EarthTalk: How to stay warm and solvent this winter

Tips on cutting your home-heating bill.

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    Siblings Jackson (left) and Samantha Pelger watch snow fall from inside their home in Missoula, Mont.
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Q: Where I live, this winter is shaping up to be one of the coldest in recent memory. What can I do to reduce my home heating bill now and in the future?
Eric Lenz, Seattle

A: Whether global warming is somehow to blame or not, much of the United States is getting walloped this winter. Earlier this month, the Seattle area had its most significant and lingering snowfall – and lower-than-average winter temperatures – in decades. Even Los Angeles is getting a taste of winter, with several days topping out at the freezing mark on the thermometer. Other parts of the country more used to challenging winter weather have been getting an extra dose of wind, snow, and ice this year as well.

Besides the cold, another challenge this wintry weather presents – especially during such trying economic times – is higher heating bills.

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Heating is the biggest energy expense in most American homes. It accounts for 35 to 50 percent of annual energy bills in colder parts of the United States, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) a nonprofit advocacy group. Homeowners who take a few simple steps to make their homes more weather-tight, though, might be amazed to see their heating bills go down as they languish inside their toasty-warm homes.

If you’re handy and your draft issues are minor, you might want to go around your home and assess where cold air seems to be coming in – and then caulk, putty, or insulate as appropriate. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC’s) green-living oriented SimpleSteps.org website, small gaps around windows, light fixtures, and plumbing are easy to fill with caulk. Larger drafty areas that are protected from moisture and sunlight can be filled with expanding foam sealant, while a little weatherstripping around door jambs goes a long way toward keeping the cold out.

Beyond these easier and less-expensive fixes, adding or updating insulation can pay dividends on your utility bills. NRDC says that if you do it yourself, be careful not to cover or close up attic vents, as proper air flow is key to keeping indoor air quality good. Replacing single-pane windows with sealed double- or triple-pane windows will also improve your home’s energy efficiency significantly. Other tips include insulating heating ducts and your hot-water tank, and upgrading to a programmable thermostat. These thermostats allow you to heat your home when you’re there and lower the temperature when you’re sleeping or at work. Switching ceiling fans to rotate in a clockwise direction will help circulate warm air throughout your home.

A much more expensive option is to replace an older, inefficient furnace or boiler. New models that qualify for the federal government’s Energy Star program use far less gas or oil and reduce your utility bill handily. The ACEEE rates different furnaces and boiler options and reports on their findings free of charge via the consumer guide section of its website.

For those of us less qualified or less interested in doing our own home repair, bringing in a professional energy auditor might be just the ticket. Many local and regional utilities offer basic energy audits free of charge. Your utility bill is likely to include contact information. Meanwhile, the trade group Residential Energy Services Network, as well as the federal government’s Home Performance with Energy Star program, offer free searchable online databases of trustworthy local contractors with experience keeping homes in your area nice and warm.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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