How to cut your winter energy spending (without sacrificing safety or comfort)

heating-repair-springfield-mo - Saving money on your heating bill

These Smart strategies this winter could save you big bucks.

Colder weather means that people need to keep warm. The trick is to do so both safely and economically.

Tempting low-cost ways to offset high heating bills, like using portable space heaters, is a risky approach. While an estimated 54,500 fires destroy homes in the US each year, one-third of all home fires happen between January and February. These devastating fires cause an average of 190 deaths every year. Dangerous portable space heaters contribute to this loss. In all, property loss comes to around $286 million yearly.

Colder weather means rising heating bills for most people. Temperature controls, both heating and air conditioning, make up 56% of the average American home energy usage, says the US Department of Energy. Again, the trick is to maximize benefit and minimize loss.

If you could see the energy lost from your home through inadequate insulation and sealing, you would be horrified. Energy in the form of heated or cooled air gushes out of most homes like a flood of lost money.
Most people have no idea how much money they lose unnecessarily, because they never took the time to prepare their home for cold weather. There are simple ways that you can reduce your winter heating bills and keep yourself, your family and your home safe. Unless you don’t mind paying more than you need to, follow these simple steps to keep your cold-weather expenses to a minimum.

Insulate, insulate, insulate

Proper insulation is your single best way to save money all year round. It keeps in heat in the winter and cool air in the summer, and helps you maintain comfortable temperatures in the most efficient way possible.

Start by checking out your attic. First, examine all ductwork, plumbing and cable TV penetrations. Anything that comes in or goes out must be properly sealed. Ducts are notorious energy-wasters: a leaky connection can be responsible for 10% – 30% of your total heating and cooling expenses.

Once you’ve sealed all points in and out, the next item to look at is insulation. Make sure your attic insulation is up to code, and you will see your heating bills fall. Different geographic regions have different requirements for home insulation. Take a look at the Department of Energy’s ZIP Code Insulation Calculator for the amount of insulation necessary for your location. Instead of automatically gong with fiberglass, consider alternative insulation materials. Chopped cellulose is an environmentally-friendly “green” choice. It is chemically treated to be fire-resistant, it repels insects and it doesn’t compact the way fiberglass can.

Next, as you leave your attic, take a look at your attic access door. Most of them close with a poor fit that leaks energy. Building an insulation dam around the opening and adding an insulated door will add up to big savings.

The cost of bringing your attic up to code could run between $500 – $1,000, but will save you 20% – 30% off each monthly bill. You can expect to recover your investment in just one year.

Scalding hot is too hot

Most of us have the temperature of our water heaters set too high. The default factory settings are often as high as 140 degrees – scalding hot. If you can’t stand under your shower with the dial set to the hottest temperature, you’re just wasting money.

Reducing the settings to 120 degrees can lead to significant savings on your heating bills. Water heater use is responsible for up to a quarter of the average monthly energy bill. Adjusting the settings down to a comfortable level is a smart move.

You can slash your bills even more by paying attention to the amount of water you use. Low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators can reduce water use and save money. Don’t forget to think about insulation when it comes to your water pipes, too. Wrapping the pipes and jacketing the heater will also trim your bill. To really be clever, you can install a timer, and maximize your use of power at less-expensive, off-peak times. And, if you want the greatest possible savings, switch over to an on-demand tankless water system, the ultimate in energy savings.

Upgrade your windows

Single-pane windows cause more energy-loss than anything else in the home, and the more windows you have, the more you will spend heating and cooling your home – unless you upgrade to energy-efficient models. In the winter, single-pane windows lose more heat than they capture, even with plenty of sunlight. And in the summer, uninsulated windows leak your air-conditioned cool air out, making your cooling unit work harder and costing you more.

Installing double-pane thermal windows will definitely save you money. These energy-efficient windows use air as an insulator, and will keep your home snug and tight. For a cost of about $150 per window, you can save 20%, maybe even as much as 30%, off your heating bills.

Install doors on your fireplace

One of the biggest energy drains in your home is obvious – your chimney. This huge opening lets lots of hot air out. In fact, when you enjoy a fire in the fireplace during the winter, you’re actually losing more heat out the chimney than the fire produces. Even when you’re not using the fireplace and the flue is closed, hot air is pouring out and cold air is rushing in. Just reach up inside the chimney and feel the draft.

This doesn’t mean that you should seal off your fireplace and chimney. Although it’s expensive to replace your flue, there’s an easier solution to this energy waster. Simply install a well-made, closely-fitted glass fireplace door, and you will reduce your energy loss significantly. When you are enjoying a fire with the doors open, you can recapture some of the lost heat by using a heat exchanger, insert or reflector in your fireplace. And woodstoves are a charming but very effective way to bring in more heat at a low cost.

Glass fireplace doors vary in price, but you should expect to spend between $300 – $500. Woodstoves can run around $700 – $1,200, and inserts a bit more.

Space Heaters

Portable space heaters are the single most dangerous item to have in your home. They cause up to 57,300 fires and lead to 270 deaths each year. Especially dangerous are those units whose heating elements are exposed. If you can see and touch the heating element, if there are exposed hot coils, than the unit is a fire hazard. Avoid these if at all possible. If you absolutely must use one, be sure to keep it away from the wall and away from anything flammable such as curtains, clothing or towels. A much safer choice is to use quartz or oil-filled space heaters, which look like radiators and do not have exposed hot elements.

Air Flow Matters

If you have ceiling fans, they’re not just decorative – they can help your energy efficiency. In the winter, reverse those fans, to push the rising hot air back down where it does you some good. Also, you can save energy by closing off vents and doors to rooms that you don’t use often.

Switch to Energy-Efficient Lighting

Beginning with the lights you use most often, switch your old incandescent bulbs for compact florescent bulbs. They use 75% less energy and can save you up to 40% in your energy costs over the lifetime of the bulb. And they last much, much longer than incandescent bulbs – even better for those ceiling lights! And, believe it or not, the light from compact florescent bulbs can be warm and flattering. They come in more varieties, colors – that is, degrees of warmth – and styles than ever before.

Let Technology Trim Your Bills

Take advantage of the easiest way to keep track of and adjust your energy use: download an energy monitoring app. These new desktop applications can help you review your energy use as it happens, from your home computer or mobile device. With real-time readings on your phone or tablet, you can spot and correct any adjustments that will help save money.

Don’t miss out on rebates

There are many incentives and rebates available that promote energy efficiency. Federal and state tax rebates can offset the costs of making your home more efficient. Also, don’t forget about Energy Star appliance upgrade rebates.

If you take the time to examine your home and correct energy leaks, you can save significantly on your home heating bills this winter. To make sure that you don’t miss a thing, consider having a home energy audit performed by a professional.