Homeowners have many fixed expenses, such as mortgage payments and insurance, but one of the big ones that homeowners can take charge of and reduce is the electric bill.

That's why one of the first things Brian Ashby did after moving into a home in North Charleston in July was to arrange for a free inspection to learn if his home was energy efficient or needed improvements.

“I’ve had property in other states, and I’ve always done a weatherization program with the electric company or whoever offers it," said Ashby, a U.S. Marine who relocated from Florida. 

“It turns out my house is pretty well insulated," he said. "I guess I had serendipity on my side."

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David Thornburg with Dominion Energy talks with homeowner Brian Ashby in North Charleston about energy efficiency. “It turns out my house is pretty well insulated," Ashby said. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

From heating and cooling that's lost to poor insulation to energy vampire appliances that consume power even when they aren't turned on, many homes use far more electricity than they actually need.

The good news is there are a number of ways to trim electric bills at no cost, with little or no sacrifice. And when it comes to energy efficiency, homeowners such as Ashby can get professional advice at no charge.

When major changes or improvements are needed, such as replacing heating and cooling equipment, there are also substantial rebates that can cut the upfront costs. 

A great way to start making a home more energy efficient is with a free evaluation offered by utility companies including Dominion Energy (which took over SCE&G), Berkeley Electric Cooperative and Santee Cooper.

“We have energy efficiency experts going out and making house calls every day," said Paul Fischer, a Dominion Energy spokesman. “If you’re thinking about it, do it now, in the late summer or fall."

The free inspections even come with freebies. Ashby said Dominion Energy gave him some LED lightbulbs and an insulating wrap for his water heater. Santee Cooper includes a "home energy house call" kit with LED lightbulbs, weather stripping and other free items. Duke Energy Progress, serving the northeastern part of the state, includes free LED bulbs, a shower head and more with its home inspections.

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David Thornburg with Dominion Energy inspects the home of Brian Ashby in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Most home electric use in the U.S. — 53 percent of it — goes to five basic needs: space heating, space cooling, water heating, lighting and refrigeration, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Next on the list may be more surprising: televisions and related equipment. These are a great example of energy vampires that consume substantial power even when they're turned off. 

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David Thornburg, an energy service representative with Dominion Energy, inspects the home of Brian Ashby in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Simply unplugging a television when it's not being used, or switching off a power strip the television is plugged into, is an easy way to reduce electricity use. Some modern power strips will automatically turn off power to devices in standby mode — Dominion sells TrickleStar power strips to customers for about $12.

Some small, easy ways to reduce electricity consumption and save money include:

  • Turn off power to televisions, computer printers, cell phone chargers, microwave ovens and other devices when they aren't in use. 
  • Switch to LED lightbulbs, which use a fraction of the power and produce less heat. Some utilities sell such bulbs directly to consumers at a discount.
  • Have an old refrigerator running in the garage? Getting rid of it could save $100 yearly on electric bills. If you're a Dominion customer, the utility will pay $50 to come and haul an old fridge or freezer away, as long as it still works.
  • Not home during the day? Turn down the air conditioning (or heating) on your way out the door — or get a programmable thermostat that can do that automatically. TIP: Santee Cooper customers can get a $50 rebate for installing a qualifying smart thermostat, even one they previously installed as long as it was after Dec. 1, 2018.
  • Adding blown-in insulation to an attic, for an insulation depth of at least 12 inches, is relatively inexpensive and provides long-term savings.
  • Utilities recommend setting thermostats at 78 degrees in the summer and 68 in the winter. Get as close to that as you can to save power and money. Proper use of ceiling fans can help.
  • Those with a fireplace should make sure the damper is secure. Otherwise, conditioned air will escape out the chimney.

It does all add up. Santee Cooper's energy efficiency program, Reduce The Use, began in 2009 and is now saving an estimated 209 gigawatt hours of power yearly, enough electricity to power 16,500 homes.

Utility spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the ongoing program reached its target for energy savings in 2018, which was two years ahead of schedule.

“We said at the time that represented $250 million in customer savings (since 2009)," she said.

For large, expensive home efficiency projects such as replacing an HVAC system, improving duct work or replacing a water heater, utility rebates can lower the cost by hundreds of dollars. Some also offer financing.

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David Thornburg, an energy service representative with Dominion Energy, inspects the home of Brian Ashby in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Berkeley Electric has a low-interest loan program that helps customers finance long-term improvements, with loan repayments added to electric bills. Santee Cooper offers loans at an interest rate of 3.5 percent for certain heat pumps, water heaters, duct replacements and solar panels.

Berkeley Electric offers rebates of up to $400 for installing energy-efficient electric water heaters with load-management features. Dominion offers up to $500 for installing efficient HVAC systems, and smaller rebates for sealing, insulating or replacing ducts. Santee Cooper has rebates for heat pumps, duct replacement and smart thermostats.

“Duct work is key," Fischer said. "We may find duct work that is torn or has fallen (during home inspections).”

Some modern homes are very energy efficient, but even newer homes can often be improved.

For those considering installing solar panels on their home, 2019 is the last year to get 55 percent of the cost back as a combination of S.C. and federal tax credits.

The federal tax credit, currently 30 percent, will be reduced to 26 percent for 2020 installations, then 22 percent for 2021, after which it is set to expire. South Carolina offers a tax credit equal to 25 percent the cost of a residential solar system.

In addition to low-interest loans, Santee Cooper also offers rebates for installing solar panels for installations completed by Nov. 30. The maximum rebate is $3,600.

In addition to saving money and improving comfort, home energy efficiency helps efforts to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving climate change, and reduces the need for costly new power plants.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com