Use Less Energy with These 5 Fun Household Challenges

Annie Reneau

When I was a kid, reducing energy was about saving money. Now it’s about saving money and saving our planet. (No pressure, kids!)

With the recent release of the dire United Nations report highlighting the serious consequences of inaction on climate change, many of us wonder what we as individuals can do to stem the tide. While industries like transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing must make widespread changes, every individual has a role to play in reducing our carbon footprint.

In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 11 percent of greenhouse emissions come from the residential and commercial sectors, which means that how we live, work, and shop absolutely does make a difference for our planet. We can buy energy-efficient appliances, make sure our homes are well insulated, and install low-flow faucets and toilets as foundational energy savers. But our family habits and daily choices are where we can consciously and directly make a difference on an ongoing basis. And it’s not just up to adults—that includes the kids, too, says Dr. Linda Cook, who teaches environmental science classes in Washington state. “It is their job,” she says. “They have the responsibility. It’s not someone else’s job to conserve, to turn off the lights, turn off the water, choose to walk or bike or ride the bus. Those are just things you do.”

Conservation may not be a picnic, but saving energy as a family doesn’t have to be a drag, either. When you turn new habits into games and challenges, kids and adults alike can feel good about conserving resources and have fun at the same time.

Here are some fun energy-saving ideas for the whole family:

Lights Out! Scoreboard

One of the easiest ways to use less electricity is to simply turn off lights that aren’t needed. But what’s simple to do isn’t always simple to remember, especially for kids. Making it a friendly family competition can incentivize your family to pay better attention.

Make a simple scoreboard with each family member’s name placed in a central location in the house. Each time someone notices a light on in an empty room, they turn it off and give themselves a tally mark. Remembering to turn off a light when you leave a room keeps other family members from scoring, so there’s a competitive incentive to develop the habit of turning them off. Whoever has the most tally marks at the end of the month gets a prize. The goal is for the whole family’s total score to go down each month as people remember to turn lights off on their own.

Dirty Dish Drop

No, don’t literally drop your dirty dishes on the floor—this game is about dropping the number of dirty dishes your family produces each day. My household has five members who are home most of the time, so we go through a lot of dishes. If we aren’t conscientious about our dish usage, we can run the dishwasher twice or even three times a day. So, we made it our goal to run it only once daily.

One way we’re accomplishing that goal is to only use the dishwasher on things that are actually dirty. If a plate or bowl has only been used for something dry like toast or crackers, we rinse off the crumbs and voila! Clean dish.

But the biggest culprit in our household is water glasses. Theoretically we should only have five dirty water glasses at the end of the day, but without a system to keep track of whose glass is whose, we can end up with half a dishwasher full of nothing but water glasses.

That’s why we implemented a colored-coded reward system that works smashingly. We keep an open jar of colored rubber bands on the counter, and each person chooses a couple of rubber bands to put around their glass for the day. (For example, our Harry Potter-loving 10-year-old chose red and yellow—Gryffindor colors). When guests come, they pick their own combination so their glasses don’t get confused with the family’s. It’s a fun and effective system with a reward at the end: If we meet our goal of running the dishwasher just once a day for a week, we put a star on the calendar for that week. After four starred weeks in a row, we reward ourselves with an ice cream treat.

Short Shower Challenge

Each of us has different shower needs, so a straight-up contest to see who can take the shortest shower wouldn’t really be fair to those of us with long, thick hair and lots of parts to shave. However, we can all shorten our showers a bit and use less water while bathing.

Start by putting a waterproof timer in the shower. Then have each family member time their normal shower, write it down on a chart, and encourage them to compete against themselves to set new low records. (Tip to pass along to the kids: Get wet and then turn off the shower to lather up. Pause the timer during that time.)

You could make this challenge into a competition by seeing who can reduce their shower time by the greatest overall percent in one month (also a great real-world math lesson, although it’s important to make sure their competitive spirit doesn’t lead to less-than-adequate hygiene!). Or make it a cooperative game where the whole family tries to maintain the same or lower time for their showers for the whole month.

Vampire Slayer Races

Household electronics suck energy even when they aren’t turned on, resulting in what’s called “vampire” energy use. One way to painlessly reduce electrical use is to plug appliances and electronics into power strips and turn the strips off when they aren’t in use.

Turn your family into vampire slayers by putting power strips in every room and seeing who can turn off the most strips the fastest each night. Have each family member pick a room’s doorway to start in, and on the signal, have everyone turn off the strip(s) in their assigned room and then race to find a room that hasn’t been turned off yet. Alternatively, you can make it a cooperative effort by timing the whole family and seeing if you can reduce the time it takes to shut down the whole house at night or before you all leave for the day.

How Low/High Can We Go? Challenge

Many of us have become accustomed to climate-controlled environments where we’re never very hot or very cold. But this modern convenience comes at a cost, both economically and ecologically.

Every degree drop in your home’s temperature in winter and every degree rise in summer means a reduction in energy usage. During the colder weather months, challenge your family to see how low they can keep the temperature in the house. Drop it a degree each week until you all decide it’s as low as you can comfortably go. Encourage everyone to make better use of sweatshirts, scarves, and slippers. Drop the temp several degrees lower at night and throw on an extra blanket or two.

During the summer months (or if you live someplace warm year-round), see how high you can go with the thermostat to reduce your air conditioner use. If you live someplace with cooler evening and overnight temps, use fans to blow air in at night and close up curtains during the hottest part of the day. If you live someplace hot and dry, consider installing an evaporative cooler (also known as a swamp cooler) in lieu of air conditioning, as they use a lot less energy. If your family can meet their goal for the whole season, plan a big reward that everyone can enjoy together—like a day trip out to somewhere fun and local.

By making energy efficiency a fun family endeavor while also educating kids on why it’s important, we can help our children enjoy environmentalism, encourage them to become good stewards for our planet, and save our hard-earned pennies, all at the same time.