Winter is coming. Eight ways to prepare your home.

Cold weather is on the way, and a home that isn't prepared can turn into a frigid money pit. Here are 8 cheap ways to winterize your home and save on your energy bill. 

Michael Dwyer/AP/File
A downed tree limb lies across power lines in Belmont, Mass. in this 2011 file photo. The key to saving money on your heating bill this winter is insulation, insulation, insulation, Colley says.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program says the average household spends more than $2,200 a year on energy bills – with almost half of that going toward heating and cooling.

To add insult to injury, you could be throwing money out the window if your home isn’t energy-efficient. Leaking windows, poorly insulated water heaters, and clogged air filters are all budget busters.

But you might be able to fix your home’s energy deficiencies yourself for cheap.  

1. Seal air leaks

According to the advocacy group Energy Impact Illinois, leaks around your house can add up to a 15 to 35 percent air loss. Instead of heating the whole neighborhood this winter, check for leaks by holding up a lit candle to common trouble spots like:

  • Window frames
  • Door frames
  • Outside vents to your dryer
  • Baseboards
  • Spaces around window air conditioning units

If the candle flickers, you’ve got a leak. Pick up a tube of caulk (about $5 in hardware stores) and use it to seal up any leaks.

2. Add insulation

Insulation helps keep cold air out and warm air in during the winter. The easiest place to add insulation is in your attic. The Energy Star program recommends having 12 to 15 inches of insulation in your attic. If you’re not sure how much you have, look at an unfinished portion of your attic floor. If the insulation is sitting below the floor joists, you need to add more.

As we mentioned in the video, it will cost about $500 to buy the insulation for an average-size house. It should take about two to three hours to complete the project. If you’re not sure how to install insulation, check out this how-to video on Monkeysee.

3. Check your air filters

If your air filter is dirty, your central air will have to work harder to heat your home, costing you more money. Over time, dirty and clogged filters can also cause bigger (and costlier) problems.

Once every three months, swap your old filter out for a new one. It only takes a couple of minutes, and you can pick up replacements at a hardware store.

4. Install a programmable thermostat

If you’re still using a manual thermostat, you’re wasting money. The Energy Star program says a programmable thermostat will save you about $180 a year in heating and cooling costs.

You can buy programmable thermostats pretty cheap at hardware stores, big box retailers, and online. For example, I found a basic model for $22.24 on Amazon and another model for $34.24 on Newegg. Once installed, set the thermostat to automatically turn down when you’re away from the house or asleep and score automatic savings.

5. Insulate your water heater

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, water heating can make up 14 to 25 percent of the energy used in your home. Wrapping your water heater is one easy way to lower those costs.

In the video, Home Depot employee Charles Freeman said if you touch your water heater and it feels hot, you’re losing energy. You can buy a fiberglass and plastic insulating blanket for less than $25, and it only takes about 30 minutes to install. Best of all, the U.S. Department of Energy says the blanket will pay for itself in one year or less.

6. Seal your ducts

Over time the seals around your ducts will deteriorate and start to leak. According to the Energy Star program, up to 20 percent of the circulating air in your home is lost due to loose or faulty ducts.

While you would have to hire a technician to repair ductwork inside your walls, you can repair and seal the visible ducts in your attic and basement yourself. Pick up a roll of HVAC foil tape (about $15 in hardware stores). Wrap the tape around the joints to stop any leaks. If you find any visible holes, patch them with a fiberglass weave (about $7) and seal them off with a water-based mastic air duct sealant (about $12).

7. Close off your attic

The sheet of plywood covering your attic stairs is hardly leak-proof. During the winter, heat will escape through the sides of the cover and into your attic.

To stop the leak, you can install an attic tent, which is an insulated fabric container that fits over your pull-down stairs (they start at $200 on, or you can go the cheaper route. Attach rigid foam installation pads (about $7 at hardware stores) to the back of the attic hatch and then apply foam weather stripping tape (about $3 at hardware stores) along the edges of the attic panel. In less than an hour, you’ll have an airtight seal.

8. Insulate your light switches and outlets

If you’ve ever replaced a light switch or outlet cover, you probably noticed the gaping hole in the wall behind that cover. The problem is, those thin plastic covers don’t provide a great barrier and cold air can get through that hole into your house. To combat the cold leaks, install foam gaskets underneath your light switch and outlet covers.

You can pick up pre-cut foam covers that will fit around electrical receptacles and light switches at hardware stores (about $2 for a set of eight). Since they’re pre-cut, you just need to unscrew the cover, pop the foam cover on, and reattach the light switch or outlet cover plate.

Finally, don’t forget to reverse your fans. During the summer, your ceiling fans should run counterclockwise, which pulls the air down toward you. During the winter reverse the ceiling fan’s direction by flipping the toggle switch on the base of the fan. Run on a low setting – the fan will draw cool air from the floor up toward the ceiling, making the room feel warmer.

Angela Colley is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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