Flourish Magazine, Fall 2009
Winter is a good time for lots of things: hearty soup, skiing, snow days, hot tea, and good books. But it’s also the perfect time to save energy and reduce your resource use with a thoroughly winterized home. If the winter season has brought higher energy bills in the past, fear not! Here are some tips for helping your energy and environmental costs chill out during the most wonderful time of the year.
1. Survey the situation
The first step to take when embarking on an energy waste reduction plan is to evaluate the situation with a home energy audit. A few minutes with last year’s utility bills is all you need to find opportunities to make your home’s use of energy more efficient for you and sustainable for the natural world.
- ENERGY STAR provides a free “Home Energy Yardstick” for easy computing of your home’s energy use as compared with similar homes around the country. After you simply complete the forms, ENERGY STAR will be able to advise you on where to make changes and improvements.
- Our friends at Blessed Earth have created an easy-to-use Energy Audit Work Sheet where you can quickly calculate how much energy your family uses, and set a goal for the reduced energy you’ll use once you finish your home improvements.
- An alternative to conducting your own home energy audit is to have a professional contractor evaluate your home’s energy situation with expertise and state-of-the-art measuring tools. ENERGY STAR provides both an ENERGY STAR for Homes Partner Locator so that you can find such a contractor, and a Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program to help you evaluate your home’s needs and address them in a financially sustainable way with the help of a local expert.
- Take an extra step and tour your home in search of the cracks and gaps that might leak chilly drafts into your home where different building materials meet: door and window frames, mail chutes, vents, siding and foundation, cable and phone lines, etc. Here’s how:
- Feel with your hand along windowsills, electrical outlets, doorframes, and vents. You may be able to simply feel cold air entering through these gaps.
- Light a candle for a few moments and then blow it out. Hold it up to edges and sides of doors and windows. The smoke will blow if a draft is entering your home through these places.
2. Seal it in
Heating and cooling your space comprises 44% of your home’s energy consumption. The changes you decide to make to eliminate leaks and drafts that let the warm air out and the cold air in can have a dramatic effect on that consumption, and they range from very simple to more involved alterations:
- Consider buying (or, better yet, making) draft stoppers to lay down along the bottoms of doors and windows where cold air sneaks into your home.
- Invest in heavy curtains to keep window drafts from chilling your home. Close the curtains at night to stay warm, and open them during the day to warm your home with the power of the sun.
- A simple temporary insulating solution for the draftiness you’ve discovered in your audit is to line your windows with plastic sheeting. The ACE hardware brand window insulation kit is a cheap, practical buy, and the instructions for lining your windows with the plastic provided are easy to follow. (If this writer can do it, anyone can!) You’ll notice the decrease in draftiness immediately.
- With weatherstripping, caulk, or spray foam, you can seal leaks that are commonly found around the edges of windows and doors, attic hatches, dryer vents, and crawl spaces.
- In a home with forced-air heating, make sure exposed heating ducts are working efficiently by sealing any leaks with duct sealant or metal tape, and also make sure that the connections at vents and registers are well-sealed where they meet the floors, walls, and ceiling.
3. Bundle Up
Your house, that is! Just like you insulate your body to sustain your warmth in winter, you can cozy up key heat-leakers all over your home:
- A quick insulation fix is to make sure you’re not losing heat through electrical outlets. If you feel a draft entering through an outlet, consider purchasing sealers to place behind the electrical outlet plate covers in your home.
- Insulate your water heater: Unless your water heater’s storage tank already has a high R-value of insulation (at least R-24), adding insulation to it can reduce heat loss by 25%–45%. This will save you around 4%–9% in water heating costs. If you don’t know your water heater tank’s R-value, touch it. A tank that’s warm to the touch needs additional insulation. You can find pre-cut jackets or blankets available from around $10–$20. Choose one with an insulating value of at least R-8. Some utilities sell them at low prices, offer rebates, and even install them at a low or no cost.
- Insulating your hot water pipes reduces heat loss and can raise water temperature 2ºF–4ºF hotter than uninsulated pipes can deliver, allowing for a lower water temperature setting. You also won’t have to wait as long for hot water when you turn on a faucet or showerhead, which helps conserve water. Insulate all accessible hot water pipes, especially within 3 feet of the water heater. It’s also a good idea to insulate the cold water inlet pipes for the first 3 feet. Use quality pipe insulation wrap, or neatly tape strips of fiberglass insulation around the pipes. Pipe sleeves made with polyethylene or neoprene foam are the most commonly used insulation. On gas water heaters, keep insulation at least 6 inches from the flue. If pipes are within 8 inches of the flue, your safest choice is to use fiberglass pipe-wrap (at least 1-inch thick) without a facing. You can use either wire or aluminum foil tape to secure it to the pipe.
- On a larger scale, making sure that your home, as a whole, is insulated will drastically cut your energy use. For best results, insulate your attic, first. A quick way to determine if you need more insulation there is to look across the span of your attic. If your insulation is just level with or below your floor joists (i.e., you can easily see your joists), you should add more. If you cannot see any of the floor joists because the insulation is well above them, you probably have enough and adding more may not be cost-effective. The recommended level for most attics is to insulate to R-38 or about 10 to 14 inches, depending on insulation type.
- When insulating your home, consider using an insulating material that requires less energy and fewer chemicals to produce, and that releases few harmful irritants into your home environment. To find the best, and most sustainable, insulating material for your needs, consult this easy-to-use “Buyer’s Guide to Green Insulation,” provided by the U.S. Green Building Council.
4. Check your work
To book-end the energy audit, consider purchasing a home energy monitor to see how your efforts have paid off. Display the device in your home to reflect an accurate, prompt record of the amount of electricity your home is using. Depending on the model, your home energy monitor can also display the cost of the energy you’re using and the amount of gas your home is consuming. If your energy reductions are still not up to snuff, you may need to put a little more work into winterizing your home, but it will be worth it!
- ENERGY STAR’s Home Improvement website
- The U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide for Energy Efficiency
- The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy section