On frigid winter days, sometimes you just want to hunker down at home and stay warm. Sounds cozy, right? Well, good luck doing that in a house full of drafts.
Drafts, or air leaks, can be a homeowner’s worst nightmare. In addition to making your space uncomfortable, drafts can drive up your energy bills — as your heating system goes into overdrive to keep your home warm — and even create health risks.
“If you have a drafty home, you’re exposing yourself to a lot of outside elements,” says Eddie Zielinski, a Lowe’s store manager in Harper Woods, Mich. Drafts can reduce air quality inside your home, let water in (creating a potential mold problem) and lead to pest infestation. “There can be a domino effect depending on the size and location of the openings,” Zielinski says.
The good news? There are easy steps you can take to plug air leaks inside your home — and reducing drafts can cut your energy costs by up to 20 percent per year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Here are six ways to keep the cold out, the heat in and your utility bills down.
In addition to openings around windows and doors, common sources of drafts include attic hatches, wiring holes for cable TV and electrical outlets, plumbing vents, recessed lights and chimneys. But pinpointing air leaks may require you to do some detective work.
One old-school search method is to slowly wave an incense stick around these problem areas on a windy day. “If the smoke stream travels horizontally, you’ve got a leak that’s costing you comfort and money,” says Dan DiClerico, home expert at HomeAdvisor. Another DIY approach is to use a thermal leak detector, which employs infrared sensors to measure surface temperatures. (You can pick one up at a home improvement store or buy one online for $25 to $40.)
Want to get a better idea of how well your home’s energy system works? Ask an HVAC company to perform an energy audit, a comprehensive assessment of energy performance.
An energy auditor will inspect your home’s heating and cooling systems and offer tips on making your house more energy-efficient. Most home energy audits cost between $215 and $600, according to HomeAdvisor, but some utility companies offer rebates or don’t charge for them, DiClerico says.
Caulking and weatherstripping are two simple, affordable and effective techniques for plugging leaks around windows, doors, electrical outlets and other openings, says Bob Hanbury, a board member at the National Association of Home Builders. And you need only a few tools and materials. Weatherstripping windows, for instance, requires only measuring tape, a utility knife and self-adhesive tape.
Your home’s duct system circulates the air supplied by your heating and cooling unit, but over time connections in ductwork can come loose and create air leaks, especially in homes with forced-air heating and cooling, DiClerico says. In some homes, as much as 20 percent of conditioned air is lost through leaks in the ductwork. That’s why DiClerico recommends hiring a professional to insulate and seal ductwork throughout your home — an improvement that he says can lower your house’s energy bills by about $400 a year.
Insulating the attic can also slash energy costs. Although estimates vary depending on the type of insulation you choose and where you live, you can expect to pay about $1,300 to $2,000 for a contractor to install attic insulation. Opt for fiberglass insulation, which has an average return on investment of 108 percent, according to Remodeling magazine.
“Many homes have small leaks in the foundation, walls, ceilings and roof that let out as much heated air in the winter — and cool air in the summer — as an open window,” DiClerico says.
One low-cost solution is to use spray foam insulation to seal air leaks in crawl spaces and basements, as well as exterior spots such as wall joints in a garage ceiling, around exterior faucets and vents, and where siding and the foundation meet. This is a simple DIY project. You can cover 200 square feet with a foam insulation kit that costs between $300 and $600.
Sealing electrical outlets and switch plates is another easy task that can improve your home’s energy efficiency, Zielinski says. You do this by installing foam socket sealers ($2.88 for a 24-pack at Walmart), which fit behind the outlet or the switch’s faceplate to act as a buffer between your home’s interior and the outdoor air. Nervous about handling electrical wiring? Don’t be with this one. “I know electricity scares folks, but as long as you turn off the electricity while you’re doing it, there’s no risk,” Zielinski says.
Storm window installation expenses can add up quickly. Each window costs $90 to $140 and takes about two hours to install at $30 to $65 per hour, HomeAdvisor found — but it’s one of the most cost-effective solutions for upgrading energy-inefficient windows. On average, low-emissivity (“low-e”) storm windows can save you about 12 to 33 percent in annual heating and cooling expenses, according to the Energy Department’s website, and they cost a fraction of installing new windows.
On a tight budget? Buy thermal window curtains for sun-facing rooms, Zielinski advises. “They keep heat in, they’re affordable, and they look good.”