dryer with your wet clothes. "It helps cut down the overall time for clothes in the dryer," she says.
Mimi Montgomery is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.