Energy-saving tips for renters
Tenants can save energy and money by making a few small changes, and can negotiate with their landlords for other improvements.
As consumers grow more energy-conscious, and environmental advocates push for greater awareness, there is no shortage of suggestions for new ways to cut energy bills and help the planet in the process. The cost-savers can be great for homeowners — but what about renters?
It turns out that many leases prevent tenants from making changes that could lead to substantial energy savings. For example, blocking drafts with caulking or foam sealant could be considered an illegal alteration or improvement in most leases. So might installing a programmable thermostat. "The things you can do as a renter are fairly limited," says Bomee Jung, a member of the board of directors of Green Home NYC, a volunteer-run organization that helps New York residents make their buildings more sustainable.
What’s more, tenants aren’t necessarily motivated to be energy-efficient. Some aren’t responsible for paying their own heating bills, and are therefore less conscientious. Others have small apartments, so even if they install insulation — which can reduce heating costs by up to 20% — they "may not see any difference in (their) bills," says Jennifer Thorne Amann, the buildings program director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
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When do you need to consult your landlord about energy-saving renovations? Here are some tips:
No permission needed
If saving money is your main concern, start by taking small, simple steps to cut your electricity bill, like replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescent or halogen bulbs and unplugging electronics when they’re not in use, or plugging them into a power strip that you can easily turn off. Some power strips now come with remote controls to save you having to "crawl back behind the desk," Jung says.
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Even assuming your landlord is responsible for providing the refrigerator and other major appliances, you can still look for Energy Star-certified products when shopping for home electronics. Products like TVs, DVD players, computers and cable boxes now come with Energy Star ratings, says Ronnie Kweller, a spokeswoman at the AlliancetoSaveEnergy. A list of qualified products can be found at EnergyStar.gov. Buying an LCD television instead of a plasma screen will also save electricity.
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For the winter, take out any window air conditioners. Putting a cover over the outside of the unit is better than nothing, but, "You’ve basically got a hole in your wall if you’ve still got the air conditioner in," Jung says. Another no-permission-needed strategy: Install heavy drapes and close them at night. That can help block cold air that seeps in from your windows, making you more comfortable and potentially saving on heating costs.
Ask before you try
Closing up drafts with caulking or foam sealant, or putting plastic film over your windows to keep heat in may seem noninvasive. But in a standard lease, both would be prohibited because "anything that you affix to the property is considered an improvement legally, or an alteration," says Janet Portman, co-author of the book "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide."
One solution: See if your landlord would be willing to share the cost with you. Caulk and foam sealant are eligible for federal tax credits, so you could offer to do the work and let your landlord take that credit, Kweller says. Whoever pays the heating bills will see some savings, and you’ll feel more comfortable.
It could be worth your while to talk to your landlord about bigger improvements. "The biggest electricity user in your apartment is your refrigerator," Jung says. You’ll save on your electric bill if you can persuade your landlord to replace an old fridge with a new Energy Star model, even if you have to share the cost of the new appliance, she says.
If you already have an Energy Star-compliant fridge or other appliance in your apartment and it needs to be replaced, your landlord must replace it with something that meets the same standard. A tenant whose landlord attempts to replace an appliance with something less efficient could go to small claims court, Portman says. "It’s a classic, garden-variety contract claim. I’m paying for a steak; you can’t give me a hamburger," she says.
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If your apartment is drafty and windows need to be replaced, raise the issue with your landlord. "Even a good landlord, they’re going to try to postpone those kinds of investments as long as they can," and likely won’t take action unless they hear tenants complaining, Amann says. In today’s tight real-estate market, tenants do have some leverage in such negotiations, particularly if a lease is coming up for renewal.