Personal Finance: ‘Green’ shopping list ranges from LEDs to solar panels

By Susan Tompor

Many of us are not likely to sit down and craft a “green” shopping list. But it’s not a bad idea to mull over what you might want or could afford.

“Almost every product I have bought in recent years has been purchased to save me energy and money,” said Jim Detjen, Knight Professor of Environmental Journalism Emeritus at Michigan State University.

He shops for some energy-efficient and environmentally friendly items at the website Real Goods. He also checks out energy-efficient products at the Energy Star government website.

Among other things, he and his wife, Connie, have replaced all of their incandescent lightbulbs with either compact fluorescent lightbulbs, or more recently LED bulbs. They’ve also bought an Energy Star furnace and installed two solar panels on their roof when they had a new one installed. The solar panels run attic fans, which help cool off the house and save money and energy.

How much did they spend? About $1,000 on the solar panels, which are relatively small, and they received some tax credits. As for the lightbulbs, they spent a few hundred dollars. At first, they’d replace a bulb at a time as incandescent bulbs burned out, and then one day they just decided to replace the rest.

Think of lightbulbs and solar panels as two ends of the spectrum. Most of us can easily afford to replace lightbulbs, especially if we buy some pricey LEDs over several shopping trips. As for solar panels, it could require some long-term planning and commitment to spend several thousand dollars in some cases on such a project.

“You want to address the areas where most of your energy dollars are going,” said Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy content editor of Consumer Reports.

She noted that solar panels can be very expensive, even with any rebates or tax breaks. “If you’re talking dollar for dollar, that wouldn’t be the first place I would start.”

Some items to put on a “green” shopping list:

▪ Heating and cooling our homes accounts for almost half of the average home’s the utility bills. For that reason, many experts say consumers want to seal leaks that create drafts; make sure that duct systems are properly insulated; add insulation to the attic, crawl space or exterior walls.

Install programmable thermostats and actually program them.

“You can’t just hang it on the wall and expect it to save you money,” said Vicki Campbell, director of energy efficiency for Detroit’s DTE Energy.

Energy experts say consumers could save up to 10 percent a year on heating and cooling bills, if they turn back the thermostat regularly by 10 percent to 15 percent for 8 hours each day.

▪ Install an energy-efficient water heater. The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy notes that water heating is the third largest energy expense in your home, typically about 12 percent of your utility bill. So installing an energy-efficient tank water heater or an on-demand tankless water heater could save money in the long run. Also consider using less hot water and turning down the thermostat on your water heater.

▪ Take advantage of online opportunities and apps to do your research. DTE Energy has a free smartphone DTE Insight app that enables many customers with smart meters to track their energy use hour by hour.

▪ Watch for developments on the energy efficiency of digital devices.

Mel Hall-Crawford, special projects director for the Consumer Federation of America, said many are watching newly proposed energy performance standards for computers in California. Advocates said the groundbreaking standards could save California residents about $430 million on electricity bills.

“We’re hoping that manufacturers will embrace this and be constructive, not obstructionist, in the process,” she said.

Right now, Energy Star ratings exist on many digital products and can be considered when shopping for new computers, too.

▪ Consider replacing costly appliances, such as a washer that’s more than 10 years old. Or an old refrigerator.

Jill Gonzalez of said consumers often overlook how much an old refrigerator can drain energy budgets.

The estimated cost of running a refrigerator built in 1990-’92 is about $280 a year for some models with a freezer on top, according to DTE. By contrast, a consumer could save about $190 a year with an Energy Star-rated refrigerator built in 2009 or later. The annual cost for a newer refrigerator with a freezer on top with about 21.4 cubic-feet is estimated at $90 a year.

Susan Tompor is a personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press.