College Central®

Ask around. The Network works.®

Personal Finance
Lower energy costs reachable

(The San Francisco Chronicle)/San Francisco -- Many of the energy-saving tips you hear about -- insulating the attic, putting in double-paned windows, buying a new water heater -- are completely out of the reach of renters.

But if you're paying your own energy bills, even for a drafty, uninsulated Victorian building, there are ways to conserve energy without spending too much of your own money.

To investigate, we had Pacific Gas & Electric representatives Philip Donnelly and Marshall Hunt visit a one-bedroom rental in a six-unit, 1920s-era San Francisco building. They took a look at the problem areas and provided creative, low-cost and low-maintenance ideas for improvement. Though the company is unable to provide this service to each customer, Donnelly's and Hunt's suggestions may prove helpful for many renters.

The first thing they recommend is to take a good look at your bill (see "Reading Your Bill," Page 4), and determine where most of your energy - gas or electric - is being used, then focus on the appliances that guzzle that energy.

Also note that, if your rental has a major problem causing energy loss - such as a window with huge gaps or a fridge that doesn't freeze completely - you should ask your landlord to fix it. You might mention that PG&E has incentive programs for the purchase of energy-efficient appliances, including heaters and refrigerators. (Have the landlord contact PG&E's Smarter Energy Line for information.)

Here are some of PG&E's suggestions for renters to make low-cost improvements:

Lighting. Since lighting is probably the area renters can affect the most - and one of the main culprits in electric energy use - it's a good place to start.

Compact fluorescent bulbs cost more than conventional incandescent bulbs, but you can start by replacing a few of the bulbs you use most and see how you like them. In addition to saving energy, they can last for years, a great asset if you have old-fashioned high ceilings. Note, however, that compact fluorescents tend to be more oblong than incandescent bulbs and may not fit old lighting fixtures.

Many renters depend on their halogen torcheres, the tall lamps that shoot a flood of light toward the ceiling. However, halogen is a major energy hog and fire hazard because of the amount of heat produced. Instead, look for Energy Star-labeled torcheres with compact fluorescent bulbs.

Heating. If your rental unit comes with a cranky old gas wall heater that seems to only heat up the hallway, close off rooms that are not in use when you start it up. PG&E also highly recommends taking part in their free pilot-light program every year right before winter starts. Not only will the technicians light your pilot light after it's been off all summer, they will make sure your heater is working effectively and safely.

It might be worthwhile to invest in a safe, small electric heater to zone-heat rooms. For example, Hall suggests installing a heat lamp in the bathroom for cold mornings when you're rushing off to work instead of waiting for the main heater to heat up the whole apartment.

Drafty Windows: If your apartment has old-fashioned windows that don't fit well, you probably wear a hat around the house during winter. Window coverings can help reduce drafts a lot - look for heavy, lined curtains with a valance, a panel of fabric that hangs across the top of the curtains and cuts down on drafts.

Even the ugly vinyl shades or mini blinds that come with many rentals will help keep out cold air if they fit properly. They should hang close to the window and cover it fully from bottom to top. You can often install these behind more decorative curtains. Keep them raised and out of sight during the day, then lower them as soon as temperatures drop at night.

Other Drafts: Cover old fireplaces that no longer work from the outside world with a piece of insulation material covered by a more decorative piece of wood or metal.

Place "snakes" - those bean bags that run across door jams - or even folded towels or newspapers over cracks. The bottom of windows is one good place, as is the bottom of doors, but just make sure the items wouldn't block your escape in case of a fire.

Electronics: If you're in the market for a new television, stereo or DVD, many major manufacturers now produce Energy Star-labled models. In addition to saving energy, Energy Star televisions and VCRs also can cut carbon dioxide emissions by 110 pounds per year.

Large appliances: If you are stuck with an ancient refrigerator, keep it defrosted and dust the coils. Consider asking your landlord for a new one - refrigerators are huge energy gobblers, especially if you live alone and have a full-size refrigerator that consumes enough energy for a family of four.

If your apartment comes with a gas stove circa 1921, it's a lot better to use a toaster oven or a microwave for small cooking jobs.

Water heating: Water heaters that have to run from the basement of a multi-unit building all the way to your second- or third-floor flat require a lot of energy to pump the water. Ask your landlord if the water heater has been serviced recently.

Low-flow shower heads are also a worthwhile investment for renters, because you can take them with you when you move.

(c) 2001 The San Francisco Chronicle

Return to top

The views and opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect those of College Central Network, Inc. or its affiliates. Reference to any company, organization, product, or service does not constitute endorsement by College Central Network, Inc., its affiliates or associated companies. The information provided is not intended to replace the advice or guidance of your legal, financial, or medical professional.