Three years ago, Kirk deFord stopped driving to work and began biking the six miles to his office at an educational research center in Portland, Ore.
"It was primarily environmental concerns that got me started," said deFord. "But I also was sick of paying $12.50 a day to park and buying all that gasoline."
DeFord, who is 59, also has seen his auto insurance premiums drop because he drives less. And there's an added bonus, he points out - "a lot more exercise."
DeFord is among a growing number of Americans who have learned that energy conservation is not just good for the planet. It's good for the pocketbook, too.
Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md., says that even small steps by families - using a bit less air conditioning, eliminating a single car trip a week - can collectively have a big impact on the environment.
"If you want to, you can go and live the simple life in a log cabin in the woods," Taylor said. "But most people want to take smaller steps that also matter and have an impact."
Since last fall, her nonprofit group has been promoting "Turn the Tide - Nine Actions for the Planet," which recommends such steps as installing efficient showerheads and replacing four standard light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights.
Changing the light bulbs alone, she said, can save a family $100 over the lives of the bulbs.
Rozanne Weissman of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy suggests a number of steps that will produce big environmental bang for the buck:
- Improve heating and cooling systems
"Heating and cooling generally account for half of the average home energy bill, so there's a big payoff for improving efficiency," Weissman said.
Annual maintenance and cleaning the filters can make the equipment run better. Changing the thermostat just a few degrees will cut energy consumption. "And if you need to replace your old system, the new ones are much more energy efficient," she said.
- Update the thermostat
Modern, programmable thermostats let you heat and cool a house to suit your lifestyle.
"You lower the heat during the day when you're not home, and have the thermostat set to start warming it up a half hour before you get back," Weissman said. "Or you can turn the heat down while you sleep, and have it come up a half hour before you wake."
The thermostats often sell for less than $100.
She added that some families user timers on window air conditioners to turn them off when they aren't needed.
- Insulate yourself
Basic caulking and weather-stripping can reduce the amount of cooling and heating lost to the outdoors. Good insulation, especially in the attic, can cut heat and cooling losses even more but require a bigger investment.
"With so many people refinancing at pretty decent (interest) rates, it's a good time to think about energy-saving projects," Weissman said.
- Look for the star
Major appliances - from air conditioners to washing machines and computers - that carry the government's Energy Star of approval are the most efficient on the market, and switching to them often can cut a third off your energy bill, Weissman said. Consumers can get information at www.energystar.gov.
Some states have special "bounty" programs to encourage the purchase of such products. In New York state, which is eager to reduce peak power demand, consumers who bring in an old but working air conditioner and purchase an Energy Star replacement can collect $75. The www.GetEnergySmart.org site has details.
Weissman said that studies done by the alliance indicate that "consumers are sharp and they shop smart" with the aim of finding good products for good prices.
"They care a lot about pocketbook issues and comfort in the home," she said. "If those are met, helping the planet at the same time is a great additional benefit."
DeFord, who works at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, is among those trying to put the environment first.
He keeps his thermostat below 65 in winter and wears a fleece vest to stay warm. He doesn't use air conditioning, saying: "It's a lot easier just to open the windows."
Over the past two years, he's been working to increase the insulation in his home, adding more to the walls and the attic.
"I can't measure the savings in dollars exactly, but I know it adds up," he said.
DeFord likes to share what he has learned, too, by volunteering to lead discussion groups for the Northwest Earth Institute.
"I really feel that something has to happen different for the planet or it will fall down around our ears," deFord said.
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