Warming Up: Big and Small Ideas for Saving Energy and Money this Winter

Story by Jamey Bradbury

As winter rolls in, it's the perfect time to increase your home's energy efficiency and decrease your monthly heating bill. From minor improvements to major renovations, here are some tips from the experts on making your home a warmer – and even healthier – place to live.

Minor Adjustments

Take a quick tour of your house, and pay special attention to the windows. Are they all latched? "You'd be surprised how often you'll find a window in the home cracked, even in the winter," says Scott Waterman of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC). After a summer spent opening and closing windows, it's easy to forget to bolt everything for the winter. Even a small crack can vent out huge amounts of warm air that you've already paid for.

"Every degree setting on your thermostat will either increase or decrease your energy bill by about three percent," says Waterman. He recommends installing a programmable thermostat, but only if it works with your family's lifestyle. "Not everyone has a routine schedule," he adds. "But setting your thermostat at a lower temperature at night, while everyone's asleep, can be a big benefit."

With Alaska's dark winters, lights can also be a huge energy suck. Betty Hall of AHFC recommends replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs or compact fluorescents. "Compact fluorescents use about a quarter of the energy (of incandescent bulbs)," says Hall, while the electricity used for a single incandescent can power 10 LEDs.

Renters can get in on the savings, too, says Hall. "I advise my friends who pay their own utilities to put in compact fluorescents but save the landlord's old incandescent bulbs. When they move out, they can take their energy-efficient lighting with them, and they'll have saved 75 percent on their energy bill."

Finally, before deep winter sets in, Waterman recommends scheduling a tune-up to keep the home heating system running at peak efficiency. "Small leaks or damage could potentially take you down on a cold night," he says. "Doing basic maintenance when you don't have to is a lot better than needing something fixed when you're desperate and cold." The furnace filter should also be checked and replaced, if necessary; thick fiberglass filters should be changed monthly to improve the air quality in the home, while high-efficiency filters can be changed every three months.

Hot Tips

Big changes can result in big savings, but not every renovation is an improvement. Replacing old windows with new ones is a popular but often ineffective remodel, since even the most energy-efficient window is "still a hole in the wall," describes Hall. "New windows won't give you the most bang for your buck." Waterman recommends that, rather than sinking money into replacing windows, homeowners focus on weather stripping doors and windows to prevent air leakage.

For homes with older furnaces and boilers, a new heating system may be in order. "I've seen boilers that are just 60-percent efficient," says Hall. "That means for every $100 a homeowner spends on fuel, $60 is heating the house while $40 is going up the chimney." Newer high-efficiency heating systems are now more reliable and less expensive than they once were.

They're quieter, too. "My old furnace would roar on and off, and I'd get alternately hot and cold all day," recalls Hall, who is nearing completion on a major retrofit of her own home. "I replaced it with a 98-percent efficient furnace. It runs all the time, but I never hear it. There's a constant trickle of warm air, so the home is much more comfortable."

Proper insulation can have a huge impact on the monthly heating bill. "The biggest energy use in most homes is through air leakage," says Waterman. For homeowners who are replacing their siding, it's the perfect time to add insulation to the outer walls.

Another option is insulating the foundation, a "notoriously leaky area," says Hall. Waterman recommends homeowners dig 6 to 18 inches below grade, then insulate from there to the bottom of the siding. "That's a long band around the house that gets very cold. Un-insulated, it can cost you a lot, plus it makes the floors on the inside of your house very uncomfortable."

The attic is also a key place to insulate, since heat rises and tends to escape into the attic through holes in the ceiling where light fixtures hang. But don't let your retrofit cause more problems, warns Emmett Leffel of Alaska Thermal Imaging. "A house is a system. If you make changes to one part of the house, you can inadvertently affect another part."

When warm, moist air escapes into a poorly insulated attic, it stays in vapor form and escapes outside. But once an attic is properly insulated, oftentimes that air cools, then condenses and drips back into the house. "People will often think they have a roof leak when really it's condensation," Waterman explains. Proper ventilation can prevent this problem and others.

'Build Tight, Ventilate Right'

"Energy efficiency sounds crazy," says Hall, "because we tell you, make your house as tight as you can, then we say, okay, now punch a hole in the wall to bring in fresh air. The idea is you want to choose where your fresh air comes from."

When a home isn't properly sealed, air comes in through the crawlspace or the garage and carries with it mold spores and fumes, including carbon monoxide. And without proper ventilation, that air stays in the home, creating an unhealthy environment. Says Leffel, "Proper air sealing and ventilation really improves the health and safety of a home. Our saying is 'Build tight, ventilate right' – it can be life-altering."

The simplest thing a homeowner can do is to ensure all vents are working properly and expelling air outside. Leffel suggests placing a piece of toilet paper over your bathroom fan; if the fan can hold the paper when it's running, that means it's ventilating well.

Next, make sure your fans and exhaust systems are venting to the outside of your home – and not into the attic. Dampers should be completely open to ensure positive airflow. For better ventilation control, you may consider installing a heat recovery ventilator, which will bring in fresh air, exhaust contaminated air, improve climate control and promote house-wide energy efficiency.

Revving Up for a Reno

Whether you're thinking about replacing your old boiler or adding insulation to your attic, consider getting an energy audit first. Through AHFC's Home Energy Rebate Program, homeowners can be reimbursed up to $325 for an energy audit. And they can qualify for further reimbursements by making suggested energy-efficiency improvements.

"With an energy audit, we're looking at everything," says Leffel. "We want to see how the heating system is installed, how durable and comfortable the home is. We do a blower door test to check ventilation. Oftentimes, we come up with 20-page reports on the improvements that can be made."

If 20 pages sounds like a lot, rest assured you don't have to make every improvement to qualify for reimbursement. "As the homeowner, you get to decide what makes sense for you and what doesn't," says Hall. "There are some minimum requirements, and you have to go up one step – from a two-star energy rating to a two-star-plus, for example. But it's not all or nothing."

Making even small improvements to your home's energy efficiency can result in big savings. "Statewide, the average savings is about $1300 a year," says Waterman. In communities where heating is more expensive, the savings can be much higher.

Perhaps the greater benefit, though, is comfort. Says Leffel, "People find themselves using their homes in ways they never did before when things are properly heated and ventilated. When a cold home becomes warm and comfortable, it really changes how a family lives together."

Ready to tackle one of these energy-saving projects? Consider taking a class with AHFC or the Alaska Craftsman Home Program; both offer courses on reading your energy audit, insulating properly and a host of other topics that will help you save money and make your home – and your family – healthier and happier.