Personal Finance > Your Home
5 fast ways to winterize
graphic October 23, 2001: 8:36 a.m. ET

No matter how cold it gets, you can stay warm and still save money.
By Jeanne Sahadi
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  • American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy: Home Energy Checklist
  • Calculator: EPA's Home Energy Yardstick
    NEW YORK (CNNmoney) - Brace yourself. There actually may be some good news on the horizon. According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy, you're likely to pay less for heat this winter than you did last year.

    The DOE estimates assume we'll have a "normal" winter - unlike the blood-freezing variety some parts of the country endured last year. But even if Old Man Winter gets grouchy, this year's bills still may be lower since heating fuel inventories are higher than they were a year ago, the agency reports, and that reduces the risk of price surges.

    But estimates are just educated guesses. Whether or not the DOE projections hold true - and the agency concedes current world events add another element of uncertainty to oil prices - you still can pay less for your heat, saving 20 percent or more, if you take a few of the following low-cost steps to better insulate your home.

    Step 1: See which way the wind is blowing

    If you grew up with cost-conscious parents, you probably were told to put on your sweater every time you complained the house was cold. Now that you're paying the bills, their words seem like wisdom. But if you identify energy leaks in your home, you may be able to give the sweater a rest without jacking up your thermostat.

    "Go around your house and check for anyplace you feel a draft," said Jennifer Thorne, a research associate with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

    If you've got air leaks around the edges of your windows, rope caulk will be your best friend. One package costs about $3 at Home Depot, and can also be found at your local hardware store.

    If you feel a breeze at the bottom of your doors, stock up on door sweeps, which are easy to attach and will run you between $2.50 and $10.

    And if you've got storm windows, be sure to keep them closed. If you don't have them, you can create temporary ones using a removable plastic film for your windows that you apply using a blow-dryer. Depending on how many windows you need to cover, the film will cost you between $10 and $20.

    Taken together, these measures alone may save you up to 10 percent on your heating bills, Thorne said.

    Step 2: Give your water heater a sweater

    Your water heater may be well-insulated on the inside but it is likely to lose energy through its outside casing if it's kept in an unheated space, such as an unfinished basement. That's where an easy-to-install insulating blanket comes in handy. It will run you between $14 and $20 depending on the size and the "R" value. "'R' means resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulation value," said Joe Salzone, assistant store manager of Home Depot in Long Island City, NY.

    Thorne also recommends getting coverings for the hot-water pipes leading away from your water-heater, since they're more likely to freeze without them. Such insulation for copper pipes costs between $3 and $10, depending on the material used. The better covers use a material similar to that found in wetsuits, Salzone said.

    Step 3: Perform other cheap tricks

    Among other fast, inexpensive ways to insulate your home, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends closing chimney flues when you're not using your fireplace or sealing any unused fireplaces in your house.

    Also, keep the drapes closed on north-facing windows, and let the sun shine in through your south-facing windows.

    Step 4: Take control of the dial

    Of course, one of the most obvious ways to cut your heating bill is to cut the heat. Keeping your thermostat low when you're sleeping or away from home goes a long way toward keeping extra dollars in your pocket.

    Thorne estimates that if you turn the thermostat down 10 degrees for 8 hours a night you can save 7 percent on your heating bill. If you do the same thing during the day and you're away from home for eight hours, that's another 7 percent.

        Turning the thermostat down 10 degrees for 8 hours a night can save you 7 percent on your heating bill.
    If you're less-than-religious about turning the thermostat down or if family members keep switching the temperature to suit themselves, you might consider buying a programmable thermostat, which costs between $20 and $120, depending on the number of features you want.

    You can set it so that it lowers the heat 30 minutes before you leave in the morning and begins to raise it again half an hour before you return. Likewise, it can turn the heat down as you drift off to sleep, and raise it as you contemplate that first cup of coffee.

    Step 5: Call the energy source

    Thanks to both deregulation and greater consciousness about energy conservation, your utility company may be eager to help you save money.

    Contact your local gas and electric company to see if it has any special deals for energy-efficient customers. Some may offer discounts for programmable thermostats or a free leak/draft audit for your house, Thorne said.

    Focus on longer-term solutions, too

    Of course, there are many other longer-term measures you can take to make your house more energy efficient without sacrificing comfort.

    For starters, make sure all the insulation in your house is up to snuff. If not, the ACEEE recommends hiring an insulation contractor to set things right.

        By properly caring for your furnace, you can save between 3 percent and 10 percent on your heating bill. And, said Jennifer Thorne of ACEEE, "Your system will operate longer and better."
    Also, make sure your furnace (or boiler) gets regular tune-ups by your heating contractor. Thorne suggested annual check-ups for oil-based systems and check-ups every other year for gas-based systems. "Your system will operate longer and better," she said. Together, these steps can save you between 3 percent and 10 percent in heating costs.

    Every three to five years, you should have ducts that circulate warm air cleaned, and you should change the air filters in your furnace once a month, Thorne suggested. If you have radiators that run on water or steam, they should be bled periodically.

    For more suggestions, see ACEEE's Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings.

    If you want to compare your home's energy performance to other homes and determine how much you can save by making your home more energy-efficient, use the Environmental Protection Agency's Home Energy Yardstickgraphic


    American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy: Home Energy Checklist

    Calculator: EPA's Home Energy Yardstick

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