19 Cheap or Free Ways to Cut Your Winter Energy Bills

None of these moves requires a big investment, and they all can save you money.

Winter is right around the corner, and that means expensive heating bills in many parts of the nation. In fact, heating living spaces accounts for about 48 percent of your home’s energy bills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Doing all you can to cut consumption of heating fuel can have a big payoff. So, before Jack Frost comes nipping at your nose — and your wallet — here are 19 cheap or free things you can do to cut energy costs.

1. Program and forget the thermostat

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Save up to 10 percent a year by setting your thermostat 7 degrees to 10 degrees lower for eight hours a day, says Energy.gov. Set it and forget it by using a programmable thermostat.

2. Treat heat pumps differently

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With a heat pump, big moves to lower the heat can backfire, causing the unit to work less efficiently. That can increase your costs. It’s more efficient to make smaller adjustments in heat settings instead — such as lowering the temperature just 1 or 2 degrees instead of 10 degrees.

On the other hand, some newer heat pumps have programmable thermostats that make bigger changes cost-effective.

Small drops in the thermostat setting are recommended for other types of heating, too, including electric resistance heating, steam heating and radiant floor heating.

3. Adjust the water temperature

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Hot water is a big energy user. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends keeping your water heater’s thermostat set at 120 degrees. Anything higher is unnecessary. Water that’s too hot can even be dangerous.

Every 10-degree reduction in your water heater’s thermostat can shave 3 to 5 percent off your bill.

4. Caulk cracks and leaks

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There are many places where warm air can seep out of a house, allowing cold air to creep in. Thoroughly check the interior and exterior of your home for cracks and gaps, paying particular attention to areas around chimneys, furnace flues, pipes, electrical outlets, windows and doors. Fill small leaks with caulk.

5. Bigger gaps need special attention

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Use spray foam — find it in cans at the hardware store — to close up openings that are too big to be sealed with caulk.

6. Insulate the attic door

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Even if your attic is insulated, it’s easy to overlook the attic door. Add a layer of insulation to the inside of the door to prevent expensively heated air from rising into the attic.

7. Shrink-wrap windows

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Windows — especially inefficient windows — account for a large proportion of the heat that escapes from your home as warm air is lost to the cold glass. Yet replacing windows — and even adding energy-efficient honeycomb shades or thermal lined draperies — can be prohibitively expensive.

One cheap way to reduce heat loss is to install window film. It resembles plastic wrap and helps retain heat. Lowe’s, which sells the film, says that insulating films “retain up to 55 percent of your home’s heat in winter.” The film over windows also keeps a home cooler in summer heat.

Apply it to the inside of the windows, and can be easily removed when spring rolls around so you can open the window. See Lowe’s for application instructions.

8. Close the damper

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Enjoy the fireplace this winter! But when you are not using it, keep the damper closed. An open damper creates a draft, pulling air from the room and sending heat — and your money — up the chimney.

9. Use a ceiling fan correctly

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Using ceiling fans in summer can keep you cool. Most ceiling fans also have a switch so you can set the blades to rotate in reverse during the winter. This pushes the warm air near the ceiling down toward the floor to keep you warmer.

Find this switch on the body of the fan and set the blades to turn counter-clockwise in winter. In summer, reverse the direction so the blades move in a clockwise direction. Since fans consume electricity, turn them off when you leave the room.

10. Change furnace filters

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Replace furnace filters regularly — even monthly, depending on the type you buy and how much the furnace is running. Read your appliance’s manual to find the replacement schedule and type, as well as installation instructions.

11. Insulate the water heater

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Wrap older water heaters in an insulating jacket to keep the heat from radiating out. Also, insulate hot water pipes leading from the hot water heater outside and under the house to prevent heat loss as the hot water travels through your plumbing system.

12. Install door sweeps

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Prevent cold drafts of air from blowing in by installing a door sweep at the bottom of exterior doors. Some utility companies offer them free to customers, so call to inquire before you buy one.

13. Close the drapes

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Here’s a simple fix: Reduce heat loss by keeping drapes closed at night, or when the sun is not streaming in. When it’s sunny, open your blinds or drapes and let the sun’s warmth pour into your home.

14. Seal the heat ducts

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While you’re in the attic, take a look at the ducts for the heating system. Look for tears or holes and use mastic or foil tape to seal them so the ducts are as airtight as possible.

16. Insulate the basement

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Up to 30 percent of a home’s heat loss can be due to an uninsulated basement, says HouseLogic. That translates to a loss of as much as $170 in heating costs per year.

HouseLogic says you can insulate in one of two ways:

  • Treat the basement like an outdoor space by insulating only the basement ceiling, which prevents the home’s heat from escaping into the cold basement.
  • Treat the basement like a room in the home, insulating the walls instead of the ceiling. As a bonus, you gain more living area by insulating and enclosing walls.

17. Insulate electric outlets

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Leak detection a constant process, and one you must perform if you want to stop wasting money on heating, says The Portland (Maine) Press Herald:

A house is like a chimney. Warm air exits at the top and is replaced by cold air from the bottom. You want to slow the process as much as you can.

One possible surprise: Electric outlets and switches can be sources of air leaks. Solution: Insulate them. A video at the Alliance to Save Energy tells how.

“The real problem comes from the holes in the walls behind your outlet’s base plates,” says the video. First, turn off the power at the circuit breaker box so you don’t get a shock.

Insulating is simple with premade foam gaskets — make sure you measure the outlet before you purchase. Also, put easily removable child-safety plugs in unused wall outlets to plug potential leaks.

18. Seal outside-facing baseboards

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Even baseboards along outside walls can be a source of cold air leaks. To prevent cold-air intrusion into your home, use clear caulk to seal joints where baseboards meet walls and floors.

19. LED lightbulbs

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LED lightbulbs won’t help with home heating costs, but they sure will make a difference in your electric bills for lighting. We offer a step-by-step guide to choosing the right LED bulbs, and placing them where they will make the most difference.

Marilyn Lewis and Susan Ladika contributed to this post.

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