It may not be Labor Day yet, but many people are thinking about the coming winter. With projections for a potentially colder-than-normal season and sky-high fuel costs, now's a good time to think about winterizing your home. Preparing your home for winter can save you up to 50% off of your heating bill, in addition to keeping you and your family toasty warm on cold winter nights.

Getting started
To winterize the right way, you'll need to sleuth around your home and pinpoint any areas operating less efficiently than they should. Consider:

  • Conducting your own Web-based home energy audit.
  • Contacting your utility company. Some perform free energy audits, while others offer a rebate on audits performed by outside companies.
  • Hiring a professional. Energy auditors can use a variety of tools, including thermometers and infrared cameras, to analyze where air is leaking from your home. They'll make suggestions to help increase your home's energy efficiency. While you'll pay a few hundred dollars up front for the analysis, the savings may be worth it over the long haul.
  • Using the feel test. If your feet are chilled every time you pass by your front door, you can be certain that cold air is invading there, and heat is escaping.

Getting to work
Heating your home efficiently boils down to these major to-do's: insulating, sealing leaks, and maintaining your home -- all with the goal of maximizing your heating dollars.

Insulating: Part of your sleuthing expedition should include eyeballing your insulation to see if it's in good shape. Pay careful attention to your attic, crawlspaces, walls (check existing walls by removing an outlet cover and using a flashlight), and the underside of floors that are above unheated spaces. Consider purchasing special insulation materials designed for your water pipes and water heater.

Before you purchase insulation, consult a chart that shows you what type (graded in "R" levels) you'll need, depending on factors such as climate and the location in your home where the insulation will be placed. For a step-by-step guide, consult the Department of Energy's online fact sheet.

In many cases, you can install or replace old insulation yourself. However, if your insulation job is a complicated one (for example, insulating between walls in an existing home, working around old electrical wiring, or replacing wet or damp insulation, which could signal a leak), you may want to hire a contractor. Many insulation contractors will come and do an estimate of your home's insulation needs for free, giving you a chance to determine which jobs seem like "do-it-yourself" projects versus professional ones.

If you are working in your attic (since heat rises, this is a place where many folks start their insulation journey), make sure there is proper ventilation. Do-it-yourselfers sometimes make the mistake of assuming that more is better and cover up natural airflow at the eaves. This actually makes the home less energy-efficient and prone to roofing problems, because of ice dams or moisture.

Sealing: Ensuring that heat isn't leaking out through improperly sealed windows, doors, or other openings is another way to save big on your heating bills. You'll want to pay special attention to:

  • Duct work (a major culprit for energy inefficiency)
  • Cracks around doorways
  • Windows and fireplaces
  • Other miscellaneous openings, like attic pull-downs or access holes.

Caulk, foam, and window sealing kits can all be found at your nearest home improvement store. To learn more, consult the Environmental Protection Agency's helpful online guide to detecting and sealing air leaks in your home.

Maintaining your home: Certain maintenance projects can enhance your energy efficiency when performed regularly:

  • Changing your furnace filters on schedule.
  • Having your ductwork cleaned.
  • Hiring a professional to "tune up" your heating system each year, so it stays in peak working order.

Programming your thermostat to reflect your home's needs (keeping it warmer during waking hours and cooler while you sleep, for example) and lowering your water heater temperature can also add to your savings.

Long-term fixes: If you're in your home for the long haul, you may want to consider some longer-term measures to make your energy usage much more efficient. Such solutions might include replacing your windows or buying Energy Star appliances, household products that meet stringent energy-efficiency guidelines set forth by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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This article was originally published on Oct. 28, 2006. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp writes on money and relationships. Her charming other half is The Motley Fool's own Robert Brokamp (TMFBro), editor of Rule Your Retirement. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.