Winter Tips for Staying Warm without Hurting Your Wallet

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Winter officially begins Sunday but as the temperature continues to drop and we crank up the heat to stay warm, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of our wallets, comfort, or the environment.

Staying warm and cutting expensive energy waste at home can be done through a number of relatively simple and easy fixes, but home heating begins with the furnace. With about 40 percent of all our residential energy use going toward heating, the furnace has a big impact on household energy bills.

Unfortunately, the current minimum energy-saving standard for natural gas furnaces that heat more than 44 million U.S. homes has remained essentially unchanged since 1987, despite vast improvements in technology.

However, a long-awaited energy efficiency standard for natural gas furnaces—the most common type keeping America’s households warm—is expected to be proposed in the New Year after being hung up in court challenges. That’s good news for battling high heating bills as well as climate change because burning natural gas creates emissions that contribute to it.

But you don’t have to wait for a new standard to reap the benefits of great furnace efficiency. Some manufacturers now offer new models that achieve up to 98 percent efficiency, meaning that nearly all the gas burned in the furnace is converted into useful heat. Look for ENERGY STAR®-certified furnaces that meet strict energy efficiency guidelines.

Meanwhile, another type of efficiency standard related to home heating was finalized this year that will help lower consumer bills. It will make furnace fans, an often-overlooked energy hog that pushes the warm air from the furnace into our homes, 40 percent more efficient, saving homeowners as much as $500 over the fan’s lifetime! Cutting their energy consumption also means we don’t need to burn as many fossil fuels to generate electricity to run them while creating dangerous pollution that harms our health and the environment.

As the winter chill sets in, here are some other easy and cost-effective ways to use energy smarter use, save money, and help save the earth, too.

1. Check the furnace filter monthly. If it looks dirty, replace it. A dirty filter slows airflow, makes the system work harder, and wastes energy.

2. Invest in a programmable thermostat that will turn the heat down when no one is home, and turn it back up at a pre-determined time. It costs $100 or less, and will pay for itself quickly since it can cut energy consumption by 20 to 30 percent. Learn more here.

3. Regulate humidity. Higher humidity makes a room feel warmer. Room temperature of 70 degrees with 10 percent humidity feels like 64 degrees, but with 80 percent humidity, it feels like 71 degrees. Use a humidifier to fight dry air, use less heat, and still feel warm. Don’t go overboard: dust mites, mold, and mildew thrive in humidity. Use an indoor humidity gauge, and keep the range between 30 percent and 40 percent. Follow the humidifier’s cleaning instructions to deter mold and bacteria growth. Learn more in our Furnace Q and A.

4. Seal and insulate around windows. Up to one-third of home heat loss goes through windows and doors. You don’t have to replace windows if you seal and insulate around them, then add heavier drapes. If replacing windows, look for National Fenestration Rating Council-rated units. The U-factor measures how much heat can escape. The solar-heat gain coefficient rating measures how much solar heat is transmitted through a window. Find more information at Energy Out The Window?

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5. Fix big air leaks in your house and duct system. Cutting heat loss may mean you can buy a smaller new furnace, too. Seal drafts with caulk or putty. Add weather-stripping around the edges of doors. Attic insulation can be installed in a few hours with batts or rolls. Insulate heating ducts. Winter is a good time for an energy audit. Our Stay Warm page has more great tips.

6. Reduce the water heater temperature from 140 to 120 degrees to save money and energy. Lower the setting even more when you are going to be away. If you have gas heat, look at ENERGY STAR-rated appliances when you buy a new water heater. They can trim energy use by 50 percent. The ENERGY STAR site lists more options, including whole-home tankless heaters and heat-pumps. More ideas are available at NRDC’s Smarter Living page.

Taking some of these simple steps will help make sure you’re not left out in the cold—or throwing away cold cash—when it comes to keeping warm this winter.