Simple steps cut energy bills

Modern living can combine energy efficiency and reasonable comfort, experts say.

They cite a host of simple ways to cut energy consumption without sacrificing comfort or lifestyle. From sealing air leaks to unplugging cell-phone chargers, these recommended improvements don't require big-ticket purchases like windows or air or heating systems (although those may be necessary in some cases).

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Many energy-saving moves are so inexpensive that they quickly pay for themselves.

Unless you're living in an ultramodern, ultra-energy-efficient home, the only way to rein in those utility bills is to first show your home a little love. Sealing air leaks - primarily gaps in construction - and upgrading insulation are the No. 1 ways to nip energy waste, says Scott Stefan, a home energy auditor for Elmsford, New York-based BrightHome Energy Solutions.

Air leaks, often found around foundations, pipes, recessed lights and chimneys, can be easily identified and sealed.

But even sealing your house nice and tight (while still leaving enough airflow for proper ventilation) won't really do the job if your insulation has stopped doing its job, Stefan says. Warm air can escape right through insulation that's been in place for 25 years or more.

"We all recognize that we have to replace our cars and computers, and people love to do that," he says. "But most people have really old insulation - and it's really beaten down and it's not doing them any good."

The cost of sealing leaks or updating insulation varies greatly, depending on where you live and the complexity of the job. But "the energy you save from doing this work will more than cover the cost of the work itself," Stefan says.

Such steps tend to be considerably cheaper than, for instance, replacing leaky windows, another energy-saving step. That could run into the tens of thousands of dollars - although it often could be avoided simply by hanging storm windows in the winter, experts say.

Another way to cut energy consumption is to unplug all those "energy vampires" that suck up electricity even when they're not being used, says Ken Collier, editor-in-chief at The Family Handyman.

A typical North American home has 40 devices, including TVs, cellphone chargers and computers, that continually draw power even when they seem to be turned off, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The easiest way to eliminate those costs is to plug your devices into power strips and turn those power strips off when you wrap things up for the day, he says.

Another good option is a product called Smart Strip, which looks like a regular power strip but automatically turns off equipment that it senses is not being used.

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