Unplugging things to save on your electric bill is a great idea, but there are a few things you should always leave plugged in to avoid flooding, mold, and other risks to your health and home’s structure.
The Golden Rule of Leaving Things Plugged In
Every home is different, and you might have particular devices that we don’t mention here. So a good golden rule to follow regarding unplugging something to save money is to ask: what’s the worst outcome of this device being unplugged?
If the worst outcome is that you’ll have to manually plug it in or some convenience feature like remote control access will be turned off, it’s probably a good candidate for unplugging. If the worst outcome is that your basement floods or your pipes freeze, then the expense of the negative outcome will likely outpace the expense of leaving the thing plugged in.
Speaking of operating expenses, if you’re curious how much electricity a particular device uses, it’s really cheap to slap a watt meter on it and actually measure the real-world energy use.
The best way to make informed decisions about cutting electrical costs around your home is by knowing how much power things actually use.
Leave These Things Plugged In
Unplugging unused TVs, cable boxes, or other non-mission critical devices to save power is a great idea. There’s no sense in spending over a hundred dollars a year on phantom load waste. But the following devices should stay plugged in and active all the time.
Not many people would outright unplug their water heater and leave the cord dangling, but it’s tempting to put your water heater on a timer if you’re looking to save every penny.
Letting your water heater cool turns it into a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty microorganisms like Legionella bacteria, the family of bacteria responsible for Legionnaires’ disease.
It’s just not worth the trade-off. You might save five bucks a month but at a significant inconvenience and increased risk of illness. If this is an area where you’d like to save money and still have safe hot water on demand, consider swapping out your tank water heater with a tankless model.
So instead of turning the water heater off (or turning it down and risking illness because the water isn’t hot enough to kill microorganisms), use some of these other tips and tricks to save on your utility bills.
A sump pump is an electrical device that pumps water out of your basement or crawlspace and ejects it through a drain safely away from your home.
Depending on the pump’s horsepower and how much water it has to eject from your home, operating costs typically range from $10-40 per month.
Naturally, you want to leave it plugged in all the time (and even look into a backup power solution like a small generator for times you lose power during heavy storms). If the sump pump isn’t running, the water it was previously ejecting will accumulate in your home, turning modest electric bill savings into a pricy water and mold remediation project.
HVAC Systems and Accessories
Whole house heating and cooling systems are typically hardwired, so the only option for unplugging them is to throw a breaker in your electrical panel. Most people don’t go to that extreme, they just turn off the HVAC system from the thermostat—though that’s hardly advised if the weather is warm and damp enough, or cool enough, that temperature swings will cause damage to your home.
Additionally, you don’t want to unplug anything related to your HVAC systems or general climate control, like add-on power blowers, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, or other accessories.
Maintaining the right temperature and humidity level across your home ensures not just your comfort but that the home will be less prone to mold, damage from excessive humidity or excessive dryness, and so on.
Anything That Monitors, Alerts, or Sounds the Alarm
Broadly, if a device monitors the status of something in your home, sounds the alarm for something, or both, leave it alone.
If you’re a new homeowner and there are any systems in place where you don’t know what they do or what their importance of them might be, it’s best to investigate. Sometimes a mystery plug goes to something you don’t need (like a signal booster for along disused TV antenna system). Other times, it might go to an alarm system that sounds if the sump pump backs up.
Your Modem and Router
Unplugging your internet modem and router isn’t nearly the danger to your home that turning off the sump pump is, but we still recommend against it.
The days of firing up your internet connection for use with a single computer, just for the period of time you need access, are long gone. Now tons of things in your home rely on the internet, and turning off your modem and router to save a buck a month doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Doing so takes your smart home gear offline, makes it so you can’t access your smart doorbell video feed, and requires you to turn the modem and router back on for any internet-based task. Further, any savings you might gain by shaving a few kilowatt hours off your electric bill will likely be erased by forgetting to turn the internet back on and burning up your data cap on your smartphone.
Everything Else? Unplug As Much As You Can Stand
Once you get past the mission-critical stuff, unplugging (or not) is simply a matter of your tolerance for plugging things back in when you need them.
Standby power waste is, on average, about 10% of residential power use. Unplugging things that don’t need to be plugged in at the moment greatly reduces that waste and your electric bill in the process.
So if you’re not using the charger for your power tool batteries, unplug it. Same thing for that TV in the guest room that nobody watches. Removing all those phantom loads around your home can reduce your power bill by several hundred dollars over a year.
Want the biggest return for your effort? Start with these common energy vampires, and either unplug them or put them on a smart plug.