Sacramento - Count on it - this winter, heating costs are going up across the country.
The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that natural gas prices will increase more than 11 percent above those from last winter. People who use propane for heat will probably find prices increasing by 15 percent or more.
Those higher natural gas prices will hit California as well. That's why it's more important than ever to check your home to insure that your heating dollars aren't being wasted.
As winter approaches, use this checklist of simple ways to make your home more comfortable and keep those escalating energy bills at bay.
Check for leaks
Weatherstripping and caulking is probably the least expensive, simplest, most effective way to cut down on energy waste in the winter. Improperly sealed homes can waste 10 to 15 percent of the homeowner's heating dollars. Take these steps:
- Check around doors and windows for leaks and drafts. Add weather-stripping, and caulk any holes you see that allow heat to escape. Make sure doors seal properly. If your windows leak really badly, consider replacing them with newer, more efficient ones. Keep in mind, however, that replacing windows can be expensive. But new windows also provide other benefits, such as improved appearance and comfort.
- Every duct, wire or pipe that penetrates the wall or ceiling or floor has the potential to waste energy. Plumbing vents can be especially bad, since they begin below the floor and go all the way through the roof. Seal each penetration with caulking or weather-stripping.
- Electric wall plugs and switches can allow in cold air. Purchase simple-to-install, pre-cut foam gaskets that fit behind the switch plate and effectively prevent leaks.
- Don't forget to close the damper on your fireplace. Of course the damper needs to be open if a fire is burning; but if the damper is open when you're not using the fireplace, your chimney functions as a large open window that draws warm air out of the room and creates a draft. Close that damper - it's an effective energy-saving tip that costs you nothing! If your fireplace has glass doors, make sure those are closed as well.
- Examine your house's heating ducts for leaks. Think of your ductwork as huge hoses; only instead of bringing water into your house, they deliver hot air in winter and cool air in summer. Mostly out of sight, ducts can leak excessively without you knowing it. Leaky ducts can make rooms hard to heat and can cause your heater to operate more than it needs to. In addition, leaks can suck pollutants into the ductwork from the places where the ducts are located.
Over time, ducts can become torn, or crushed or flattened. Old duct tape - the worse thing to use to seal ductwork, by the way - will dry up and fall away, allowing junctions and splices to open, spilling heated air into your attic or under the house. It's wasteful. Ducts should not be sealed with cloth tape that uses rubber-based adhesive. Instead, seal them with mastic, metallic tape, plastic tape, cloth tape with butyl adhesive, or with aerosol sealant injected into the ducts. Ducts should be sealed by a trained contractor who has the proper equipment to diagnostically measure the leakage. Contact your utility to find contractors in your area that have been properly trained.
The effort can be worth it. According to field research performed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and other researchers, you can save 10 percent or more of your heating or cooling bill by getting your ducts sealed.
Check your insulation
Insulate your attic. In an older home, that can be the most cost-efficient way to cut home heating costs. Before energy efficiency standards, homes were often built with little or no insulation. As a result, large amounts of heat can be lost through walls, floors and - since heat rises - especially ceilings.
How much insulation should you install? 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.
Check your heating system
- Get a routine maintenance and inspection of your heating system each autumn to make sure it is in good working order.
- Replace your heater's air filter monthly. Your heating system will work less hard, use less energy and last longer as a result. Most homeowners can replace filters and do such simple tasks as cleaning and removing dust from vents or along baseboard heaters.
- If your heating system is old, you might consider updating it. A pre-1977 gas furnace is probably only operating at 50 percent to 60 percent efficiency today. That means 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. By replacing an old heating system with one of the most efficient models, you can cut your natural gas use nearly in half!
If you 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 to 40 percent.
- Use your setback thermostat. California houses built today must have them - if you have an older home, consider installing one. A setback thermostat allows you to automatically turn down the heat when you're away at work or when you're sleeping at night, and then boost the temperature to a comfortable level when you need it. Remember - it takes less energy to warm a cool home than to maintain a warm temperature all day long. Properly using your setback thermostat could cut your heating costs from 20 to 75 percent.
Setback thermostats also overcome the urge some people have to simply turn the heater on "high" to heat a room more quickly. Doing so doesn't cause the house to warm up faster, and all too often the house gets too warm before you remember to manually adjust the thermostat again.
- Reverse the switch on your ceiling fans so they blow upward, toward the ceiling. Ceiling fans are a great idea in the summer, when air blowing downward can improve circulation and make a room feel four degrees cooler. A cooling draft is a poor idea when it's cold, however. By reversing the fan's direction, the blades move air upward in winter. This is especially valuable in high ceiling rooms, where heat that naturally rises is forced back down into the room.
And, while you're at the store . . .
With shorter days, you'll be using electric lights more often. Buy a few compact fluorescent light bulbs to replace your familiar old incandescent bulbs. Compact fluorescents have greatly improved. Although they cost more than incandescents to begin with, they use only one-quarter the energy and last as much as 15 times longer. Put them in locations where you have the light on often, and you'll recoup the up-front expense more quickly. It's another way to help take the sting out of this winter's higher energy bills.