Cut Your Heating Bill

Ten ways to decrease your energy costs this winter.

Cozy fireplace

Aside from saving on your gas or electric bill, fireplaces provide a soothing ambience during winter.

iStockphoto.com/Kevin Brown

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Even though fuel and electric costs continue to rise, you can minimize the hit to your pocketbook this winter. From replacing your outdated HVAC system to simple sealing solutions, here are some energy saving techniques for every budget.

1.  Heating and cooling uses about half the energy in an average home. If your HVAC system is 10 to 15 years old, consider replacing it with a more energy-efficient model. And if you have the spare cash or can roll the cost into the financing of a new home or remodel, consider a geothermal heat pump. Geothermal (also known as ground source) heat pumps provide a way to heat and cool the home with minimal electricity because they use the subterranean earth as a heat source in winter and a heat sink in summer. These systems involve running fluid-filled tubes (or pipes) underground and add to the overall cost of an HVAC installation, but the added expense is quickly recovered in most cases. Geothermal systems save the average homeowner at least 30 percent a year in utility costs, according to Garth Gibson, territory manager for WaterFurnace International.

2.  Free heat from the sun. Many folks associate solar energy with high-cost photovoltaic systems, but passive solar design takes advantage of the sun’s energy through a home’s structure, site placement and thermal mass.

Leigh Seddon, vice president of engineering at Solar Works Inc., in Montpelier, Vermont, says the first thing homebuilders should consider is the orientation of the home. The long axis of the house should face south and have many windows designed to take in the warmth of the sun on winter days. “You can reduce energy consumption by up to 30 percent by building a passive solar home,” Seddon says.

What do you do if you aren’t building a new house? You can open blinds or curtains when the sun shines through the window and close them when it doesn’t. You also might consider pruning trees or shrubbery to give the sun a clear path to south-, east- and west-facing windows. Houses that weren’t designed to take advantage of southern exposure also can benefit from a well-placed sunroom on the home’s south side that will passively capture plenty of natural heat in winter.

3.  Insulate, insulate, insulate. Most folks know that insulation in the walls is important for keeping a stable temperature, but in winter, it’s the insulation over your head that is often matters most. Check the attic for sufficient insulation and add a layer if it is old and compressed or virtually nonexistent. You can add a vapor barrier, too, which will make it more effective by keeping the insulation dry. If your place has a crawl space, make sure there is a vapor barrier on the ground and insulation between the floor joists.

Green builder and consultant Carl Seville, of Seville Consulting in Atlanta, notes that standard fiberglass insulation can be problematic, as it’s more prone to gaps and compressions. He recommends spray foam insulation. Ceilings are particularly vulnerable. “One of the best solutions I’ve seen is to use spray foam insulation on the underside of the roof deck, creating an insulated and sealed attic,” he says.

If you’re planning an addition or building a new home, consider leaving more room for insulation in the framing. Conventional fiberglass batting can do the job, particularly if one can increase a home’s insulating capacity by using 2-by-6 studs instead of the usual 2-by-4 for framing. Rooms with cathedral ceilings can be big energy wasters, too. Low ceilings with insulated attic spaces are best.

4.  Solar electric and wind power. As electric costs rise, homeowners have become interested again in photovoltaic and wind generation systems. Although these options are expensive, these electricity-generating systems allow people to generate some of their own power, and often they can sell excess power back to the electric company. But unless you live in a state with significant financial incentives for installing PV or wind systems, or you live far away from the grid, they are unlikely to pay for themselves in less than 20-plus years. Right now, PV and wind systems might not be cost effective but that is likely to change as energy prices continue to rise.

5.  Little leaks lead to big loss. It doesn’t make much sense to worry about cost-effective ways to heat your home if you haven’t done all you can do to hang on to that heat. Inspect all your doors and windows for cracks, worn-out weather stripping and other leaks. Cover particularly leaky windows with a layer of heat-shrink plastic. You might not like the way it looks, but it will prevent air infiltration and add another insulating air layer, much like a storm window. If you can feel drafts around the window or door moldings (and around electrical outlets and receptacles), apply caulking, spray foam or outlet seals to seal them. Consider adding storm doors and windows if your house isn’t already so equipped.

If you have a fireplace, use it as little as you can or install an insert or stove. When you aren’t burning, make sure dampers and doors are closed. If your fireplace is used as an accent nook, stuff some fiberglass batting up into the flue for a better seal. Just remember to remove it when you decide to light that romantic mid-winter fire, or it won’t be very romantic.

6.  Curtains and shades. Once you seal your windows and doors, you can reduce infrared (radiated) loss through the glass and reduce drafts with heavy curtains or shades. Close them when the sun isn’t shining. Open them to let in the light and the sun’s warming rays.

7.  Update with energy-efficient doors and windows. Purchasing replacement energy-efficient windows can be a big expense, but it can save you hundreds of dollars in utility costs a year to replace old, leaky windows and doors. The type of glass you choose makes a big difference. Look for windows with a low-emissivity (low-E) coating, which will reduce the heat radiation of glass as well as block ultraviolet and infrared light. While low-E products typically prevent the transfer of cold indoors, many window manufacturers now also offer low-E2 glass, which protects against heat as well as cold.

Since a window is mostly glass, it’s important to look at whether it’s double- or triple-paned and whether it uses inert energy-saving gases between the panes.

A lower cost option is purchasing low-E storm windows.

8. Check, clean, and/or replace the air filters in your heating and cooling equipment at least once a month. Dirty filters can substantially cut down on the unit’s efficiency.

9.  Seal leaky duct seams. Also, make sure to schedule a service check on your furnace before the beginning of the winter season to ensure it’s working efficiently.

10.  Invest in a programmable thermostat that will automatically adjust the temperature of your home when you’re away or sleeping. At the very least, keep the thermostat at 70 degrees or lower in winter and layer your clothing. A 1-degree decrease in temperature can save 2 percent on your heating bill. Consider turning down the thermostat even more, to between 65 and 55 degrees, when sleeping.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer living on a 50-acre farm near Blue Grass, Virginia. She is contributing editor for Blue Ridge Country. Visit her on the Web at  www.DRHuso.com .