How to lower your winter heating costs
As the weather cools down, heating bills are on the rise. But some of us are paying more than we need to.
Turn it down
Most homeowners could save up to 15 percent on their heating costs just by lowering the temperature of their homes when they’re gone, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Let’s assume you keep you home at 70 degrees and never change the thermostat. Your heat level remains steady, but you’re heating a home that’s empty when you're away for a number of hours. By simply lowering the setting to 60 degrees while you’re at work or school, you will save 10 percent on your heating bill.
You can manually change the heat setting every day as you walk out the door, or you could install a programmable thermostat to do it automatically. Most programmable thermostats cost from $30 to $75.
One of the most common ways to pay more than you need to for heating is inadequate insulation. Art Tompkins, an energy efficiency auditor with Infrared Technologies in Greenfield, Ind., uses an infrared camera to find hot and cold spots in a home.
“A lot of customers have inadequate insulation in their walls and in the attic, especially in older homes,” Tompkins says. “If you talk to the insulating guys, they usually recommend about 14 inches of insulation in the attic, which gives you about an R-38 (value). A lot of old homes built in the 1920s and '30s may not have any insulation in the walls. That’s where the infrared camera comes in handy.”
Electric portable heaters
Space heaters can be effective in heating a room, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A 500-watt heater can operate for an hour on about 2 cents’ worth of electricity. Another benefit of an electric heater is it provides direct, intense heat without losing air due to combustion, as a fireplace does.
When everyone is home and in a separate room, an electric heater won’t help. But if you're home alone, or one or two of you plan to spend time in only one room, lower the thermostat to the furnace and turn on the heater.
Windows and doors
Tompkins says he often sees heated air being lost through inefficient windows and doors, especially in older homes.
Replacing windows and doors can be costly and takes a long time to recover the investment. Putting in weather stripping around doors and caulking windows can be an effective, low-cost remedy.
Seal those leaks
Another way homeowners add to their heating bills is by ignoring air leaks in electrical outlets and light switches on exterior walls. Most hardware stores sell foam insulation pads that can be easily inserted behind the faceplates. They’re inexpensive and will help improve your home’s comfort and efficiency.
Dan Welklin, with Precision Comfort Systems Inc. in Westfield, Ind., recommends homeowners with heating ducts in a crawlspace have the crawlspace vents closed and sealed for the cold weather season. If the ductwork is in the attic, it needs to be well-insulated.
“Some people will see a black plastic insulation wrapping their duct system,” Welkin says. “That is only one inch of insulation, and it’s not enough. Additional insulation should be laid over those ducts if possible.”
Keep your furnace happy
Homeowners concerned about the condition of their furnace should have it evaluated by a reputable heating and ventilation company to ensure it’s working properly and to determine it efficiency as well as whether it’s adequately sized for your home. Too often, homeowners wait until the unit is on its last legs before having it checked out.
More often than not, routine maintenance will keep a unit running well for many years.
A more efficient heating system?
“There are some instances, though, where the person should consider a new heating system immediately,” Welkin says. “That would be people who are heating with (propane gas) or oil. Neither of those fuels is cost-effective right now. Those customers should look for a different fuel, for example, a geothermal heat pump.
"A lot of people consider geothermal too expensive,but there are two very important things that help with that situation. There’s a 30 percent federal tax credit. So, a geothermal system that normally costs $17,000 is down to $12,000. The (other) is the monthly savings. LP gas customers are spending about $3,000 a year to heat a home. We can bring that down to about $700 (with a geothermal system).
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 17, 2012.