Home Cost-Saving Measures for Winter

By Megan Voelkel
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 1, 2009

It's a tough economic climate for cold weather. The household bills that accompany winter temperatures can be as harsh as the winds outside, dealing a blistering blow to already exhausted budgets.

To keep expenses from snowballing, especially those going toward heating and other energy uses, "get to know your house activity," says Chris Dorsi, a home energy analyst and co-author of "The Homeowner's Handbook to Energy Efficiency."

"Take a walk around the house, look at the light fixtures, appliances. . . . Look in the attic to see how well it's insulated," he says. Then "make a few investments."

He's referring, of course, to investments that won't teeter with the volatile markets, such as allocating a little time and effort to household improvements and simple lifestyle changes. Considering that the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy expected the average U.S. household to pay $2,300 in energy costs last year, with heating making up nearly half of the bill for homes in the Washington area, easy savings could be this season's ray of sunshine.

For a cost-conscious winter, here are some ideas worth warming up to:

1. Adjust temperatures. "By moving your thermostat back four degrees, you can save about $18 a month," says Pepco spokesman Clay Anderson. Programmable thermostats can do this for you, since they can be set to automatically heat around your schedule, such as only when you're at home. The temperature of water heaters matters, too, when it comes to energy savings. Dorsi recommends setting them no higher than 120 degrees to save up to $50 per year.

2. Replace or clean furnace filters. A dirty furnace filter will block air flow, ultimately making the system work harder. That inefficiency will cost you. For the few bucks it will take to buy a new filter, "you might save $50 to $100 in the next year," Dorsi says. He recommends checking the filters several times a year and replacing them at least annually. Preventing dust and dirt buildup will also protect the system from premature, and costly, repairs.

3. Pay attention to your windows. "Let the sun help warm the interior of the house," says Ronnie Kweller, a spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy. By leaving blinds and curtains on your west- and south-facing windows open during the day and closing them in the evening, you can retain that warmed air overnight. As for the windows themselves, they should be double-paned or have a storm window, which should be checked each winter. All too often, storm windows are unknowingly left open, causing unnecessary drafts. Adding plastic or vinyl sheeting to windows is also an effective way to seal in heat.

4. Use CFLs. Lighting accounts for about 20 percent of your home electric bill, Anderson says, and switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs is a "win-win." CFLs last about 10 times as long as incandescent light bulbs and are much more energy efficient. "They'll pay themselves off more than probably any other energy conservation trick we have," Dorsi says.

5. Follow the Energy Star. A surefire way to take advantage of energy-efficient technology is to look for the Energy Star label when buying appliances. The label is given only to products that meet strict Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy guidelines. Dorsi says this is especially critical when buying refrigerators, which underwent significant energy improvements in the early 1990s. For those able to spend money to save money, consider replacing any refrigerator older than 15 years. For more information, visit http://www.energystar.gov.

6. Insulate, insulate, insulate. Homeowners can save up to $35 a month by adding insulation to their attics, Anderson says. Other areas prime for insulation: ductwork, pipes and the hot water storage tank. "Start with the top of the home and work your way down," Anderson says. You may need professional help when selecting and installing insulation. An energy auditor can assess your specific needs.

7. Get rid of drafts. Tiny leaks add up, Kweller says, and can let out as much air as an open window. To track down drafts: Light a stick of incense and see if the smoke blows toward you. The usual problem spots are around windows and doors, but anywhere in your home "where pieces join, where roofs join the structure of your home and where your home sits on its foundation" is a place to check, says Anita Mooy of GE Sealants. She recommends silicone sealants, which won't freeze and crack. According to the Alliance to Save Energy, proper caulking, weatherstripping and insulation can reduce your heating costs by up to 20 percent.

8. Take advantage of tax credits. In October, many tax incentives for energy-efficient purchases were extended for 2009 and can add up to a savings of $500. "If you're looking to make home improvements, there's added incentive and added help from the government" this year, Kweller says. Visit http://www.energytaxincentives.org for more information.

9. Stop wasting energy. "Really look at everything you do in your life, all the ways you spend time and money," says Denise Hamler, director of the Green Festivals and Co-op America's Business Network. Since saving energy helps the environment, a diligent evaluation of your lifestyle can pack double benefits. Some ideas include closing off vents in rooms you don't frequently occupy, using the microwave instead of the oven when you can, doing some of your laundry in cold water, and unplugging appliances you don't use instead of letting them run on standby power.

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