Originally created 10/30/04

Managing home energy costs



When it comes to managing home energy costs, your best defense is a strong offense. Taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of your home will not only save you money on utility costs, but you'll improve personal comfort as well.

The list of energy upgrades is long. Many are do-it-yourself projects, while others are best left to a pro. Some of the tasks, such as caulking or weather stripping, are cheap and easy to do. Projects such as replacement windows or a new energy efficient furnace can be costly and require a longer payback period. Thus, to get the best bang for your energy upgrade buck, be sure to consider how long you will stay in your home. You may want to defer major upgrades if you plan to move in three years or less.

Furnace Maintenance: A home heating system should be inspected at least once annually --twice if it doubles as an air conditioner -- prior to the beginning of each season. Beyond checking for potential safety hazards, the system should be serviced to attain peak performance and reduce operating costs.

System maintenance should include blower chamber cleaning, motor lubrication, belt adjustment, burner cleaning and calibration and filter replacement. Filter replacement is one of the most important do-it-yourself energy tasks. A crud-covered filter makes the system work harder and drives up energy and repair costs. Stay away from cheap filters. They do a poor job and dont last long. Go with a pleated filter that is designed to last up to three months.

Tip: Use our salt test when choosing a filter. If you sprinkle salt on the filter and it travels through the fabric, that's a sure sign of poor product.

Drafty Doors: Weather stripping and caulking are the most effective means of dealing with drafts around doors. If no weather stripping is present, install it. If it exists and is worn or brittle, replace it with new material. Seasonal adjustment may also be required depending up your climate zone.

An important component of a door's weather stripping system is the door bottom or "shoe" consisting of a U-shaped channel with a vinyl gasket that attaches to the underside of the door. Most door bottoms require seasonal adjustment -- especially where a home is subject to shifting.

Tip: Use a flashlight at night to determine if a gap exists between the door bottom and threshold. If light can be seen, the door bottom needs adjusting.

Caulking is another easy means of controlling drafts. Install a bead of high quality exterior grade caulk around door trim at the joint where it contacts the siding.

Penetrations: There are various penetrations in walls that can result in drafts and significant energy loss. Especially vulnerable are locations where plumbing pipes and electrical wiring travel through walls.

Use expandable foam sealant to seal gaps at plumbing pipes below sinks, at pipe and duct penetrations in framing and siding, where electrical wires travel through walls and the gap around heat or air vents at walls, floors and ceilings.

Another significant source of lost energy is through drafts around electrical switch and outlet boxes. Where large gaps exist, use expandable foam sealant. Otherwise, the most efficient fix is a precut foam gasket that can be installed directly over the plug or switch, below the finish trim plate.

Insulation: Adding insulation is one of the most cost-effective means of saving energy and improving home comfort. The best place to begin is by adding attic insulation. The additional material can be blown in or laid into place using batts or rolls.

Just because your attic contains insulation doesn't mean that it is adequate. Over time, existing material can settle and become compacted, lowering its R-value and making it less effective. Thus, an attic that contained insulation with an R-value of 13 when it was installed 30 years ago could conceivably be reduced to a value of 8 if the material has compacted over time.

Existing insulation usually does not need to be removed. Additional material can be installed directly over the existing material. Depending upon where you live, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends attic insulation with an R-value ranging from 22 to 49. Wall insulation and even insulation in the floor can also help improve comfort and save energy.

Storm Windows and Doors: If you live in a part of the country where the mercury dips quite low, storm windows and doors are a must. They are available in a wide variety of materials and configurations for either pro or do-it-yourself installation on the interior or exterior. Some are temporary and must be stored during the off season while others are designed for permanent installation.

Most storm doors are permanent, but consist of removable panels that can be stored during the offseason. If storm windows sound like a good idea, but they're not in the budget for this season, you can control drafts using a temporary storm window kit available at most hardware stores and home centers. The kit consists of a piece of plastic film and some two-sided tape. Simply place the tape over the trim around the perimeter of the inside of the window. Press the plastic film over the tape and use a blow dryer to shrink the plastic taut. This works great in a pinch.

Decorative Ceiling Paddle Fan: A decorative ceiling paddle fan run in the reverse direction is an excellent means of circulating warm air that is up at the ceiling. This technique is especially valuable in homes that have high vaulted ceilings that capture all of a room's heated air. The paddle fan creates gentle air currents that push the air from the ceiling down walls and into habitable space.

An existing light fixture can usually be replaced with a decorative fan with minor modifications. A ceiling fan can also generally be added to a space that otherwise does not have one. Check with an electrician for more information.

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For more home improvement tips and information visit our Web site at www.onthehouse.com.