Rent it Right: Tips to Ensure an Energy Efficient Rental Home

Kissairis Munoz
July 17, 2010

You know that saving energy at home is important for the environment and your wallet. But if you’re renting, practicing energy efficiency can seem like a challenge. When a house or apartment isn’t your own, where do you begin?

Luckily, there are a myriad of ways renters can save money and energy without major changes or expenses. Whether you pay your own utilities or have them included in your rent, you can still conserve energy while making your home more comfortable.

Before You Sign on the Dotted Line

When considering a rental home, you'll first want to discuss a few things with potential roommates or family members. For instance, ask them how big of a place you really need. Since apartments are smaller and share walls, ceilings and floors with neighbors, heating and cooling costs are generally lower than in a house. Choosing the smallest place that you and your family/roommates are comfortable in will help minimize unnecessary costs.

To get the most energy bang for your buck, discuss energy efficiency improvements with your potential landlord. Don't be shy – you both will save money in the long run, and the property might even increase in value with energy efficiency improvements.

Before signing a lease, be sure to ask landlords about the following:

  • Who pays for gas and electricity? Find out from the landlord what utilities you’ll be responsible for. If you pay for gas or electricity, you can usually contact your local provider and receive an estimate of average monthly costs for the unit.
  • What kind of thermostat does the home have? Look for a programmable thermostat that automatically adjusts your home’s temperature when you’re out or sleeping. If the rental you love doesn't have a programmable thermostat, it's worth it to see if you can install one – it will save up to $110 a year in energy costs. Is a programmable thermostat not an option? 
  • Does the place have ceiling fans? Ceiling fans are an energy bonus for renters. They allow you to keep your room cool during hot months without turning on air conditioning – and without turning up cooling costs.
  • How old are the appliances? Major home appliances like refrigerators and washing machines account for a large part of home energy costs. If the appliances are more than a decade old, they probably don’t meet minimum federal energy standards and are using more energy than necessary. For example, today’s energy efficient refrigerators use less than half the energy that a model from 10 years ago does. Check if appliances have an ENERGY STAR label; these models are the most efficient. If the appliances are older, point your landlord toward ENERGY STAR’s website. When asking landlords to replace old appliances, remind them that they might qualify for rebates or tax credits.
  • How old are the windows? Windows have a huge effect on your ability to cool and heat your home efficiently. Older, drafty windows can cause heat loss during cold months and heat gain during warm months. Newer windows have undergone advances in technology to prevent these unwanted effects. Ask your landlord how old the windows are. If they’re significantly older, it might be in the landlord's best interest to have them replaced. Check out the Alliance’s window resources for more information.
  • Is the place air-tight? Check openings when you visit the rental; if weather stripping is in place, ask if your landlord will be maintaining it or if wear and tear is your responsibility. By sealing cracks or openings in doors and windows, you can trap air leaks and reduce your heating and cooling costs.
  • Who maintains your HVAC unit? Check out your heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, including the furnace. Does it look clean and well maintained? A clogged filter can slow air flow, making the system work harder to keep you warm. Find out how often the filter will be changed and if it’s your responsibility. Then remember to change it every three months. Do the same for AC window units.

Save Energy in Your Home Sweet Rental Home

Once you’ve settled into your new home, these easy switches can lower your out-of-pocket costs.

  • Change your lighting. An easy, low-cost way to lower your energy bills is replacing incandescent bulbs and fixtures with ENERGY STAR compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). You’ll use 75 percent less energy, which saves about $65 a year in energy costs and purchasing fewer light bulbs – CFLs last 6 to 10 times longer than normal bulbs.
  • Turn your appliances off – all the way. Small electronics, like your computer and cell phone charger, account for 15 percent of a household’s overall electricity use. Some of this equipment continues to use electricity even when it's “off.” So plug electronics into a power strip, and switch it off when you aren't using them. That way, you'll disconnect the power supply at the source.
  • Use cold water. If laundry facilities are included with your rental, switch to cold water for your full loads of laundry. Only 10 percent of washing machine energy use goes to the electricity required to run it – hot water heating accounts for the other 90 percent.
  • Purchase an ENERGY STAR air conditioner that's properly sized. If you have to buy an air conditioner, choose an ENERGY STAR unit with an energy efficiency rating of at least 10; these models use at least 10 percent less energy than standard models. Be sure to buy the correct cooling size for the room the unit will be in. Oversized units waste energy (and money) by turning on and off too frequently; they also don't do a good job at dehumidifying your home. Meanwhile, undersized units stay on for too long and still may fail to adequately cool your home.
  • Adjust the thermostat with the season. Even if you don't have a programmable thermostat, you can save energy in the summer months by increasing your thermostat when you’re asleep and when no one is home. You’ll save 1 percent for every 1 degree decrease in temperature. During winter months, lowering your thermostat 1 degree yields the same savings.
  • Coordinate with roommates. Even if you’re doing your part, when you’re living with several other people, not everyone has the same ideas about energy efficiency. To keep housemates on the same page, set up house rules about common issues like turning lights off when leaving a room or using power strips.

Are you someone who rents and has good ideas to share? Or are you a landlord who's prioritized energy efficiency? Share your best practices with your neighbors or tenants through an email listserv and casual conversation.