The predictions on the evening news were scary. Home heating costs expected to be 20% higher this year – or 30% – or even 77% – depending on whom you were listening to and where you live. Thank goodness the winter here in (notoriously cold) upstate New York, as in most parts of the country, was much gentler than usual. My actual natural gas usage as of the end of January was about 30% below last year’s (besides the abnormally mild weather, I re-insulated the attic and finally figured out how to program my fancy new thermostat to automatically lower the nighttime temperature setting). Even so, my home heating costs were up 20%! I know a lot of people who were hit much harder. Thanks a lot, Katrina.
I also have a two-year-old high-efficiency furnace. That and the other steps I took look like they paid off – I have a friend with a home about the same size as mine – she’s been having to pay over $100 a month more than I have.
That’s plenty of incentive to keep thinking about how to reduce energy costs. We still have some cool months ahead, and next winter will be here soon enough. So, rather than selling the family jewels, let’s just run though a brief checklist of things we can do to save energy. A place to start is with a home energy use audit.
How hot is hot enough? Most experts recommend a temperature of 140 degrees, as measured at the tap. Lower than that may encourage bacterial growth, which can be a health problem. Higher temperatures aren’t necessary, and too high can lead to serious burns.
Electric water heaters can be insulated with thermal blankets to reduce ambient heat loss. (Not recommended for gas or oil heaters). If you live in a hard-water area, it may be prudent to clean out the bottom of the water heater to remove scale.
How old is it? The typical system lasts about 25 years. If yours is near this age, it might be wise to consider changing to a high-efficiency system. Older furnaces may be 50-65 % efficient; a new furnace may be 90% or higher. If you live in a cold area, your fuel savings may be several hundred dollars a year, and your new furnace will pay for itself with fuel savings in about five years.
Has your system been tuned up this year? Gas furnaces should be serviced every two years, oil furnaces every year, and heat pumps every three years. And by the way, have you changed your furnace filter recently?
Are you heating rooms that aren’t being used? Closing off unused rooms and shutting the vents will save considerable money over the season.
Check to see that your heat vents aren’t blocked.
If the snow melts off your roof faster than your neighbor’s roof, you may benefit from adding additional insulation to your attic. Your local building supply store can help you figure out how much insulation to add. This can be in batts of rolled fiberglass or loose cellulose blown in.
Windows and Doors
Check for places around your home that seem to be drafty. Do your windows and doors close securely? Caulking and weather stripping are low-cost easy fixes that can keep your heat inside.
Double-pane windows and storm windows break the wind, save energy, and make your inner spaces more comfortable. If you can’t afford to replace those leaky or single-pane windows, the shrink-plastic system really does work – almost as well as “the real thing” – the materials will cost you only $20-30, and an evening’s effort will show immediately on next month’s bill.
If you don’t have a programmable thermostat, one can be added to most systems for less than $100. Turning down the heat at night, and during the day if you are not at home, can save 1-2% for every degree it has been lowered for four hours or more.
Recommended energy-efficient winter settings are 68 degrees in the daytime and 55 degrees at night. (Put on your cozy jammies, and bring out the extra blankets and comforters!) My “do-everything-right” sister does that. I must admit, though, that’s too cool for me. After I programmed my thermostat for 64 degrees at night, though, I still saw a drop of about 3% (about $10 worth) in my energy use.
According to the AC Doctor, “A common misconception associated with thermostats is that a furnace works harder than normal to warm the space back to a comfortable temperature after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings. This misconception has been dispelled by years of research and numerous studies. The fuel required to reheat a building to a comfortable temperature is roughly equal to the fuel saved as the building drops to the lower temperature. You save fuel between the time that the temperature stabilizes at the lower level and the next time heat is needed. So the longer your house remains at the lower temperature, the more energy you save.”
Close the damper when not in use. As much as 8% of your home’s heat can disappear up the chimney!
Showering uses less water than tub baths.
Leaking faucets waste both water and the energy to heat it. Rinsing dishes under a running faucet uses more water and energy than rinsing in a separate sink or dishpan. Wash clothes in cold or warm water instead of hot, and run full loads in your clothes washer and dishwasher.
These are just a few ways to cut winter energy costs, and some of these tips are good year-round. We can’t control what Old Man Winter dishes out (or Gulf Coast hurricanes!), and we have little say in what we must pay for energy; however, we can make wise energy choices regarding consumption to help both our pocketbooks and the environment.
– Nancy Thomas (Your Marketing Department)
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