It's getting cold out in most regions of the United States. That means it's time to turn on the heat.
This fall and winter you should try staying warm without also having a hot energy bill.
Excuse the pun, but there are some sure-fire ways you can save energy while maintaining your comfort, no matter how old your home is.
The average American household spends over $500 a year on heating, but this doesn't have to be the case. By paying attention to your building's envelope, your heating system, and your behavior, you'll be well on your way to saving dollars and carbon.
Sealing the envelope
Your home's envelope (the walls, windows, doors, foundation, roof, attic, etc.) matters a lot when it comes to heating.
Leaky envelopes mean cold outside air can easily seep inside and hot inside air can seep outside. Warming this inflow of cold air can account for 25 to 40 percent of the load on your heating system.
To improve your envelope, try:
Discovering where your leaks are. A professional can administer a "blower door test" to find out where envelope leaks originate. For an inexpensive option, try holding incense near places where different materials meet, such as window frames and where the walls meet the floor. Watch where the smoke disappears to find gaps.
Caulking and weather-stripping cracks and holes. These materials can be found at any hardware store, and a store expert can guide you to the best materials for your needs.
Plastic-wrapping your windows. Not the kind that covers your leftovers, but a shrink-wrap version that stretches over window glass and frames to seal warm air in and cold air out.
Using door snakes. Less scary than they sound, door snakes can block air from traveling under your doorjambs. Try the traditional fabric-filled kind or rubber versions sold in hardware stores throughout the country.
For more information, check out RMI's Home Energy Brief No. 1: Building Envelope (PDF) or the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) website.
Looking to make bigger changes? Consider:
Replacing your windows. New energy-efficient windows sport higher levels of insulation.
If replacing windows is too expensive, consider storm windows. According to EERE, interior or exterior storm windows can reduce the heat loss through your existing windows by 25 to 50 percent.
Adding more insulation to your envelope. See how one of my employees upgraded her old Victorian house to be 311 percent more efficient with the help of insulation.
Enhancing your heating system
In addition to these measures, you can improve the efficiency of your heating system by:
- Insulating heating ducts. This keeps air warm and minimizes leaks while transferring air from your furnace to your rooms.
- Keeping your systems maintained regularly. When your air filters are replaced consistently, air can flow more freely. Plus, an expert can ensure your system is working at its optimum performance.
- Unblocking vents. Help the warm air travel throughout your house. Don't block air vents with furniture or drapes; doing so traps the air and doesn't let it circulate.
- If your furnace is older than 10 to 15 years or your boiler is older than 20 years, then a new heating system will be at least 30 percent more efficient and will pay for itself in 5 to 10 years. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has detailed information to help you determine if you should replace your furnace or boiler and, if so, the council can help you find a good contractor, size your heating system, and calculate your return on investment.
Changing your behavior
Some of the most substantial energy savings can come from small habit adjustments like:
- Consciously setting your thermostat. Would you be comfortable if it were three degrees cooler? By paying attention to your set points, you can save up to $180 a year. If this seems tedious, consider a programmable thermostat. EnergyStar offers a calculator that estimates savings.
- It may seem obvious, but keep your windows and doors closed when it's cold outside.
- Layering! Though we can't grow a thicker coat of fur, we can wear layers of clothing, and add to or take layers off to suit our needs. This method of "adaptive thermal comfort" is easy to do, and lets you get more use of all those clothes in your closet.
We can use less energy and still get the warmth we desire.
Small improvements in efficiency and behavior will enable us all to enjoy more warmth for less money this season.
Allison Rutter is an analyst with Rocky Mountain Institute's Built Environment Team, BET.
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