Does energy efficiency just make your eyes roll?

We know that “energy efficiency” may sound more technical than inspirational. At Groundswell, we’ve been helping communities make energy efficiency upgrades since 2009. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback over the years that folks haven’t gotten around to making upgrades because they don’t have time, money, or interest—and you may not believe us yet, but the biggest myth about energy efficiency is that it’s not worth it.

Energy efficiency may not sound sexy, but it can save you significant cash.

Energy efficiency is the idea that you can make updates to your home or business that will allow it to use less energy, but still accomplish everything you want your building to do. The key to energy efficiency is that it’s not only a way to make sure that your building is ethical and using as little energy as possible, but that it’s also designed to lower your electricity bills and save you money every month. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a typical family in this country will spend at least $2,200 on their utility bills every year. For households with incomes below $50,000, energy costs are in some cases taking up as much budget as housing, food, and health care. In other words, energy savings really matter, and energy efficiency is a solution to rising utility bills.

Here’s some of the information that helped us get interested in energy efficiency in the first place. Here are the 4 big myths that we found people sharing with us over and over, along with some of the facts you need to know instead.

1. “Energy efficiency upgrades are too small to matter.”

When we reduce the amount of energy required to power our lives, we’re actually reducing our dependence on energy. We are getting much better at finding and using alternative, renewable energy sources that don’t harm the planet, but we would still go a long way to save our wallets and curb climate change if we could just use less energy overall.

Energy efficiency upgrades do matter, and in fact, we have real momentum in this area. We’ve already doubled our energy productivity—a measure of how much economic activity we generate per unit of energy—in the last 45 years.

If you’re still skeptical that the small changes you make to your home or business can make a difference, check out this helpful guide on the most efficient energy efficiency upgrades you can make. (Say that 5 times fast!)

2. “I can just use less energy, instead of worrying about making changes or energy efficiency upgrades.”

On the one hand, yes: don’t stop turning off your lights or timing yourself in the shower, because that’s the kind of behavior we really need to become sustainable humans. But those kinds of behavior changes aren’t the same as energy efficiency. Energy efficiency upgrades set up your home to provide all the same services—good lighting, comfortable temperatures, well-preserved food in your refrigerator—without using as much energy.

With energy efficiency, you’re starting from a much lower baseline.

When your home is energy efficient, it matters a little bit less when you forget to turn your closet light off, or turn your thermostat up a degree. We should all aim to be using as little energy as possible, but when we do use energy, we might as well do it as efficiently as possible.

In the realm of sustainable living, energy efficiency helps you use less energy, and feel less guilt about the energy you (and your home) create.

3. “I won’t get any credit for being energy efficient. Nobody will know how much good I’m doing!”

First, if you are doing it right, you will literally and personally get credit for being energy efficient, by getting back the money you would have spent on a less efficient home or office. Energy efficiency is an investment that should reduce your home or building’s energy costs over time, so you’ll be able to quantify the difference.

In fact, energy efficiency is showing up on a lot of major scorecards. Twitter got an “F” last year in a Greenpeace report that tallied how all the biggest data center operators (including companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.com) are using their energy; energy efficiency was a major category on the scorecard, so there is a growing culture of accountability and responsibility around energy efficiency.

What’s more, a lot of energy efficiency upgrades just help your home run better. When you clear the lint screen in your dryer after every load, you’re not only improving air circulation to dry your clothes faster, you’re also preventing a fire hazard. (Everyone in your household, apartment building, or neighborhood appreciates that!)

Using your bathroom fan—and luckily, bathroom fans don’t require very much electricity—not only improves ventilation in your home, but also prevents mildew from building up on your ceilings. Weather stripping your doors and windows will prevent draftiness in your house.

So give yourself a pat on the back, you sustainable superhero!

4. “I can close my vents or use an electric space heater, so I won’t have to turn up the thermostat.”

Closing the vent in one room does not reduce the amount of energy your heating or air conditioning unit is using. In fact, it causes your system to use more energy.

Your system will simply redirect the air that would have come out of that vent to another room or spot in your home. At the same time, closing the vent means that the air that is trying to go out through that vent is now being pushed backwards, which puts an extra strain on the system.

As for the second, using electric space heaters is far from a solution. Because electricity is usually between four and 10 times as pricey as natural gas, you can rack up the energy equivalent of heating your entire home with your gas system from running just two electric space heaters.

These are just two examples of common shortcuts, which unfortunately don’t work very well. The bigger picture, however, is that energy efficiency is supposed to operate like a shortcut. When we make energy efficiency improvements that work, we get to enjoy the things that energy gives us (light, air conditioning, hot baths) at lower sacrifice to our budget and the planet.

5. “Energy efficiency doesn’t require any investment.”

Practically speaking, energy efficiency upgrades do require some up-front costs. Some require a smaller investment (like weather stripping—materials cost as little as $5 at hardware stores and can cut up to 40% of your heating or cooling loss), and some are a heavier lift (like a low-flow water fixture, which will cost a little more but could save you up to $145 per year of faucet use).

Energy efficiency does require investment at the beginning, but it’s designed to help out over a longer time period. Energy saving (with practices like taking shorter showers and keeping your power strips turned off), on the other hand, is a process that is free.

Upfront costs (whether because of time or money) aren’t realistic for everyone though, and we need to find new ways to make information about energy efficiency rebates and support available to everyone.

We’re doing our part, too: this summer, we’re helping businesses in Washington, D.C. connect with the DC Sustainable Energy Utility to have one on one conversations about financial incentives and technical assistance for making key energy efficiency upgrades. Learn how to sign up your business or share our program with a friend today. 


Katy Gathright is the Communications Manager at Groundswell. She’s a D.C. area native, Williams College alum, and co-founder of Designed Good, an online marketplace for socially responsible products. She’s also the one constantly listening to pop culture podcasts and trying to turn them into article topics.