It’s Easy Being Green: Staying Warm and Saving Money

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This article contains a correction.

Current projections from the federal Energy Information Administration predict that average household expenditures for all space-heating fuels this winter will be 15 percent higher than last year. Given the current state of the economy, this is not welcome news for many Americans. But several steps can be taken to save money on heating bills, promote energy efficiency in your home, and cut carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels by power plants.

While many actions can make a difference, here are 10 key ways to lower your bills and stay warm at the same time.

1. The Department of Energy recommends resetting your thermostat back to 65 degrees from 72 degrees for eight hours a day (for instance, while no one is home or while everyone is in bed). This step can cut your heating bill by up to 10 percent. For every degree you lower the thermostat, you’ll save between 1 percent and 3 percent on your heating bill.

2. Install a programmable thermostat so that you’ll never forget to turn the heat down. They are widely available for as little as $50, and the average family saves $180 a year with one, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

3. A dirty furnace filter can restrict airflow and increase energy use in your home. Keeping your furnace clean, lubricated, and properly adjusted can save about 5 percent on heating costs. To increase the efficiency of your furnace, replace or clean filters once a month during operating seasons. If it’s an old furnace, consider replacing it—furnaces on the market today are about 25 percent more efficient than those made in the 1980s.

4. Installing exterior or interior storm windows can reduce heat loss through the windows by as much as 25 percent to 50 percent, leading to energy cost savings. Installing a storm door can increase energy efficiency by 45 percent by sealing drafts and reducing air flow. And double-paned windows (two panes of glass separated by a layer of air or inert gas) are another option to reduce energy usage, improve insulation, and lower heat loss. Alternatively, you can seal windows against cold winds with clear plastic film or a heavy-duty plastic sheet—just make sure it’s sealed tightly to the frame.

5. Many conventional water heaters are set to 140 degrees Fahrenheit by installers, but lowering the temperature to 120 degrees* would reduce water heating costs by 6 percent to 10 percent. Most homes don’t need that high of a level anyway, and end up paying more for unused hot water. Lowering the heater’s thermostat by 10 degrees can save you between 3 percent to 5 percent in energy costs, and a recent Department of Energy study showed energy savings of 25 percent to about 30 percent by installing a drain waste water heat recovery system.

6. Another way to save on water heating is to wrap an insulation blanket around the water heater tank. This can save around 4 percent to 9 percent on water-heating costs, and is especially useful with older heaters. You could also consider a new energy-efficient tankless water heater, which could cost more up front than a conventional heater, but will save money throughout its lifetime on energy costs.

7. Caulking, weather stripping, and sealing air leaks and cracks in your home can save 10 percent or more on energy bills. Focus on the attic, basement, windows, and doorways. When sealing leaks, use no- or low-VOC caulking to minimize harmful indoor gases. Increasing the insulation in your attic can also help regulate indoor temperatures in both summer and winter.

8. Properly sealing ducts can save the average home up to $140 annually, according to the American Solar Energy Society. Properly sealed ducts also protect against mold and dust. Consider hiring a professional technician to test your duct system and fix any problems. Many utilities also offer incentive programs for duct improvement.

9. A plethora of tax credits exist to help homeowners install renewable energy and energy efficient products. State, local, and federal incentives encourage storm doors, energy efficient appliances, and more. A detailed list of incentives is available at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

10. Finally, several things you can do at home for free: open South-facing curtains in the morning to let in as much sun as possible to heat the house naturally. Close them at night for added warmth. Running ceiling fans in reverse causes an updraft that can push warm air down, reducing heating bills by as much as 10 percent.

If you’re interested in investing for the long term, consider conducting an energy audit of your home, either with the Department of Energy’s do-it-yourself instructions or by hiring a professional.

*Correction, November 7, 2008: Many energy-saving websites recommend 120 degrees Fahrenheit for water heaters to save on costs, but public health officials recommend setting a water heater at higher than 122 degrees to prevent Legionnaires’ disease bacteria.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series