Cut the Costs of Home Heating

Keep warm and comfortable this winter and lower your utility bills with some energy-efficient home improvements.

By Tanja Kern | Updated Dec 14, 2013 3:27 PM

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Making homeowners’ heating systems energy-efficient is the answer to lower utility bills, the experts say. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to do that.

Simple Steps to Take
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), heating and cooling account for 50 to 75 percent of energy used in the average American home. Making smart decisions about your home’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system can have a big effect on your utility bills and your comfort.

To have an efficient heating system, you must properly maintain it. Check your unit’s filter monthly and if it looks dirty, change it. At a minimum, change the filter every three months. A dirty filter will slow down airflow and make the system work harder to keep you warm or cool, which wastes energy. Clean filters also prevent dirt from building up in the system, which can lead to expensive repairs in the future.

Installing a programmable thermostat, which costs around $200, and setting it to a lower temperature—even by a degree or two—can impact costs. The installation is a relatively easy DIY job.

Lowering the temperature on your water heater from 140 degrees to 120 degrees can also save you 6 to 10 percent a year on energy bills.

Get an annual HVAC inspection to keep the system running efficiently. Typical maintenance includes checking thermostat settings, tightening all electrical connections, lubricating moving parts, and inspecting the condensate drain and system controls. In addition, checking all gas or oil connections will alleviate the chances for dangerous gases escaping into your home.

Leak-Proofing Your Home
Air leaks raise a home’s energy bill and make a house drafty and uncomfortable in cold weather. “Much of our existing older housing today would not meet today’s stricter energy codes,” says Bohdan Boyko, an energy-efficiency specialist with U.S. GreenFiber, a manufacturer of natural fiber insulation in Charlotte, NC. “We have learned an awful lot in the last 20 years about window technology, the requirements for higher R values of insulation and about more efficient HVAC systems.”

To find out how drafty your home is, call your local utility company or a certified heating technician to request a home energy audit. Costs average around $400. A technician will usually set up a “blower door” test that measures a home’s air tightness and use an infrared camera to check for temperature differences anywhere leaks occur.

You should also check the air tightness in your home yourself. In older homes, leaks can usually be found around windows, doors and fireplaces. Other less obvious places to look are electrical sockets on exterior walls, baseboards, ductwork, and recessed lighting. ”Recessed lighting is a huge energy-waster where heat will escape up past the lights and into the attic,” Marowske says.

Some of the biggest leaks are usually found in the attic or the basement. In the attic, look for holes along the top wall that leads down into the house, such as those for wiring and plumbing. Check for insulation that is dirty around the edges, which indicates that air has passed through. Feel for drafts around gaps and cracks. In the basement, check for drafts along the top of the basement wall or crawlspace where the cement comes in contact with the frame of the house. Plumbing and dryer vents are another potential source for leaks.

Once you know where the air leaks are, make your home draft-tight. Window casings can be made more energy-efficient by removing old, brittle caulking and replacing it with fresh caulk. Single-pane windows should be replaced wherever possible with new energy-efficient models that help block out cold air. If replacing windows is too expensive, you can make single-pane windows more energy-efficient by applying temporary shrink-wrap film to your windows. New weatherstripping and a tight-fitting threshold will also keep heat from escaping around and under the door. You can also hire a licensed and insured contractor to install special insulated units behind electrical sockets, such as those by Frost King.

Your heating ducts are huge energy wasters. Sealing and insulating ducts can improve the efficiency of your heating and cooling system by as much as 20 percent. Use duct sealant or metal-backed tape to seal the seams and connections of each duct. After sealing them, wrap the ducts in insulation to keep hot hair from escaping.

The Department of Energy says that a leading cause of energy waste in the home is inadequate insulation. The good news is that adding insulation is a relatively affordable investment for many homeowners, with a very quick return. Materials for insulation are not expensive if applying “loose fill” insulation, but it is a labor-intensive job that requires proper equipment and installation methods.

An easy way for homeowners to determine if they need insulation is to simply look in their attic. A home is seriously under-insulated if the ceiling joists are visible in the attic, and it can be checked with a yardstick, according to Tia Robinson, a spokesperson for The Home Depot.

The “R-Value” is the rating system used to indicate the amount of insulation needed. R-Values can be required by local building codes, which often change and are usually lower than the R-Values recommended by the Department of Energy. Batt insulation, or rolls of insulation, has a lower R-Value because it is denser, so the recommended value is lower than loose fill. In cooler regions, it is recommended to have batts with an R-Value of R-13, and R-19 is recommended in warmer regions. Batt insulation is a bit more expensive, but is not complicated to install correctly for the DIYer. Albeit, it is still a fairly laborious job.

Small lifestyle changes can also help lower the cost of your energy bills this season, according to Chris Seman, national director of operations for Mr. Handyman, a national full-service repair and maintenance company. Restrict your use of bathroom and kitchen air ventilators, which tend to push warm air out of the house and make your furnace work harder to replace the heat. Install window coverings and turn blinds “up” so that they can trap cool air coming from the window before getting into your living spaces. Adjust ceiling fans so that they push air down to help circulate heated air that rises. Also, purchase a home humidifier; humidified air feels warmer than dry air, according to Seman.

Buying a New Furnace
In older homes with an original heating system in place, it’s often smart to simply install a new energy efficient HVAC unit that is rated by Energy Star. Homeowners should consider replacing their old heating systems if they plan on staying in their home for at least five years. Basic heating and air conditioning packages for an average size home will run between $9,000 and $12,000. Although this can be a big investment for many homeowners in today’s tough economy, many companies offer 12-month, same-as-cash financing or five years of zero-interest financing. “What you’ll save in energy efficiency and repairs on an older unit makes it worth it,” Marowske notes.

Today’s new and improved furnaces can be up to 97 percent energy-efficient, which means 97 percent of the heat produced is being used in the home and not pushed out the chimney. Forced-air furnaces last around 20 to 25 years and have a number of features meant to optimize your home’s heating. Newer models offer variable speed blowers that fluctuate the amount of air being pushed through the ducts depending on what the home’s thermostat measures. A two-staged gas valve can also fluctuate how high the furnace fires, depending on the temperature outside. A mild, 40-degree day may call for a furnace to fire only halfway, thereby using less energy than a chilly 10-degree day.

If you heat your home with a hot water boiler, experts recommend converting to gas heat for greater efficiency. New replacement boilers, however, are smaller than older models and can have 75 to 80 percent efficiency.

In some areas of the country, geothermal heat pumps, which capture heat from the earth through pipes drilled into the ground, are a solid eco-friendly alternative to other types of heating. Installation can be quite costly, but the long-term savings on utility bills can be around 50 percent. Generally speaking, a geothermal heat pump system costs about $2,500 per ton of capacity, and an average home would use a three-ton unit costing roughly $7,500. In addition to the cost of the unit, homeowners also have to pay for drilling, which can run anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.

No matter what method of heat you’re after, it’s important to choose a trained heating specialist. Technicians certified by The North American Technician Excellence Association are third-party certified in heating, air conditioning and refrigeration.

Resources for Assistance
Several public programs are available to help cash-strapped families cope with rising energy costs and get help paying utility bills: