Smarter Living: Energy

As the temperature drops, it's time to prepare for winter heating bills. Heating accounts for a whopping 28 percent of the average home's energy use. Before you turn up the thermostat this winter, take a few simple steps to weatherize your home. A poorly insulated, drafty house can cost you plenty. But a little bit of caulk, insulation and ingenuity can save money by immediately reducing your energy bill.

Energy audit

Older homes can harbor lots of areas that let cold air in: dropped ceilings, attic access hatches, chimneys and plumbing. If you really want to reduce your energy bill, hire a professional to assess where your home may be letting heat escape. Energy auditors use sophisticated equipment, including infrared cameras, to locate air leaks and areas with inadequate insulation. Your utility company may provide basic energy audits for free. You can also get guidance from Home Performance with Energy Star, a national program from the EPA and Department of Energy, or the directory of the Residential Energy Services Network.

Water heater

Insulating your water heater is an easy do-it-yourself project that should offer an immediate payoff in lower energy bills. Particularly if your unit is in an unheated part of the house, a fitted water heater blanket can pay for itself quickly. Also insulate at least the first 6 to 10 feet of hot water supply pipe with pipe insulation, available at any hardware store. And then set your hot water heater to 120 degrees.

Sealing and insulating

Take matters into your own hands by checking for drafts and sealing them with caulk or putty. Expanding foam sealant can be used to fill larger areas that are protected from moisture and sunlight. Add weather stripping around the edges of doors, and seal any cracks or gaps around windows, light fixtures and plumbing.

Adding insulation to your attic can be accomplished in in a few hours if you use batts or rolls. Be careful not to cover or block attic vents; you want the attic itself to remain cool. Proper insulation and air sealing keep attics cold in winter by blocking the entry of heat and moist air from below. And adequate ventilation in your house is necessary for your family's health.

If you can feel drafts through electrical outlets, your walls are poorly insulated. Adding insulation to walls is a little more trouble and is usally best accomplished by a professional with equipment to blow insulation between walls. But the savings may make it worthwhile. Be sure to insulate heating ducts. If ducts are long or poorly insulated, warmed air can cool as it travels through the ducts.

Programmable thermostat

A programmable thermostat costs about $100, but it can save money year round, cutting your heating and cooling costs by 20 to 30 percent. Program the thermostat to heat your house when you're home and lower the temperature when you're away or asleep.

Windows

Older single-pane windows allow heat to escape rapidly. Replacing them with double-pane windows that exceed Energy Star specifications can reduce your energy bill significantly. The U-factor, listed on the National Fenestration Council label, reflects the insulation ability of the entire window, not just the glass. The recommended U-factor depends on where you live. In cold northern areas, look for a U-factor of .24 or lower. If you're renting or can't replace your windows this year, you can apply low-emissive (low-E) film over the windows for the winter months to stop heat loss.

Leave shades and blinds open on sunny days, and close them at night to reduce the amount of heat lost through windows.

Furnace

If your furnace or boiler is more than 20 years old, replacing it with a high-efficiency model may be a smart investment. If you have an old gas furnace with a pilot light or a coal burner that was switched over to oil or gas, consider replacing it. Take into account the long-term operating costs of new equipment, not just the sticker price. Better and more efficient equipment can pay for itself. For more information, check the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy Web site.

Before you invest in a new heating system, air conditioner or furnace, make sure that you've fixed any big air leaks in your house and duct system. You may be able to purchase a smaller unit once you've minimized heat loss. An experienced contractor or a home energy rater can help make the most of any new equipment. Getting the correct size and installing it properly can reduce your bills considerably.

Learn More

Cold Weather Planning: Seven Steps to a Warmer Home

CO2 Smackdown: How to Lose 10 Tons of CO2 in 12 Cash-Saving Steps

last revised 11/16/2011

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