Hold In That Hot Air! Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at one important key to preparing your home for winter: Sealing up your home's "envelope" of warm air. Those little cracks around doors and windows aren't just uncomfortable and annoying. They can be expensive, too, especially with energy prices soaring. Below, we'll review some other simple, inexpensive steps you can take to lower your energy costs.

Making the most of the energy you use
If you rely on electric baseboard heaters, or other electric "resistance" heating, there's little you can do to improve the efficiency of your heating system without significant time and expense. In that case, you're better off focusing on improving your home's envelope. But if your heating system burns oil or natural gas, call your energy provider and ask for a service appointment.

Furnaces and burners should be cleaned and tuned annually for peak efficiency, and if it's been a while, a professional cleaning can significantly increase efficiency. My house is heated with oil, and our local oil company charges about $150 for a full cleaning and tune-up of our furnace. We try to get it done annually -- it only takes a couple of hours, and if nothing else, it's cheap safety insurance.

Here's another simple trick that can help your house feel warmer in winter: In rooms with ceiling fans, try reversing their direction so that they run clockwise (there's usually a little switch on the side of the fan motor that controls this) and running them on low. Since heat rises, it's often warmer near the ceiling. Running the fan can help circulate the warmer air to even out the temperature of the room.

Don't use energy you don't need
ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and BP (NYSE: BP  ) are swimming in record profits, thanks to stratospheric crude oil prices -- they don't need our largesse. Here are a few simple ways to make sure you aren't sending your local energy company more money than necessary:

  • Use a timed thermostat. Thermostats that automatically adjust over the course of the day -- turning down the heat while you're at work, for instance -- are widely available and easy to install. Mine's a Honeywell (NYSE: HON  ) product, purchased several years ago at Home Depot and installed by me. (If you're uncomfortable installing it yourself, it's a very quick job for an electrician -- 10 minutes, tops.) It's powered by two AA batteries that last for about a year, and it's great. In addition to adjusting the heat by time of day, it runs on a weekly schedule, so it can be programmed to have a different routine on Saturdays, for instance. But take the time to program it! Otherwise, you won't enjoy the benefits of having the heat turned up half an hour before you get up in the morning, or the savings of having it turned down while you're at work. Really, it only takes a few minutes.

  • Close off unused rooms. If you have multiple-zone heating, use it -- keep the bedrooms cool until shortly before bedtime, for instance. But even if you don't, consider sealing off rooms you rarely enter -- storage spaces or guest bedrooms, for instance. Winterize the windows, shut off the heat to those rooms if possible, and close the doors -- and seal them, if you can. You can always warm up a guest room if you're expecting guests, but there's no need to pay to heat it the rest of the time.

Of course, there are larger-scale, longer-term improvements you can make to your home to increase your efficiency and comfort in the winter. Installing a more efficient furnace or hot water heater, improving your home's insulation, and upgrading your windows are the time-tested routes. While none is exactly cheap, they do pay for themselves over time. If you feel like you don't know where to start, consider hiring a professional to do a Home Energy Audit using the Energy Star guidelines. A professional auditor can examine your home's strengths and weaknesses, and help you figure out which improvements will deliver the most bang for the buck.

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