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Lower your Home Heating Bill

January 26, 2012

Info from Bankrate

The approach of winter brings a chill to homeowners in Charleston and home insurance companies alike.

Homeowners  in Charleston feel the pinch in their pocketbooks from rising energy bills but usually from the heat of the summer. Heating and cooling account for 56 percent of the energy use in a typical American home, according to the Department of Energy. Although here in Charleston, South Carolina most of our electric bill expense comes from cooling.

Despite the certainty of winter, many of us fail to take steps to save on winter heating bills and minimize heating-related home insurance risk.

“Most people don’t really have a clue,” says Kirk Lindstrom, vice president of operations for Building Energy Experts, an energy management firm near Chicago which conducts residential and commercial energy audits. “We focus on the building envelope. If it has a lot of holes in it, you’ve got issues.”

Here are some money-smart ways to bundle up your home this winter, with cost-savings estimates by Building Energy Experts.

Insulation is your home’s all-purpose force field against high energy bills. It minimizes heat transfer in winter and summer, provides ventilation to control moisture and makes your home more livable.

Bringing your attic insulation up to code for your region is one of the most cost-effective ways to winter-proof your bear cave. The Department of Energy can get you started with its ZIP Code Insulation Calculator.

But before you blow insulation, be sure to seal all ductwork, plumbing and cable TV penetrations. Leaky ducts can account for 10 percent to 30 percent of heating and cooling costs.

“Most houses leak like sieves,” says Lindstrom. “Attic access doors are one of the biggest offenders. By building an insulation dam around the scuttle opening and installing an insulated lid on it, you’ll save big.”

Cost: $500 to $1,000 to bring a typical attic up to code. Lindstrom recommends earth-friendly chopped cellulose, which is chemically treated to repel fire and insects and retains its loft better than fiberglass.

Savings: 20 percent to 30 percent off your monthly bill, with return on investment in as little as one year. The best product to insulate your home is spray foam.

Who says you can’t change the weather? We alter the temperature inside our homes all the time with the press of a button or the turn of a dial on our thermostat.

But what many of us fail to do is “teach” our thermostat how to save us money.

You can save 10 percent on your winter heating bills by adjusting your thermostat 10 to 15 degrees cooler for the eight hours you’re at work, according to the Department of Energy. Cut it back an additional eight hours when you sleep and you might save 20 percent.

Depending on where you live, that savings could pay for a new programmable thermostat in its first month of use.

“That’s a no-brainer,” says Lindstrom. “For $40 to $70, you can get a really nice setback thermostat that is going to last forever and you can program it any way you want. It’s a big plus.”

Cost: $40 to $70 plus installation.

Savings: 10 percent to 20 percent on winter heating bills.

The Department of Energy estimates that water heaters account for 14 percent to 25 percent of our monthly energy bill. Little wonder, since most water heaters are on 24/7.

Water heaters are often factory-set at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to scald. The Department of Energy says most of us can live comfortably with 120-degree water. You can save 3 percent to 5 percent on your water heating costs for every 10 degrees of setback.

To save even more, you can reduce hot water use with low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators, jacket the heater and wrap hot water pipes to minimize stand-by heat loss, and install a timer to take advantage of cheaper off-peak power.

“The quickest remedy is to set back your water temperature, but a tank insulator sleeve really helps a lot,” says Lindstrom.

For greater savings, ditch the tank entirely and invest in an energy-saving, on-demand tankless water heater.

Cost: Free to adjust, inexpensive for attachments, $50 to insulate, $500 to $1,000 for on-demand systems.

Savings: 6 percent to 10 percent on water heating costs with 20-degree setback; 24 percent to 34 percent by going tankless.

Many homes lose costly heat the old-fashioned way: through outdated windows.

“Just look at them: They’re big holes in your walls!” says Lindstrom. “In Florida, it’s jalousie windows. In Chicago, it’s double-hung windows with the uninsulated box where the cast-iron weight travels. People lose a ton of energy this way.”

Double-pane thermal windows arrest the heat transfer by inserting dead-air space, a poor conductor, between two panes. Unlike single-pane windows, which can lose more heat in winter than they let in, energy-efficient windows enable homes to take advantage of free solar heating during chilly weather.

“If we go into an old house that has single-pane, glazed, weighted windows, we can save them 30 percent right off the top, no problem,” says Lindstrom. “Your return on investment could be as little as two years.”

As a make-do plan, create your own energy-saving dead-air space by affixing clear plastic sheeting over the interior opening of unused windows.

Cost: Energy-efficient double-pane windows start at around $150.

Savings: A whole-house window upgrade can save 16 percent to 21 percent on annual heating costs, according to EfficientWindows.org.

As long as we’re addressing large, costly holes in our home envelope, your chimney is a gaping one that goes in heat’s favorite direction: up.

Although your chimney probably has a working damper, it’s unlikely to be airtight. Poke your hand up inside the flue and you’ll probably feel the draft.

“The majority of damping systems in a fireplace do not adequately seal off air infiltration from the outside,” says Lindstrom. “You need to address that hole, because it’s a big one.”

Because masonry retrofits can prove costly and chimney caps are cumbersome during fireplace season, most homeowners opt to place fitted glass fireplace doors over this energy giant in the living room. Some homeowners also leverage their fireplace by installing a heat exchanger, insert or woodstove to bring more heat into the room.

Cost: Glass fireplace doors run $300 to $500, woodstoves $700 to $1,200, inserts $1,400 to $2,300.

Savings: Glass fireplace doors can shave 1 percent to 2 percent off your heating bill.

Portable space heaters contribute to 57,300 fires and 270 deaths caused by home heating every year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. To avoid this hazard, Lindstrom recommends a quartz or oil-filled heater, which look like radiators.

“If it looks like (an exposed toaster) in your house and you can touch the heating element, you’ve got problems,” he says.

Here are more money-saving home energy tips:

  • Reverse your ceiling fans: It will help circulate rising heated air down to where you need it.
  • Close heating vents and doors to little-used rooms.
  • Insulate outlets and light switches with inexpensive switch insulators to eliminate these small but numerous energy leaks.
  • Replace the light bulbs you leave on longest with CFL, or compact flourescent light, bulbs. They use 75 percent less energy and save $40 in energy costs over their lifetime.
  • Download an energy monitoring app: New energy monitoring desktop applications can help you monitor your energy use in real time from your computer or smartphone.
  • Take advantage of federal and state tax rebates, including Energy Star appliance upgrades

During the summer, programmable thermostats can help save energy — and reduce utility bills — by raising your home’s temperature at predetermined times, such as when you’re at work.

In the winter, they conserve power by lowering the temperature of your home at select times, such as while you’re sleeping. James Schiller, Charleston area real estate agent says,” More and more home buyers are asking about energy efficient homes or where to improve the efficiency after purchase”.

“It doesn’t take more energy to reheat the house than you save during periods of set-back, despite the myth to the contrary,” says Bruce Harley, technical director of Conservation Services Group of Westborough, Mass., and author of “Cut Your Energy Bills Now” and “Insulate and Weatherize.”

Remember, the programmable feature won’t save you a dime unless you actually use it.

“Programmable thermostats by themselves don’t actually save money — unless you use them,” he says. “Most models out there today come pre-programmed, which makes it a lot easier for them to do their job.”

SAVINGS: A programmable thermostat can trim between 1 percent and 5 percent off your heating and/or cooling energy costs, Harley says.

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