Winter is approaching and chilly temperatures, combined with this year's unpredictable fuel costs, are a reminder to winterize 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 really do the job of winterizing right, you'll need to do a little bit of sleuthing around your home to pinpoint what areas are operating less efficiently than they should. You might 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. An energy auditor can use a variety of tools (thermometers, infrared cameras, and the like) to analyze where air is leaking from your home and will make suggestions about how to make your home more energy efficient. While you'll pay a few hundred dollars upfront for the analysis, the savings may be worth it over the long haul.
  • If nothing else, use the feel test. If your feet are chilled every time you pass by your front door, you can be certain that air is coming in there and heat is going out.

Getting to work
Heating your home efficiently can be boiled 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, crawl spaces, 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), then 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, actually making the home less energy efficient and prone to roofing problems due to 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 and windows, fireplaces, and other miscellaneous openings like attic pull-downs or access holes. Caulk, foam, and window sealing kits can all be found at your nearest Lowe's or Home Depot.

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. These include: changing your furnace filters on schedule, having your duct work cleaned, and hiring a professional to "tune up" your heating system each year so it stays in peak working order.

Programming your thermostat to reflect need (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. These might include replacing your windows and buying Energy Star appliances, household products that meet stringent energy efficiency guidelines set forth by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Tax breaks
Best of all, the cost of these types of improvements are in some cases eligible for a tax credit. Check this chart to see if your home improvement efforts qualify.

This article is adapted from the Motley Fool GreenLight "Money Answers" archive, which features more than 100 articles on personal-finance topics from taxes to credit to beginning investing, organized by subject and life stage. For access to this content plus the current newsletter, back issues, members-only discussion boards, and advisor blogs, take a free 30-day trial to GreenLight today!

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp writes a weekly column, " Ask Mrs. Riches ," on money and relationships. Her charming other half is The Motley Fool's own Robert Brokamp (TMF Bro), editor of Rule Your Retirement. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.