As winter closes in, it brings the inevitable upward creep of utility bill costs. But when homeowners invest wisely in products and take other steps to weatherize, many of these costs can be controlled, lowered or even eliminated—totaling as much as 10 percent to 30 percent, according to the National Plan for Energy Efficiency from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
To determine a household's biggest energy drains and decide the best course of action for lowering bills, some homeowners choose to have an energy audit. These can be performed for a fee or in some cases they are free of charge. For example, New York offers a Home Performance with Energy Star comprehensive home energy assessment, free for most New Yorkers.
Wherever the home's location, research is likely to pay off: There are often rebates, low-interest loans, cash-back incentives or grants available to make energy efficient upgrades and home improvements.
What follows are suggestions from experts in 10 categories that can reduce the dreaded winter utility bills. We'll begin with the obvious, then jump into some less anticipated energy fixes and upgrades that can make a difference.
—By Colleen Kane
Posted 6 Nov. 2013
Follow her on Twitter @ColleenKane.
The first home energy drain to spring to mind is likely drafts and lack of insulation, so it's crucial to seal the home's "envelope."
First and foremost, be sure the attic is insulated and sealed. An attic's points of weakness include improperly sealed steps, trapdoors and vents. According to the New York State Public Service Commission and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSPSC/NYSERDA), attics are the easiest place to insulate and yield the greatest energy savings.
"You can also test to see if crevices between doors and door frames need better sealing by trying to slip a sheet of paper through," according to NRG Residential Solutions, a new energy provider in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. "If the paper goes through, it means cold air is seeping in and the hot air you paid to heat is going out."
Drafty windows can be another major point of weakness, and should be replaced with double-pane, low-emissivity windows, which can help reduce outside noise, drafts, heating and cooling costs, according to Jonathan Bass, green living expert and director of communications for SolarCity.
Two other major culprits to check out are the garage and the front door. Amy Matthews, home improvement expert with HomeAdvisor.com, recommended checking the gasket seal of garage doors (both the car door and the house door) and installing a new steel entry door for the highest ROI.
"Consider buying a Energy Star-qualified door, and if it has glass, they should be double or triple paned," she said.
The consensus on appliances is to upgrade to Energy Star certified whenever possible, which can also qualify the purchaser for rebates, pointed out Gary Wagner, CEO of Green Distribution.
If that's not practical, at least maintain current appliances, and make sure they're operating as efficiently as possible, like cleaning the coils on the refrigerator and thoroughly emptying the lint traps of the dryer, said Julie Jacobson, a certified LEED Green Associate real estate agent for Redfin.
Clothes dryers not only are likely to be used more in the winter, but their exhaust ducts are another potential source of draft, often equipped with a primitive sheet-metal flapper cover that's easily jammed open by lint. To combat this issue, Mark Tyrol, president of Battic Door Energy Conservation Products, recommended using a dryer vent seal.
Also, think about how the appliances can be used more efficiently. For example when using the oven, resist the urge to keep opening the door to check progress.
"Every time the door opens, the temperature goes down 25 degrees, forcing your oven to work harder and use more energy," advised NYSPSC/NYSERDA. The organization also recommended heating multiple items in the oven simultaneously and turning off the oven 10 to 15 minutes early to let residual heat finish the job.
If only one improvement can be made, consider this: The biggest energy-suck in most consumers' homes is the heating system, often accounting for more than 60 percent of the total energy bill, according to NYSPSC/NYSERDA.
However, old furnaces operate at 70 percent efficiency, according to Matthews. "By upgrading to a 90-percent-efficient furnace, you can expect savings around 22 percent on your annual bill," she said.
The NYSPSC/NYSERDA also advises to clean or replace your air filter once a month or as needed and have your system checked at least once a year.
Efficiency is not only about how the furnace is running, but how that heated air is dispersed through the home. The ducts of a typical house may lose up to 20 percent of the heated air through leaks, according to the EPA's Energy Star program. Fixing this is not a big deal, according to Chris Brooks, owner of FurnaceCompare.com, who pointed out that a minor investment of time and money (about $20 worth of supplies from the hardware store) can ensure proper sealing of those ducts.
If the home is heated by an older boiler, a lesser-known upgrade is offered by Konrad Witek, director of engineering for eComfort.com. "To heat effectively, hydronic systems need to replace the indoor heat lost to cold outside temperatures."
However, a conventional boiler system will operate without regard to the amount of heat that's needed for optimal performance at any given outdoor temperature.This can result in the overproduction of heat and short-cycling, which leads to unnecessarily high heating costs and uncomfortable temperature swings. Outdoor reset controls use a sensor to detect the temperature outside and send this information to the boiler, which adjusts your indoor temperature to keep in balance with expected heat loss.
An outdoor reset control costs between $100 and 500 depending on the specific features of the control and can save around 15 percent on energy costs. Many newer boilers already come with these controls, but those just looking to improve an older system (or even many newer systems) should strongly consider adding one to their home."
As nights grow longer, households use more lights. To reduce lighting costs, designer Maxwell Ryan, founder and CEO of ApartmentTherapy, recommended switching incandescent light bulbs to energy-efficient LED bulbs, which can provide a lifetime savings at $139 per bulb.
"With new LED options the light emitted from the bulb actually looks and lights just like a traditional light bulb—giving off a warm, inviting glow," he said. As an example he offers up the Cree LED bulb, which retails for under $10 for a 40-watt replacement bulb. "It uses 84 percent less energy and is designed to last 25 times longer [25,000 hours] than the traditional light bulb [1,000 hours]."
Another efficient lighting option is Energy Star qualified CFL bulbs, priced as low as $1.50, which can save about $70 or more in energy cost per bulb over their lifetime, according to NYSPSC/NYSERDA.
"In addition to saving water, low-flow fixtures will save you more than a buck or two," Ryan said.
"Inexpensive and easily installed, low-flow fixtures can reduce your home water consumption by as much as 50 percent and can save you up to $145 per year," he said, referencing statistics from an Energy Star report. Ryan cites low-flow fixes like showerheads, costing about $20 at home improvement stores, and low-flow toilets, which he says are cheaper than normal toilets, and capable of saving 3.5 gallons of water per flush—and lowering water bills.
Installing an on-demand hot water system in the home could make a positive impact on bills because a lot of energy is wasted by heating water when it is not needed, according to Wagner. One minor water-related fix is recommended by MrHandyman.com: repair small leaks in plumbing.
"This simple repair may save as much as 212 gallons of water monthly, greatly reducing your water bill over the course of a year."
It makes no sense to have the heat going full blast when no one's home. Now there are smart and programmable thermostats used to regulate the temperature while the occupants are away, to raise it when people will be home and about, and to lower it when they're sleeping under the covers at night.
The installation and proper use of a programmable thermostat, many of which can be controlled remotely from a smartphone or tablet, can make a significant difference. Setting the temperature 10-15 degrees lower during the time you're not at home can result in 5-15 percent less energy usage annually, said Ryan.
Homeowners can also monitor their usage through their thermostat apps, or make changes in the scheduled house temperature to warm it up for an early arrival home.
Just as it makes no sense to have the heat kicking at full blast when no one's home, it's equally senseless to heat an entire large house when the occupants are only using one or a few rooms.
Donnetta Campbell, who works for the U.N. and American Sustainable Business Council, is an empty nester living in a big Westport, Conn., home with "old beautiful drafty windows."
Her solution? "I figured out that electricity is much cheaper [for now] than oil or propane—and more efficient to heat my home [in one area at night and another in the day] so I am reformatting my heating with these wonderful vented propane fireplaces, heated tile floors and electric fireplaces," Campbell said.
"It is nice and cozy where we are but the big oil furnace that casts a fortune to run sits idle except on very cold nights."
Children learn in science class that heat rises, but as adults not everyone considers how that concept applies to home heating efficiency, when a home has ceiling fans.
The semiannual solution for ceiling fans, according to NRG Residential Solutions, is adjusting them to turn run clockwise, so the warm is redirected back down to where it's needed. Of course, they will need to be adjusted again come spring to run counterclockwise.
Converting to solar power does bring the daunting prospect of installing a whole new system in the house, but there are numerous offers available. Home solar provider Sunrun explained how it can work.
"Our co-founders invented 'solar service' or what some refer to as a 'solar lease'—a way for homeowners to go solar with little to nothing down, plus 20 years of insurance, monitoring and maintenance at a lower rate than they're paying for their utility now."
In addition to the savings on utility bills, Laurence Lanigan, general manager of another home solar provider, Vanguard Energies, pointed out that installing solar qualifies the homeowner for additional incentives like government subsidies and tax credits.
"The solar company does all of the paperwork on your behalf to gain the maximum subsidies, which can cover up to 50 percent of the system," he said. "Once the system is up and running, the homeowner's meter actually runs backward, providing power to—as opposed to absorbing power from--the grid."
It's also worth inspecting the exterior of the house with a preseason checkup to avoid costly home snafus.
"Have the roof checked in the fall. Make sure it's free of debris. Check your gutters. Make sure everything is caulked. If it's not free of debris, it could create ice damming. The same applies to metal stacks and HVAC," said Curtis Yates with Elliott Roofing of Oklahoma City. Bob Welther of ACE Private Risk Services recommended an inspection by an arborist to suss out the trees most susceptible to extreme winter weather like high winds, heavy snows and ice storms.
Falling trees and limbs can lead to costly damage to the home—not to mention the additional hit to energy costs.