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Suggested date of release:
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after November 7, 1999
Claudia Chandler (916) 654-4989
Media and Public Communications Office
1,251 Words
(Sixth in a series of 10 feature articles for 1999)


Prepare for Winter and Cut
Your Energy Bills by 75 Percent


According to a number of sources including the Old Farmer's Almanac, this winter will be stormy and unsettled in California. Temperatures are predicted to be several degrees warmer than usual through January, but snow in the mountains will be above normal this season.

Whether or not that forecast holds true, one prediction is sure - in most of the state, winter heating will consume a major portion of a household's energy budget.

On average, 30 percent of all the energy used in a home goes for heating and cooling. The bad news is that a good deal of that expense is wasted, unless a home has been upgraded to take advantage of new technologies.

Here's the sort of improvement we're talking about: a typical three-bedroom California home, built before 1977 and never improved, can cost as much as $2700 a year to heat and cool.

But heating and cooling that same 1700-square-foot house, if it's built to today's more stringent energy standards, should cost about $700 a year. That's a 75 percent reduction in energy costs!

Such savings are the result of improved construction methods and new products that make recently built homes more energy efficient and comfortable than those built before 1977. That was the year the California Energy Commission, the state's energy planning agency, introduced the first Energy Efficiency Building Regulations.

Since these building standards and the accompanying appliance efficiency standards went into effect, they have saved Californians an estimated $16 billion in energy costs.

As winter approaches, here are some simple ways that you can upgrade your home to cut your monthly gas and electric bill.

Your heating system

Since you'll be relying heavily on your heating system in the coming months, it makes sense to insure it's in good working order. Most homeowners can do such simple tasks as cleaning and replacing the air filters, and removing dust that collected over the summer in vents or along baseboard heaters. If it's been awhile since your furnace has had a routine maintenance and inspection, consider scheduling one with a repairman.

If your heating system is old, however, you might consider updating it.

In most of the State, heating with natural gas is about one-third the cost of heating with electricity; that's why central gas furnaces are the most common heating method in California homes today. Using propane, too, is usually cheaper than electricity, although the price of propane can vary widely from place to place.

Today's gas and propane heating systems demonstrate how appliance technology has improved over the past twenty years. A pre-1977 gas furnace is probably 50 percent to 60 percent efficient today. That means that only half of the fuel used by the furnace actually reaches your home as heat. Modern gas furnaces, on the other hand, achieve efficiency ratings as high as 97 percent. Replace an old heating system with one of the most efficient models, and you can cut your natural gas use nearly in half!

If you must rely on electricity to heat your home, heat pumps offer the most efficiency. A heat pump can cut your electricity use for heating by as much as 30 percent to 40 percent.

In its cooling mode, a heat pump works like an ordinary air conditioner. But unlike the air conditioner, a heat pump can work in reverse in cold weather to absorb heat from outdoor air and send it indoors.

The efficiency of a heat pump decreases as the weather gets colder. When outside temperatures are too low for the heat pump to work at maximum efficiency, auxiliary heating-strips turn on automatically to supply heat. These can be expensive to operate, but some units have "intelligent" thermostats that turn the heat pump on and off to minimize the use of the heat strips. For the most efficient operation, rely on the thermostat instead of turning the heat pump on and off manually.

Insulation

Once you're satisfied that your furnace is properly producing heat, you need to consider ways to keep that heat inside your house.

Adding insulation to an attic is probably the most cost-efficient way to cut home heating costs. Because older houses were built with little or no insulation, large amounts of heat are lost through the walls, the floor and - since heat rises - especially the ceiling.

In contrast to older houses, typical framed homes now being built in California's Central Valley must meet insulation requirements of R-38 insulation in ceilings, and R-19 for walls and floors.

The "R" value in insulation designates its resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating ability. By installing insulation with a value higher than the minimum requirements, you can further increase the energy efficiency and comfort of your home.

Windows

Even when a home's walls have been well-insulated, doors and windows can be responsible for up to 50 percent of the heat loss that takes place in winter.

Loosely fitting windows can lose up to five times more heat than tightly fitting ones. So even if you can't afford to replace old windows, you can minimize your heat loss by checking for drafts around windows and doors on windy days. Any leaks should be sealed with weather-stripping. Gaps or holes should be caulked, and windows should be kept tightly locked to prevent drafts. Sealing air leaks, or even replacing old windows with vastly improved new models, will go far to improve a home's energy efficiency.

Windows with dual panes of glass, sometimes called double-glazed windows, are more efficient than single-pane windows. Just like a Thermos bottle that is manufactured with an insulating air space between its inner and outer containers, double-glazed windows help to prevent the loss of heat. And windows with low "e" coated glass make even better insulators.

Modern window frames made of wood, vinyl or fiberglass conduct less heat and are substantially more energy efficient than solid metal designs, although today many aluminum-framed windows are being built to include an efficient thermal break that improves efficiency.

Replacing windows is an effective way to save energy, but it can also be expensive. It could take you quite awhile to recover your costs from the energy savings alone. But new windows provide other benefits, such as appearance and comfort, since your home will be less drafty.

Other leaks

In addition to windows, there are plenty of other places to look for drafts and leaks. Every duct, wire or pipe that penetrates the wall or ceiling or floor has the potential to waste energy. Seal them with caulking or weather-stripping. Also make sure that the heating ducts themselves don't leak.

Plumbing vents can be especially bad, since they begin below the floor and go all the way through the roof. By sealing them carefully, you can prevent cold air from entering the house from the outside.

Even electric wall plugs and switches can allow cold air in. You can purchase simple-to-install, pre-cut foam gaskets at most hardware stores. They fit behind the switch plate, and effectively prevent leaks.

Keep in mind that installing such gaskets, caulking holes and adding weather-stripping are probably the least expensive, most effective ways to cut down on energy waste in the winter.

And here's a final, very simple energy tip for winter: close the damper on your fireplace when you're not using it. With the damper open, the fireplace chimney is as bad as an open window, drawing warm air out of the room and increasing drafts. It's an effective energy saving tip that costs absolutely nothing.


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This article is based on the California Energy Commission's Home Energy Guide, to be published early in 2000.

You can find additional information about energy in California on the Energy Commission's Web Site at www.energy.ca.gov.

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