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Energy Efficiency: A Primer on Changing Habits

How to Encourage Better Energy Usage in Your Life and Home

We talk often on this blog about energy efficiency because we believe in the practice. Using less energy and using it more wisely are truly the only ways to having a smaller energy bill on a regular basis.
However, we also know that it can be hard to change old habits of any kind, from the food you eat and the media you consume to how you heat and cool your home. So, as the kickoff post to our Fall 2018 series on winning the energy efficiency battle, we wanted to first address how you can create better habits that can help you and the people in your home become more energy efficient.

Understanding the Psychology of Habits

According to research conducted by Charles Duhigg, any habit you have is a three-part loop wherein your brain first gets stuck and then turns off because it gets used to the repetition of the action. He describes it is a “brain loop” that consists of the following:

  1. The Cue – What triggers the need
  2. The Reward – What fulfills the need
  3. The Routine – What sustains the need

This logic applies to any habit you have or regular action you perform, from your exercise regimen and driving a car to when and how you snack. Duhigg says that this can be good for your brain, because it needs things it can do subconsciously and without thinking actively so that it can focus on more specialized and detailed activities.
Hence, the goal for breaking any bad habit is the creation of a new one is also three-fold:

  1. Determine what the cue is for a habit
  2. Discover how you can reward that cue with something better for you
  3. Delineate a new routine that features the improved reward.

The kicker? Focus on one habit at a time so that your brain has time to retrain and rewire itself for how you answer that old cue with a new reward in a new way. And, to our minds, there is one energy-related action that stands out above all the rest as the best way to jumpstart your efforts into changing your energy habits.

Flip Those Switches

That’s right – you should start by flipping the switches for any and all light switches whenever you leave a room. Not only will you lower your energy usage by turning off lights you do not need, but you’ll train your brain to pay attention to how you use energy around the home. Set your sights on the switch!

Creating Better Energy Efficiency Habits

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of turning off the lights and fans when you leave a room, it’s time to focus on creating other new energy efficiency habits.
As simple as the above rubric appears, it’s not a blanket answer to our bad energy habits because we don’t all have the same cues and rewards. But you can use it as a guide to help you and your family develop better habits when it comes to energy usage around the home, especially in terms of the three biggest energy guzzlers around the home: the thermostat, the kitchen appliances, and your family entertainment.

Your Thermostat

Sure, this one increases in difficulty the more people you have living in your home, but if you can help your family change how it warms and cools the house, then you can dramatically change your energy bill. Using the rubric above, the situation might look something like this:

  1. The Cue – Someone is cold (or warm)
  2. The Reward – Getting warmer (or colder)
  3. The Routine – Adjusting the thermostat to become more comfortable

Here’s the chance to change that habit! If you can encourage people to put on a sweater when they get cold (or turn on the ceiling fan when they get warm) instead of changing the thermostat setting, you have addressed both the cue and the reward effectively, while using energy more effectively.

Your Kitchen

This one is a bit trickier, as there are several large appliances in and around your kitchen that use lots of energy, and we all use them for different reasons. The habit here is one of breaking down the fallacies of accepted practices with greater awareness of how appliances use energy.
For example, we think of the microwave as this space-age invention that we only use to cook special food designed for the microwave – frozen meals, quick-serve dishes, and other such concoctions. That’s old thinking. New thinking tells us that microwaves can cook many traditional dishes quickly and effectively, while using much less energy (and giving off much less wasted heat) than our stoves or ovens.
To break the habit of over-reliance upon your big appliances, conduct a search for alternate recipes to your favorite foods. There are entire websites out there designed to help you cook with your microwave or toaster oven instead of your stove or oven. So, while we’re not telling you to cook your next Thanksgiving feast for your extended family out of your microwave, we are encouraging you to take every opportunity to cook with energy savings in mind.

Your Entertainment

Here’s the big one, because it’s the least obvious. You might think that, by clicking the “OFF” button on the remote control for your television, stereo, or game system, you’ve turned off that device completely. I mean, it makes sense, right? Yes, it does, but that’s just not how modern technology works.
If you see a little red light on any of your devices after you’ve clicked that off button, then that device is still drawing power. It needs that power to respond to your remote control or the controller when you want to turn it on next time. The concept is called “standby or phantom power,” but it’s more colloquially known as “vampire power,” in that it slowly sucks power even when it’s supposed to be asleep.
The only remedy for this situation? To either unplug the device entirely or flip off the switch for the power strip that contains the plug for multiple devices. And yes, this takes commitment to the cause of energy efficiency, but you find success by using the rubric as follows:

  1. The Cue – You’re going to bed or leaving for house for an extended period of time.
  2. The Reward – You will see a lower energy bill.
  3. The Routine – Flip that power strip switch as part of your steps to secure your home.

If you’re really high-tech, you can even invest in one of those new-school power strips that let you control what happens at each individual plug. This way, you can ensure your router has power all the time while turning off the standby power to your television, entertainment systems, and gaming consoles.

The Importance of Habits

Here’s what you need to understand about the intersection of habits and energy efficiency: It will be hard at first, but then it will become rather easy before you know it. With both cases, getting into the groove will take some time (between three weeks and three months, according to some research), but once you’ve made the changes in your life, the habits will become second nature to you – as will the savings.

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