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Apartment Hunting – Part II - Keeping those Energy Bills Down

August 23, 2010 - 5:17pm

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I recently went looking for a new apartment. And though my parents may say I’m stingy, I like to think I’m economical. Or better yet, I’m a bargain hunter.

I asked myself three main questions when looking for my new place: How far is it from public transit and community businesses? Can I keep my energy bills to a minimum? What’s the rent?

In the second of two entries on apartment hunting, I discuss things to look for that might help keep your energy bills low.

When you think about it, energy bills can, in effect, increase your rent each month. Nobody likes to pay for natural gas and electricity, especially because these bills can become burdensome. To best gauge this added cost when apartment hunting, I first asked leasing agents if they knew average utility costs. However, none of the 15 buildings I visited had real data for me to check out. Also, not one leasing agent I spoke with lived in the building they were trying to lease, but they often suggested random estimates that clearly were mostly guesswork.

Without hard data, I relied on a couple residents in each building for an estimate of what they pay. You’d be surprised at how helpful perfect strangers can be if you just ask. Many apartments don’t have long utility records, so ask a couple tenants, in addition to the leasing agent. Tenants are likely to be able to roughly gauge what they pay every month for gas and electricity.

With an approximation of what gas and electricity could cost, I then walked around each apartment I visited looking for potential energy problems. Some questions I asked myself included:

  • Was the water heater insulated?
  • What type of thermostat and lighting was in the apartment?
  • Were the appliances ENERGY STAR rated?
  • Did the weatherstripping need to be replaced?

Water Heater and HVAC

Your water heater and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) unit will probably consume most of your energy. Conditioning and circulating air and maintaining hot water on a moment’s notice consumes loads of energy. At some apartments I visited, the HVAC unit was actually located behind a closed door on the porch. That means that unless that outside closet is insulated well, I would pay to heat air at the outdoor temperature. Meaning, if it were 25 degrees outside, I’d have to pay to heat air from 25 degrees to 70 degrees. That’s a lot more energy than heating air from indoor room temperature to 70 degrees.

I made sure that my HVAC unit was located inside, was ENERGY STAR rated, and had clean filters with sufficient air intake. These are all easy to find. The Energy Star label will be on the HVAC unit; if the filter looks dirty, it probably needs to be replaced; and if the air intake vent is blocked, it’s not getting enough air.

It’s similar with your water heater. Keeping gallons upon gallons of water hot consumes lots of energy. Some apartment complexes locked away water heaters so tenants wouldn’t play with the dials. In the apartment I selected, the leasing agent agreed to grant me access so I could turn down the temperature from 140oF (scalding) to 120oF (hot, but will not burn you instantly). Lowering your water heater’s temperature can save energy and money on natural gas bills. I also gained permission to wrap my water heater with insulation, which keeps the water hot for longer. I haven’t installed heat traps yet, but I did wrap the pipes with affordable insulation, a money-saving upgrade that helps keep my showers toasty.

Thermostat and Lighting

Many apartments have those old dial thermostats or something similar. Programmable thermostats let you set the temperature of your apartment throughout the day. In the summer, this automatically turns down my air conditioning while I’m at work and turns it back on before I get home so my place is cool and comfortable. I checked with my leasing agent and she replaced the old thermostat with a new, programmable model.

I also paid attention to lighting. Lighting can consume 15% of your electricity, but affordable compact fluorescents (CFLs) can cut that cost by 75%. Typical 60 watt light bulbs can be replaced by CFLs that use one-fourth of the energy, give off that same warm light, and last significantly longer than incandescent bulbs.

Appliances

When apartment hunting, check to see if appliances are ENERGY STAR-qualified. An efficient clothes washer and refrigerator could save a combined $235 on your utility bills each year. An ENERGY STAR washer can also save more than 50% of the water needed to clean your clothes.

Many apartment complexes have older, cheaper appliances. In effect, the landlord saved money on installation costs upfront and is letting lease-holders bear the energy costs. Check with the leasing agent to see if you can upgrade old models with new, efficient ones. This can save you lots on your monthly bills.

Weatherstripping

Lastly, when look at apartments, I looked at the weatherstripping. Doors and windows with old weather stripping may be leaking lots of air, making your home cold and drafty in the winter and uncomfortably warm in the summer. It’s easier to tell in the winter, but run your fingers around the door and window edges. If you feel cold air, then there’s probably a leak. Also, if the weatherstripping is really compressed, it may need to be replaced. Door sweeps can also help keep the good air in and the bad air out every season. Both weatherstripping and door sweeps are low-cost and can be found at your local hardware store.

So, when you’re making that decision of where to live, think about the energy bills as added rent, but lower bills from energy efficiency as money in your pocket—because that’s exactly what it is. I found an apartment with the right fit, in the right neighborhood that I helped make more affordable with only a few, easy, low-cost home energy upgrades. You can too.

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