How to pare down home energy bills
With winter's first cold snap on the way, homeowners from Salem, Mass., to Salem, Ore., are searching for ways to keep their houses warm this winter without paying a fortune on energy.Skip to next paragraph
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In New England and the Midwest, forecasters predict oil and gas heating bills will be anywhere from 15 to 70 percent higher than last winter. Even cordwood and wood-pellet fuel prices are climbing because of rising transportation costs and an increased demand for wood stoves.
"We're fielding scores of calls from consumers who are very concerned about the rising costs," says Michael Ferrante, president of the Massachusetts Oil Heat Council. "Right now we're telling consumers to expect to pay 15 to 20 percent over last year's bill. But as everybody knows, energy prices are almost impossible to predict."
So what would a 50 percent jump in heating-fuel cost mean for the bottom line? Over five chilly months from November through March, a family that paid $1,000 for heat last winter will now face bills totaling $1,500.
While no single strategy can cut energy bills in half, combining a number of options can help improve your home's efficiency. And it doesn't have to cost a fortune up front; some solutions are as cheap as a $5 tube of caulk. For example:
• Replace air filters. These generally cost less than $15 and will make your furnace considerably more efficient. Experts also recommend getting your heating system serviced at the beginning of the winter.
• Apply insulating foam, weather stripping, or caulk to seal spaces around doors and windows or any other cracks where heat can escape. Areas around air and electrical ducts and pipe entrances are also prime suspects for heat loss. A leaky home is the equivalent of having a three-foot-square window open, experts say. But beware: If you seal your home too tight and refuse to open a window once in a while, your home's air quality could suffer.
• Insulate with high-grade insulation, especially in the attic and upper floors of older homes. This step will help your house retain heat and reduce heating bills by as much as 30 percent. Though the materials are cheap, the job can get pricey if you hire someone to install it.
• Use a programmable thermostat to ensure that the heat is turned down when you are sleeping or at the office. These devices, some of which can be adjusted via the Internet, cost between $40 and $100, and can ensure that you'll never walk into a cold house.
• Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs. General Electric claims that their compact fluorescents use 70 to 75 percent less energy than normal incandescent bulbs. The cost savings over a 750 hour lifespan of a 100-watt bulb would be nearly $60 per bulb using today's electricity rates. Multiply that $60 times the number of bulbs in your home and savings start to accumulate. Want the resource implications? National Geographic reports that replacing one incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent lamp saves the equivalent of 500 pounds of coal. If you're concerned that fluorescent bulbs flicker and have an ugly glow, you're living in the past, experts say. With many of today's models, the bulbs turn on immediately and have softer tones, even if they don't look exactly like incandescents.
Some strategies won't cost you a cent, but will require a little effort. Picking up the phone and calling your utility company for an energy audit, for example. Many utilities will send a representative to your home at no cost and point out where to make improvements.
Another simple step: Washing your windows, especially those that face south, and opening curtains during the day can help maximize the solar heat your home collects. Replacing screens with storm windows as well as closing curtains and blinds at night will help retain heat.
Conservation experts also recommend lowering the thermostat at night and anytime you'll be out for more than four hours. Turning the heat down from 72 to 65 degrees for at least eight hours a day can cut heating bills by 10 percent, according to the US Department of Energy. Marginally reducing the temperature control on a hot-water heater will also have an impact over a number of months.