Over the past 15 years, I’ve performed energy audits in thousands of homes. I tell people energy efficiency shouldn’t be a hardship—in fact, it can be rewarding. Increasing your home’s energy efficiency lowers energy bills and makes your home more comfortable.
It doesn’t take much to keep your heating costs minimal, although once you get started, you may want to dig deeper. Even if you must finance them, professionally installed, major energy improvements almost guarantee you positive cash flow. For now, here’s the simple stuff you can do yourself.
1. Get smart with your “money valve.”
Your thermostat is a valve between your fuel supplier and your wallet. For every degree you turn it down, you use up to 2 percent less heating energy. A 10-degree setback overnight or while you’re at work cuts your heating bill by up to 10 percent.
2 ways to save
• A programmable thermostat saves energy without you even thinking about it. Simply adjust the settings to turn down the temperature automatically while you’re away. When programming, keep in mind that it may take as little as 15 minutes to heat your home to a comfortable level. Experiment to see how your home responds.
• “Zoned” heating systems give you temperature control in different heat “zones” throughout the house. If you install a new heating system, give yourself enough zone control to set cooler temperatures in seldom-used areas or those kept warm by the sun.
2. Insulate and seal.
An energy auditor or insulation contractor can tell you how much insulation you have in your walls, ceiling, floors and basement. As an energy auditor, I strongly advise that insulation meet or exceed the U.S. Department of Energy’s recommendations. With rising energy costs, spending what seems like a large amount of money to upgrade insulation can offer significant savings over your home’s life. Be sure you seal up air leaks before covering them with insulation.
If your budget is limited, attics are an easy place to add insulation at minimal cost, and it’s easy to do yourself. Insulating most attics to recommended levels costs $200 to $500.
3. Winterproof your windows.
If you need to replace windows, look for the most efficient units to fit your budget. Though more-efficient windows cost more, they yield greater energy and financial savings over time. Analyze the windows you have. If it’s not time to replace them, a few inexpensive repairs can improve their performance.
• Assess their condition. First, count how many glass panes (also called glazing) separate your home’s interior from the outdoors. If you have single-pane windows (a single layer of glass) or rotten sashes and frames, it’s time to think about new windows.
• Address drafts by installing sash locks and weatherstripping around the window’s perimeter. For older, double-hung windows, consider side-mounted sash locks that pull the window tight at the sides of the frame, not just where the sash rails meet.
• Remove the inside trim to see how the window unit was installed into the framing cavity. Any air space between the house shell and the window frame can cause significant air leaks and should be sealed. If the gap is not too wide, seal it with caulk, backer rod or nonexpanding foam. For windows with ropes and pulleys, buy pulley seals and caulk around trim to stop air infiltration.
• Reduce heat loss by installing storm windows, or covering windows with plastic window film or insulating window inserts. Or make simple window quilts by sandwiching a piece of Bubble Wrap between two pieces of cloth material; you can roll them up and down as needed.
4. Attend to your heating system.
A typical heating system lasts about 20 years, although some have been around much longer. If yours is more than 15 years old, it’s a good candidate for replacement—and you could increase your efficiency by as much as 35 percent. Look for the Energy Star label.
Not in the market for a completely new system? A little low-cost maintenance and some relatively inexpensive upgrades to your furnace, boiler or combination system could yield significant energy savings.
You can do a lot yourself to keep your system running smoothly.
• If you have a steam boiler and there’s noise coming from a radiator or it isn’t producing heat, you probably need to bleed trapped air from the line.
• Keep air registers, grills and radiators clean and clear. Furniture, drapes, dirt or other obstructions block heat.
• Check for soot, rust and corosion in, on and around the furnace and on the floor surrounding it. These indicate the system requires immediate service.
• If You have a furnace, clean or replace the air filter whenever you can see dust buildup, which may be once a month or more during the heating season. If the blower fan is also used for air conditioning, check the filter throughout the year.
• Inspect the furnace blower motor and fan blades when you change the air filter. Clean if needed. Only do this yourself if you’re completely sure you have shut off the electricity to the furnace. The fan is usually behind the air filter, but check your owner’s manual.
Sometimes it’s best to call in a professional. Have your system’s efficiency tested by a qualified heating contractor. Then you can talk about the need for upgrades or replacement options.
• A modest investment in duct repairs (about $300) can cut your annual heating and cooling bill by up to 17 percent (or more). A technician can test for duct leaks, which waste energy and compromise indoor air quality, then seal all seams with foil tape or mastic, or spray in a sealant. After sealing, wrap ducts with at least R-5 insulation. (R-values measure resistance to the flow of heat.)
• A professional heating contractor can improve your boiler’s efficiency by installing a time-delay relay that lets water circulate before the boiler comes on. In warmer weather, the hot water already in the boiler may be enough to heat the house.
• A pro can install adjustable radiator vents or valves on hot water or steam boilers so you can shut off heat in unused rooms.
• A pro can install a modulating aquastat on your boiler to adjust water temperature automatically based on the outside temperature.
5. Seal it up.
Air leaks are often your biggest source of heat loss—but how do you find them? You can find the most obvious ones by walking around inside with a smoking incense stick on a windy day and watching for changes in the smoke’s direction. To find hidden air leaks, hire an energy auditor. A home energy audit can cost between $100 and $500, but the expense quickly pays for itself in energy savings. Some utilities and state energy programs offer free or low-cost audits.
Different leakage areas require different repair approaches. Keep in mind that a professional will have the right tools and materials for a safe, solid repair for air leaks in places such as through-the-attic chimneys and plumbing chases. Here are some basic steps you can use as a guide:
• Caulk gaps of a half-inch or less.
• Fill larger gaps with expanding foam.
• Add weatherstripping around windows, doors and attic hatches.
• Put foam gaskets behind outlet and switch plates.
Give your heating system a professional check-up
To operate smoothly and safely, your heating system should be cleaned, tuned and adjusted annually if it’s oil; every two years if it’s gas. During this service, the technician should:
• Remove soot. On oil-heating equipment, even an eighth of an inch of soot on the heat exchanger can increase fuel consumption by 8 percent.
• Test efficiency. Nothing runs at 100 percent efficiency, but if the service technician can’t bring the efficiency up to at least 75 percent, ask about the costs and benefits of an equipment upgrade or replacement.
• Balance the supply-and-return ductwork in forced-air systems. This adjusts the airflow to and from each room for maximum efficiency.
Home heating checklist
Complete these steps to create a more efficient home.
• Open the curtains and shades on sunny days.
• Dress warmly in winter and keep the temperature low.
• Design landscaping to let sunlight enter south-facing windows in winter and provide summer shade and year-round wind blocks.
• Use a programmable thermostat to turn down the heat at night and while you’re at work or out of town.
• If you have a furnace, seal and insulate your ductwork.
• Insulate all pipes to and from the boiler.
• Use insulating window curtains or cellular shades at night to reduce heat loss.
• Install a ceiling fan to circulate warm air trapped at the ceiling, allowing you to turn down the thermostat a few degrees.
• Use plastic window film, storm windows or insulating window panels if your home has single-pane windows.
• Seal drafty areas where outside air enters the home: at doors, windows and anywhere air from the attic can penetrate the rest of the house (the chimney, plumbing chases, recessed light fixtures, exhaust fans and attic hatches).
• Hire an energy auditor to pinpoint air leakage areas that need to be sealed.
• Insulate the attic, walls and floor to recommended levels.
• Keep heat registers, radiators and baseboards clean and clear.
• Use a tight-closing fireplace chimney damper to prevent conditioned air from flowing up the chimney. Look for the Fireplace Draftstopper Fireplace Plug from Battic Door.
• If the heating system is more than 15 years old, consider replacing it with an Energy Star system.
• If you’re considering major renovations, order an energy audit to see if you can make energy-efficiency improvements at the same time. An audit can help you identify and prioritize energy improvements specific to your home.
The heat is on
• A furnace heats air with oil, natural gas, propane, electricity or biofuels. A fan pushes hot air through ductwork to distribute heat: “forced air.” Furnaces are popular because they can share a distribution system with central air conditioning. Their main drawback is their ductwork’s tendency to leak both air and heat if not properly sealed and insulated.
• A boiler distributes hot water through baseboard units, radiant heat tubes under or within a floor, or through radiators. Heat distribution is clean, quiet and easily zoned—every room can have a different thermostat. A boiler is a good option if you don’t need central air conditioning, which requires forced air.
• Combination systems use a water heater or boiler in conjunction with forced-air heat distribution. As hot water circulates through the coil, a fan blows air over it, distributing heat through ductwork. This type of forced-air system is easier to zone than a furnace.
• Electric resistance heat is created by resistance to an electric current, and it’s distributed through electric baseboards. In most parts of the country, electricity prices make this an expensive option. It can be a practical choice for a space that’s used infrequently because it is inexpensive to install and very easy to zone.
•Woodstoves, fireplace inserts and gas or kerosene room heaters are good, low-cost heating options if you have an open floor plan, live in a warm climate, or have a small or very efficient home. Most unvented space heaters, which burn fuel but don’t require a chimney, present health, safety and durability problems and should not be used.
Adapted from The Home Energy Diet: How to Save Money by Making Your House Energy Smart, a Mother Earth News “Book for Wiser Living” by New Society Publishers.
is the author of The Home Energy Diet and is an energy-efficiency consultant specializing in “deep” energy savings strategies for new and existing homes.