Cold Weather Planning: Seven Steps to A Warmer Home

By Lane Burt and Paul McRandle
12/25/2012 1:31:34 PM

As winter nears and the nights take on a chill, you may find yourself dreading the arrival of your energy bill. Driving that bill down, however, just requires taking a few steps to make your home more efficient. By spending a little now, you can keep yourself from losing a lot later when energy prices rise. The key is to look at your house as a system, from its exterior envelope in, and to prioritize the changes that will give the most return for the cash spent. Here is a step-by-step plan to winterize your home effectively. You may not be able to afford every step, but following them in order will give you the biggest payback for the expense.

Photo by Hemera Technologies

Start with the Basics

Regardless of the time of year and what upgrades you may be able to afford, getting rid of wasteful habits will cut your energy bill.

Here are five basic habits to adopt:

1. Don't leave lights on. Install a motion-sensing light switch if you have to.

2. Unplug chargers and appliances when not in use. If this is too much of a bother, there are power strips available that turn off automatically when applicances aren't in use. See our Energy Vampire Calculator to determine how much money you may be wasting now.

3. Make sure you're operating your TV for home use rather than for a display floor. If the screen is super bright, dim it down to a comfortable level. See "Power-Hungry Televisions" for more information.

4. When washing your hands or soaking pans in the kitchen, turn hot water taps up to full heat rather than halfway to ensure that the hot water gets to you quickly. If you turn the taps up only halfway, hot and cold water mix in the pipes, and as a result it takes much longer for the water to arrive at the temperature you want it. In the meantime, all you've done is warm up the pipes.

5. Line-dry your clothes. Clothes dryers are a major energy hog in the home (our Clothes Dryer Calculator will tell you how much yours uses). But if your home is well sealed and insulated, fabrics will dry quickly hanging on a rack or indoor line. Which leads us to our first step.

Step One: Arrange for a Home Energy Audit

A home energy audit will determine how efficient your house is and where you can make improvements. You may already know whether your furnace is working poorly, or you may be aware of drafts near your front door, but other major sources of heat loss are much harder to identify. Problems can include poorly insulated walls or cold flows from direct openings to the outdoors in your attic or other hard-to-access spaces. Certified raters will track these problems down and propose solutions. If you're going to be comprehensive about it, the $300 to $500 for a home energy audit is money well spent. Certified raters and contractors in your area can be found through listings at the Building Performance Institute and at the Residential Energy Services Network.

The energy audit will provide you with a HERS rating of your home. This index ranges from zero to over 150, with the standard home hitting about 100. While this number helps give you a sense of where your house stands, the real benefits come from the detective work done during the audit to trace exactly where your house is wasting energy. For any audit, make sure your rater walks through your home, conducts a blower door test (which measures how much air your home leaks), tests your ducts, checks out your furnace and identifies colds spots and the locations of air leaks.

To see how much specific upgrades suggested by the audit might save you, fill out the Home Energy Saver questionnaire provided by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The U.S. Department of Energy provides an online guide to home energy audits that is helpful whether you choose to do it yourself or hire a professional.

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