Saving money on heating bills can be simple matter

By Gregory Karp
Allentown Morning Call

Posted November 6, 2005

We often hear about products to make our homes more energy-efficient and lock in the heat during the winter. Some of those products, such as new windows and a replacement furnace, are not worthwhile because you'll never make back in savings what you spent.

But you can take free and low-cost steps to chop your heating bills. That will be important this winter as all forms of heating will be tremendously more expensive. As a result, the total winter heating bill could double for many consumers, according to projections by the Energy Information Administration.

"In some parts of the country, it's going to be really ugly when people open their bills," said Ronnie Kweller, spokeswoman for Alliance to Save Energy.

Here are ways to use less heat in your home and keep more money in your pocket:

-- Turn down the heat.

It sounds simple, but all other tips, whether expensive or not, are dwarfed in importance by this one.

In fact, most other tips are worthless if they don't allow you to turn down the heat or make the furnace operate less often. That means turning the heat down to, say, 55 degrees at night and when you're away from home.

And you might as well use your own body heat. It's free. That means dressing for winter by wearing heavier socks and clothing around the house, allowing you to turn down the heat to, say, 65 degrees. Elderly consumers uncomfortable at those temperatures might want to raise them by 5 degrees.

-- Seal cracks.

The worst air leaks don't come from windows and doors. They're found around pipe cutouts to the outdoors, gaps around chimneys, recessed lights and unfinished spaces behind cupboards and closets. Seal them up with inexpensive caulking and insulation, and you'll use less heat. If you have a particularly drafty window or door, use low-cost weather stripping or the plastic film that covers windows.

"Sealing is very important," said Denise Durrett, a spokeswoman with the EnergyStar program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "A lot of our energy is wasted because we have homes that have gaps and cracks."

For more on sealing, see the publication "A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Energy Star Home Sealing" by the EPA. Call 888-782-7937 or get it online at

-- Seal ducts.

Duct leaks account for 20 percent to 40 percent of energy loss, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which studied the issue. The first thing to know is common duct tape is lousy for sealing ducts.

The best, but most expensive, way to seal ducts is have a contractor spray an aerosol-based polymer called Aeroseal through the ducts which plugs the holes. That could cost hundreds of dollars, even a couple thousand The cheaper way to go is to use a mashed potato-like sealant called mastic. Use the water-based kind. You paint it on duct joints and tiny holes and it hardens. Or use metallic duct tape with an UL-181 rating. Those do-it-yourself supplies cost a small fraction of professional duct sealing.

-- Use free heat.

Let in the heat from sunshine by opening window blinds and drapes on the sunny side of the house, then close them at night to act as window insulators.

-- Replace furnace air filters.

This is standard advice, but the secret here is you don't need fancy air filters. The cheap ones at the home center that cost about 60 cents to $1 each work fine. Spending more is of minimal benefit. Buy several at a time because you'll want to replace filters monthly through the winter. Also, cover the filter slot with a piece of wide tape to make sure all the air goes through the filter.

-- Get in a zone.

Try to confine heat to particular areas of the house.

"You want to clearly separate places in the house that are heated and not heated," said Beth Parks, a physics professor at Colgate University who teaches a course on home energy. "If the basement is finished, you want it to be warm, but if the basement is meant to be cold, make it really cold."

If you work in a home office, lower the temperature on the central heating system and use a space heater in your closed-door office. "You'll save money by not heating the whole house when you're pretty much in one room the whole day," Kweller said. "Just heat that room."

-- Burn smart fires.

If you use a wood-burning fireplace for ambience--which is its only purpose because it's a lousy method of heating--close doors to the fireplace room if possible and crack a window an inch. A slightly open window supplies outdoor air to fuel the fire, which is cheaper than sending your already-heated air from other parts of the house up the chimney. Lower the central heating thermostat to about 50 degrees.

-- Monitor fans.

Kitchen, bath and other ventilating fans can pull out a houseful of warmed air in just an hour. Use them sparingly and turn them off as soon as they're not needed.

-- Take free money.

Check with your state energy department and your utility provider to see what energy-efficiency programs they offer. Low-income requirements for some programs are fairly high. The federal program is called Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, often called LIHEAP. It can help pay for heating bills, weatherization assistance and energy-related home repairs.