7 Tips to Conserve Heat and Money This Winter

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Last May, we gave you 13 Cool Tips for Lower Energy Bills. Many of the same tips apply to lowering your heating bill – like cleaning your air filters and installing enough insulation. So check out that story, but here’s more quick info on things you can do to winterize your home.

1. Use free online tools.

Here’s a web-based tool from the U.S. Department of Energy that can help you save energy. You input your house’s specifics, it returns ways you might save. Microsoft Hohm is another site that can help you map out an energy-saving strategy.

2. Check out available tax credits before it’s too late

There are some tasty tax credits available for certain types of energy-saving home improvements, and they’re expiring on December 31st.

We wrote about this back in May, but here’s a brief recap:

To see the details of what qualifies for the $1,500 energy tax credit, visit the Energy Star website, but below are the basics. The first list is things that qualify for a tax credit of 30% of the cost, but only up to $1,500. The second list is improvements that qualify for a tax credit of 30% of the cost with no cap.

Qualifying Improvements: 30% of the cost, $1,500 cap. (Restrictions: must be principal residence, no rentals, no new construction. You can take a total of $1,500 in 2009 and 2010 combined for a total credit of $1,500, not $1,500 each year. Expires December 31, 2010.)

  • Biomass Stoves
  • Heating, Ventilating, Air Conditioning
  • Insulation (Note: Tax credit does NOT include installation costs, but you can do it yourself and get the credit for the materials.)
  • Roofs (Metal & Asphalt)
  • Water Heaters (non-solar)
  • Windows & Doors

Important: Only products that meet certain energy-efficiency qualifications are eligible for the credit. To find ones that qualify, either check the Energy Star website or simply ask the retailers you’re dealing with.

Qualifying Improvements: 30% of the cost, no cap. (Restrictions: Both existing homes & new construction qualify. Both principal residences and second homes qualify. Rentals do not qualify. You can take a credit of 30% of the cost with no cap for improvements purchased by December 31, 2016.)

  • Solar Energy Systems
  • Geothermal Heat Pumps
  • Small Wind Turbines

As above, only products that meet certain criteria will qualify: check the Energy Star website or other sources, like purveyors of these products, for details.

3. Plant trees instead of burning them

As the weather gets colder, leaves fall and so do prices for trees as nurseries try to get rid of inventory before it perishes. You probably already know that trees save you money in the summer as they shade your house from the sun – the U.S. Forest Service estimates that three 25-foot-tall trees can slash summer air-conditioning costs for some homes by up to 25 percent. But those trees also provide a wind break in winter that can cut heating costs by that same amount. (Use this Tree Benefits Estimator to get a more precise figure.)

Cost: As much as $200 per tree planted for you, or free from your city if you plant them yourself and your city has a tree program, which many do, from Rochester to West Sacramento. Call your City Hall and find out.

4. Go high-tech with your thermostat

Spending a few hundred dollars on a “remote programmable thermostat” can pay for itself in one chilly winter. They vary in price and features, but they all allow you to save money by automatically changing the temperature settings at night and when you’re out of the house. Some, like the CEM24, let your adjust the temperature using your phone. Others, like the Honeywell Prestige 7-Day Programmable, even have iPhone or iPad apps. And many let you use the Internet to go online and, say, lower the heat to 60 degrees while you’re at work and then raise it back to 70 when you’re heading home.

Cost: $200 for the low-end up to $350 for the full-color displays with all the bells and whistles. Installing a thermostat isn’t rocket science, but if you’re not handy you may also have to pay for installation by a professional.

5. Focus on your windows

It’s good advice to replace drafty windows with high-efficiency Energy Star windows, but that’s expensive – often hundreds per window. If you’ve got the budget for it, now’s the time, thanks to the tax credits I mentioned above. But if your budget won’t allow that this year, explore less expensive options. One example – Interior storm windows can be cheap, and save nearly as much on your heating bill – up to 25 percent or more.

Cost: As little as $7 for this low-tech, do-it-yourself White Plastic Interior Storm Window Kit to $150 for the spring-loaded Boomerang Energy Products Energy Panel.

6. Find leaks and plug them

Is the heat leaking out of your house? If you can get it scheduled, some utility companies will conduct a free, thorough test. You can also hire a pro to do it (which can cost up to $400). A high-tech middle ground is the Black & Decker Thermal Heat Detector, which can show you heat escaping as it happens, especially in vulnerable areas like outlets and lighting fixtures. Then you can seal the leaks with caulk or molding. Customer reviews of the THD have been very positive.

Cost: Around $50 from your local hardware store.

Of course, you can also use the low-tech but time-tested method of finding leaks: simply hold a burning candle near openings and look for a flicker that reveals incoming air.

7. Do all the little things that add up to big savings

While you’ve probably seen many of these tips, a refresher course on the basics never hurts. Here’s a good list from the U.S. Department of Energy.

  • Keep the draperies and shades on your south facing windows open during the day to allow the sunlight to enter your home and closed at night to reduce the chill you may feel from cold windows.
  • Set your thermostat as low as is comfortable when home. Dress for the season: lounging around your house in shorts during the winter is expensive.
  • Lower your thermostat from 72 degrees to 65 degrees when you’re not home or in bed. That alone can cut your heating bill by up to 10 percent.
  • Make sure your furnace is properly maintained.
  • Check the insulation in your attic, ceilings, exterior and basement walls, floors, and crawl spaces to see if it meets the levels recommended for your area.