Depending upon where you live, home heating costs are projected to rise anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent this winter. This is especially devastating news for seniors and those on fixed incomes who are already having a difficult time making ends meet.
The good news is that you don't have to succumb to either high utility costs or poor living conditions if you are willing to make a few cost-effective energy saving improvements that will pay big dividends.
* Install a setback thermostat. Do you heat your home all day when you're away or all night while you're sleeping? Are you a slave to your thermostat? Do you make several adjustments throughout the day and night to attempt to manage utility costs? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you need a setback, or programmable, thermostat.
Quite simply, a setback thermostat is a thermostat on a time clock. It is designed to automatically bring the heat up in the morning and then lower the temperature during the day when your family is off to work or school. Later in the day, this "smart" thermostat will raise the temperature just in time for your return home and until bedtime when it will drop the temperature while you're snug under the covers -- until it repeats its cycle.
There are both analog and digital models depending upon the features and programming desired. The simplest models offer a single program, the same routine seven days per week. More complex models offer up to 28 programs -- four per day, seven days per week. If you don't have a setback thermostat, install one. You can save up to 20 percent on your heating and cooling costs.
* Look for holes in your house and fill them. An electrician runs conduit for a new appliance through the siding in your home; the cable guy drills a hole in the wall to run cable into a room in your home; the plumber drills a hole in an exterior wall. These are some of the obvious examples of holes in your house that may be allowing precious energy to escape. There are other less obvious examples such as at the base or top of walls where plumbing pipes and electrical wires make their way into attics, crawl spaces and basements.
Thanks to expanding polyurethane spray foam that is available in a can, you can simply spray a little foam into the gap and it immediately expands to permanently seal the hole. We refer to it as "home maintenance in a can."
Although polyurethane foam is great for large gaps, caulk is best used for narrow cracks.
* Seal windows and doors. Test a window or door for energy leaks by holding a lighted candle near all joints and connections. If the candle flickers, you have an air leak. Narrow gaps and cracks around windows and doors are best filled using caulk. The kind of caulk to use depends on the area being caulked. Glass, metal, wood, plastic, and other surfaces respond differently to caulk. Read the manufacturer's label carefully before making your purchase.
* Add insulation. According to the Energy Department, adding insulation is one of the most cost-effective means of saving energy and improving comfort. And when it comes to insulation, the attic is the best place to begin.
You may think that your attic is well-insulated because you remember seeing some insulation up there the last time you stored your holiday decorations. The truth is that if you haven't had an energy audit in the last 10 years, the insulation may not be thick enough or, for older homes, the material may be compacted, which greatly reduces its efficiency.
Many local utilities will perform a free home energy audit that will offer information on where and how much insulation your home may need. In addition to the attic, exterior walls and floors are prime candidates for insulation upgrades.
* Use fluorescent lights. Have you visited the light bulb section of your local hardware store or home center lately? If you have not, you are in for a surprise. The selection of compact fluorescent light bulbs now rivals that of its incandescent counterpart. There are energy saving fluorescent lights for virtually every place an incandescent bulb can be used.
They are available in the size and shape of a traditional incandescent bulb; there are spots, recess down lights and "rings" especially suited for kitchens and baths. Compact fluorescent lights cost more up front, but last 10 times longer, produce less heat and use less energy. In the long run, fluorescent lights go a long way to save energy and lower utility bills.
* Lower your water heater temperature. According to the Energy Department, a temperature of 120 degrees at the tap is adequate for most household chores with a minimal danger of scalding and maximum energy efficiency.
However, that is the temperature at the tap, not in the tank. Tank temperature should be not be less than 130 degrees to prevent bacterial growth that can lead to illnesses. The only appliance that requires hotter water is the dishwasher, with a recommended temperature of 140 degrees or higher for proper disinfection and cleaning.
Since most dishwashers pre-heat the water to the proper temperature, lowering the setting of your water heater will have no effect. However, if you have turned the pre-heating function of your dishwasher off, you should turn it back on. Alternatively, it may be time to retire your old gas-guzzling water heater and replace it with a new tankless water heater. A tankless water heater will cost more to purchase and install than a traditional tank type unit, but in the long run will save lots of energy and add immeasurably to comfort and convenience.
* Use your washer and dryer at night. Many utility companies will offer reduced energy rates during off-peak hours.
* Change your furnace filter. The fundamental purpose of a filter is to keep the interior workings of the furnace clean and operating efficiently. Conversely, when a filter becomes clogged it makes the furnace motor work harder, reduces efficiency and wastes energy. Get the best bang for your filter buck by buying better filters and checking them often.
* Use low-flow water restrictors. A low-flow water restrictor reduces the flow of water but still gives you a comfortable shower. Many water companies will provide low-flow restrictors for free or a nominal charge. They are easy to install and, in addition to saving energy on heating water, they will lower your water bill.