Home heating oil and natural gas prices are lower this year than prices we’ve seen since 2009, but heating fuels still take a big bite out of our budgets. Home heating fuel is typically about 42 percent of a home’s utility bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Pushing our houses toward energy efficiency with air sealing, insulation and energy-efficient appliances are the big-ticket answers to cut downs on heating bills. But what are a few easier ways to keep heating costs affordable? Here are five helpful strategies you can jump on right now.
Strategy No. 1: Turn Down the Thermostat
Yes, this means that when you’re home, you may have to put on a sweater. But by turning down your thermostat 2 degrees, you can save about 6 percent on your energy bill. In other words, if your monthly energy bill is $300, you can save about $18.
When you’re asleep or away from home, the temperature can go even lower. A programmable thermostat will give you the necessary control. It can be programmed to turn the heat down to 61 degrees just before you go to bed, bring the heat back up to 68 degrees a few minutes before you get up in the morning, turn the heat back down when you leave for work and return it to a comfortable temperature just before you get home.
According to the Department of Energy, installing one of these will save an estimated 10 percent on heating and cooling costs.
Even better is a smart thermostat such as one made by Nest, ecobee or Honeywell. Not only are these programmable, but they learn your habits and automatically adjust the temperature accordingly, and some can be operated via a mobile phone app.
Strategy No. 2: Use the Sun’s Warmth
Windows that face the sun can be effective solar collectors. Open curtains on south- and west-facing windows during the day to warm interior surfaces. Then close all curtains at night to help keep the heat from escaping.
Though fences and trees that block the wind can help protect a house from heat loss during the winter, consider trimming trees or bushes that prevent the sun from reaching windows. Deciduous trees that lose their leaves during the winter are ideal because they allow the sun in during winter, but shade during the summer.
Strategy No. 3: Control where heat is delivered
Consider shutting off or reducing the heat to seldom-used rooms and closing the doors to them. Do not shut down a room where the thermostat is located – this would cause the heating system to stay on most of the time.
If your home is heated by a forced-air system, talk to an HVAC pro about whether it’s possible to close down the heating registers in unused rooms or adjust dampers in the ductwork to redirect heat to the rooms that require it. This should be done by a professional, because heating systems are balanced and too much “back pressure” caused by closing vents can cause the ductwork to leak and the furnace to work inefficiently.
Be sure the flow of heat from registers into rooms is not obstructed by furniture or drapes.
You can sometimes stay comfortable in individual rooms while turning down the central heating system’s thermostat if you utilize space heaters or wood- or pellet-burning stoves to keep the spaces cozy.
Strategy No. 4: Keep Expensively Heated Air Inside the House
Some homes never feel comfortable because the heat being produced inside escapes through the walls and attic. Air sealing, insulating and weather stripping help solve these issues.
Be sure the fireplace damper is closed when the fireplace is not in use – an open chimney can suck a tremendous amount of expensively warmed air out of the house.
Additionally, minimize the use of ventilation fans, such as bath fans or kitchen fans, because they draw heated air out of the house. Be sure to shut them off as soon as they’ve done their job – a timer switch or occupancy sensor makes this a no-brainer.
In many two-story houses, heat distributed downstairs rises to the second floor where it overheats the upstairs rooms. In a typical scenario, somebody downstairs turns up the heat, and then someone upstairs opens a window to provide cooling ventilation. The resulting chimney effect pulls more warm air upstairs and sends it out the window, causing a draft downstairs. This, of course, defeats efforts for conservation and comfort, and isn’t great for family relationships.
If possible, close doors between upstairs and downstairs to keep the warmed air from rising. Then try reducing the delivery of heat to the upstairs rooms (Strategy No. 3). Ultimately, the best way to solve this is to install a zoned heating system that utilizes automated dampers to control the flow of heat.
Even in a single-level home, heat rises and collects at the ceiling. If your home has a reversible ceiling fan, set it to slowly spin in reverse to gently push warmed air back down into the room.
Strategy No. 5: Get the Most Out of Your Heating System
If your home is heated with a forced-air system, have the system serviced regularly. Replace or clean filters every month or two.
Be sure air ducts are free from blockages and that they are properly sealed. A tremendous amount of heated air can be wasted if joints between heating ducts become disconnected. Also be sure that any ducts passing through unheated areas, like the crawlspace or attic, are insulated.
If your home uses radiant heat, be sure radiators are clean and unobstructed.
Hot water radiators should be cleared of trapped air once or twice each season. Unless you know how to do this yourself, hire a pro.
To improve efficiency of a radiator, you can place a heat-resistant reflector between the radiator and an exterior wall. These are available online or at home improvement centers.
If your home is heated by electricity, be aware that many electrical utilities have “tiered” billing. With this, the more electrical power you use, the more you pay per kilowatt of usage. If you reduce overall electrical usage, your costs will stay in the lower billing tiers.
A final word: These strategies are just first steps toward energy efficiency, but they are relatively easy and affordable ways to keep your home warm and comfortable.
Don Vandervort is the founder of HomeTips.com.