JAck Meeker of the Northeast Solar Energy Center here in Boston likens it to filling a swimming pool which is badly cracked: If you ever stop, or even slow down, the pool runs dry. The result is massive waste of water and high bills.

Charlie Wing, founder of Cornerstones Energy Group Inc., a hands-on school for solar building techniques in Brunswick, Maine, uses the water-in-the-leaky-bucket analogy to say the same thing. The bucket with the holes in it is your house; the water you keep pouring into it is the energy needed to heat or cool it.

Their messages is clear: Before you invest in costly solar panels, wood stoves, add-on greenhouses, heat pumps, airconditioners or whatever, plug the leaks in your present home. In short: Don't waste the warm air (or in summer the cool air) you already have.

What isn't readily understood is that the average home leaks like a sieve. Hold your hand an inch or so away from an electric light switch on any improperly insulated wall at night and feel the steady stream of cold air coming in. Multiply that by the number of outlets you have in the home, plus the keyholes, and the cracks around window and door frames, including loose-fitting windows and doors and those little streams amount to a regular flood of icy winter air. According to some measurements, those leaks in the average American home amount to the equivalent of one 10-square-foot window left wide open all year long.

The greater the difference between the outside cold and the inside heat, the greater the pressure on the warm air in your home to escape. So when the outside temperature drops below freezing or, worse still, below zero degrees F. that "open window" acts like an incredibly efficient vacuum cleaner, sucking up your heating dollars.

Mr. Wing and his wife, Susan, know the value of tightening up a home. They bought a large old house in Brunswick and saw the heating bill plummet once they had sealed off all the cracks by caulking, added weather stripping to doors and windows, insulation to the walls and doors, ceiling and floor, and thermal shutters to the windows. From 3,000 gallons of oil a season they have cut fuel needs down to just three cords of wood (the equivalent of 600 gallons of heating oil). "We've been able to throw out the furnace, dispense with oil heat altogether," says Mr. Wing.

But even before embarking on a plug-the- leaks program, the Wings say, there are some very cost-effective steps the homeowner should take: turning back the thermostat, and switching off all lights, radios and TVs when leaving the room; boiling only as much water as you need at any one time; refusing to dawdle in the shower, cleaning the windows (dusty panes restrict the sun's entry) and light fixtures, and similar anti-waste actions.

Let energy-saving challenge your ingenuity. Gather your family together and ask them for suggestions. At the dinner table let family members tell how they saved energy that day. Exchange ideas with the neighbors too. This way energy saving will become a habit, something as automatic as cleaning teeth or washing hands before coming to a meal.

"These are the most cost-effective steps you can take," says Mr. Wing. "You don't part with a cent but the cash savings are considerable." How considerable?

Well, all the little savings are difficult to put down in figures. But according to Consumer Guide's Home Energy Saver, you can expect a 3 percent rise in energy costs for each degree you set your thermostat above 70 degrees f. And the US Department of Energy suggests a 10-degree F. set-back at night "is a great way to achieve a 10 to 25 percent saving in heating bills while you sleep." It pays handsomely, then, to reach for a sweater rather than the thermostat and perhaps the night caps of Charles Dicken's day can be given another try. (Some caution should be exercised if elderly people live in the home. They tend to produce less natural body heat than younger folk and require somewhat higher air temperatures to feel comfortable).

Turning down the hot-water thermostat from the 150 degrees F. standard setting to around 115 degrees can realize an annual saving of "at least $20 or electric water heaters and $10 a year for gas," according to the Department of Energy. As it costs an average of $100 a year for the hot water (electric) used in a family's wash (one load a day) on an all-hot cycle, the savings will be considerable if the switch is made to a warm wash and cold rinse.

There are pleasantly surprising savings to be had, too, simply by developing a "trigger- happy" finger, as Charlie Wing puts it. By this he means the readiness to turn off anything that isn't being used -- including the hot-water heater if you're away for a weekend or longer and room airconditioners if you are out of the room for more than four hours. The importance of turning off lights and radios is recognized when it is realized that these items contribute some 16 percent to a household's energy bill.

Central heating should be turned as low as possible whenever you leave the house for more than four hours. Space heating and cooling take a 70 percent bite out of the household energy budget.

The US Department of Energy has recently brought out a pamphlet, "Energy Saver's Low Cost, No Cost." It features 11 important steps a homeowner can take at either no cost or very little cost to cut his energy-consumption bill. The pamphlet states that "by following all the suggestions, or whichever apply to you, we think you can save 25 percent of your fuel oil, gas, and electricity bills. At current energy prices, these suggestions will put from $100 to $500 a year back in your pocket. . . ." All of them can be accomplished for $100 or less, from which the homeowner will be able to claim a 15 percent residential energy tax credit when filing his income tax at the end of the year.

For many people, the task of adapting an existing home in this manner appears almost overwhelming. It needn't be. There's a simple satisfying way to energy efficiency -- one step at a time. Make a list of tasks to be accomplished in order of priority, then throw it in a top drawer somewhere. Whenever you have the time, take out the list and tackle the top item only. One task is never intimidating. When completed, scratch it off the list.

One homeowner even told himself that he didn't care if he ever did all the jobs on the list. "But you know," he said, "it was amazing how soon they all got done."

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