Simple Strategies for Reducing Your Work-From-Home Energy Footprint

As we dive into this fall semester, many things are different than usual. The Diag is less crowded, the libraries seem deserted, and classrooms are largely left empty as COVID-19 continues to push us towards a new normal. But what do all these changes have in common?They all have to do with students and faculty spending more time at home. 

Whether you’re in the dorms, an apartment, or renting a house, your living space is now doubling as a classroom or office, and as a consequence, home energy use has been skyrocketing since March. With full understanding that climate change and the Covid pandemic are co-occurring crises (for more on this, check out this article), we must find ways to adjust to our new work-life realities in sustainable ways, which means implementing daily habits and practices that reduce your carbon footprint through changes in energy use. 

But, I’m just a student! You say. But, I rent my home! And, I can’t afford the extra guac at Chipotle, let alone some fancy appliances! Not to worry, friends; there is a solution for you, and it just might be in the list below (so read it all the way through – you might be surprised!).

  1. Be mindful of how you use your fridge
Woman in front of refrigerator
Keep your fridge door shut as much as possible!

Believe it or not, your fridge kind of “breathes” (creepy). That means in order to maintain a cold interior, your refrigerator must work to push out the warm air. This usually occurs through the back and top of the fridge, and you can prove this to yourself by putting a hand on the top or back of your refrigerator and feeling how warm it is! When the outlets for warm air output get cramped – by pushing the fridge too close to the wall, for instance, or putting food or other storage on the top – much more energy is required to push that air out and maintain a chilly interior. So, make sure your fridge is a few inches away from any wall, and don’t use the top as storage (as tempting as it may be).

Another tip for fridge efficiency is to make sure you let hot food cool off before placing it in the fridge or freezer, otherwise the heat given off from the food will increase the temperature of the fridge and make it work overtime to compensate. Additionally, having a lot of empty space in the fridge allows warm air to circulate, so a full, correctly organized fridge is more efficient than an empty one. In other words, treat your fridge the way you would treat a sleep-deprived student during exam season: give it lots of space, fill it with food, and don’t try to make it work any harder than it has to. 

  1. Enroll in MIGreenPower
North Campus Solar Panels
DTE solar panels on U-M’s North Campus.

If you live off-campus and DTE is your energy provider, you have the option to have a portion of your home’s energy come from renewable sources! It is difficult to overstate how important it is to transition to cleaner energy sources in this time of increased residential energy use. As an intern at DTE this summer, I gained a lot of insight into how, during this period of quarantine and work-from-home, we are using way more energy for lighting, air conditioning, charging our phones and laptops for Zoom calls, and powering our stoves and microwaves for cooking. This all adds up, but you can help decrease your impact by investing in renewable energy. MIGreenPower (MIGP) is one of the largest voluntary renewable programs in the country, and it allows DTE Electric customers to attribute their energy use to wind and solar power. All DTE customers automatically receive 12.5% of their energy from renewables, but using MIGP, you can increase that up to 100% without any exterior modifications to your house or apartment. Additionally, there is no contract required, so you can modify or cancel your enrollment at any time. Besides the flexibility of the program, it is also surprisingly affordable. Your bill change is based on the size of your home and the percentage of renewables you choose. For example, my parents are paying $10 more per month for a 75% enrollment. Split that amongst your housemates, and you could pay less than $2 more per month to drastically cut down your carbon footprint. 

  1. Be cool about laundry
clothes drying rack
You can often find drying racks second hand.

You can save a LOT of energy by washing your clothes using the “cold” cycle. Not only does hot water encourage stains to set, but it also takes more energy to heat the water. Also, if you have smaller loads, consider combining loads with your roommates.

For dryers, it takes the same amount of energy for one cycle regardless of load size, so increase efficiency by opting for larger loads. Even better, you can air-dry larger items with a drying rack, or get creative and hang them on a stair rail, from the ceiling with some string and clothespins, or hang your clothes out your car window and drive really fast (on second thought, scratch that last one). And, don’t forget to wash your mask! Use a garment bag if you have one so your mask doesn’t fall apart or get caught in the machine.

  1. Insulate your windows 

No, I’m not asking you to go HGTV-core and remodel your rented home in the name of planetary salvation. I am, however, pointing out that a lot of energy loss is through cold or hot air escaping through windows. If you have central air, keep your doors and windows shut as often as possible during the warmer months (although they are few here in the Mitten state). And, when we come to those characteristically cold winter months, you can purchase plastic film to seal over your windows to keep cold air out and warm, snuggly air inside where it belongs. It does take a while to do properly, but the energy and money you’ll save by insulating your windows is more than worth the effort. 


So, there you have it, friends! This is just a short list to get your gears turning about how you can start to take accountability for your energy consumption and act according to your values. If you have any more ideas, or any questions about what is listed above, drop them in the comments or send me an email at jacsprys@umich.edu. I get jazzed about energy, and hope you will, too. But, before you sprint off to pull your bread and empty bottles from the top of your fridge, remember that your individual actions do matter (more on that here), and you have the power to make this energy-heavy semester a sustainable one, too. 


What is one thing you can do this week to make this your most energy-efficient, low-carbon semester?

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