1. Change Your Furnace Fliters
Yes it's easy to forget, but it's important to replace or clean furnace filters once a month during the heating season. Dirty filters restrict airflow and increase energy demand. Here's a worry-saving tip: Mark a monthly check on your calendar.
Also consider switching to a permanent filter, which will reduce waste and hassle. Did you know that disposable fiberglass filters trap a measly 10 to 40 percent of debris? Electostatic filters trap around 88% and are much better at controlling the bacteria, mold, viruses and pollen that cause illness and irritation. They cost $50 to $1,000 or more. Another good choice is a genuine HEPA filter (like the one pictured), which can remove at least 99.97% of airborne particles. HEPA filters are based on Department of Energy standards. But avoid "HEPA-like" filters, which can be significantly less effective.
If your entire furnace is in need of replacement, it will cost a lot more—but replacing an inefficient burner for a modern machine will save you every month through the heating season. Be sure to take advantage of federal tax credits for new furnaces, which can cover 10 percent of cost up to $500 or a specific amount from $50 to $300.
2. Run Fans in Reverse
Most people think of fans only when they want to be cool, but many ceiling units come with a handy switch that reverses the direction of the blades. Counterclockwise rotation produces cooling breezes, while switching to clockwise makes it warmer. Air pooled near the ceiling is circulated back into the living space—cutting your heating costs as much as 10 percent!
3. Winterize Your A/C and Water Lines
This one's really easy, and it will even save you a few pennies next summer, too: Simply drain any hoses and air conditioner pipes, and make sure you don't have excess water pooled in equipment. If your A/C has a water shutoff valve, go ahead and turn that off.
Similarly, make sure any hoses are drained and stowed away neatly. Turn off exterior water spigots. It's also a good idea to seal any water leaks around the place—and don't forget to remove any window A/C units and store them so you don't invite cold drafts all winter.
If you're in the market for a new air conditioner, the federal government will reimburse 10 percent of cost up to $500, or a specific amount from $50 to $300. This tax credit will expire December 31, 2016, so get it now.
4. Turn Down Your Water Heater
While many conventional water heaters are set to 140 degrees Fahrenheit by installers, most households don't need that much steam, and end up paying for it—in dollars and the occasional scalding burn. Lowering the temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (or lower) would reduce your water heating costs by 6 to 10 percent.
If you start to wonder why you need a tank at all, then you may be ready for a tankless water heater, or to go solar. If you are in the market for a new water heater, take advantage of the federal tax credit, which pays 30 percent of cost with no upper limit. Tax credits for Solar Energy Systems are available at 30 percent through December 31, 2019.
5. Dodge the Draft(s)
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, drafts can waste 5 to 30 percent of your energy use. Start simple and adopt that old Great Depression fixture—the draft snake, which you can easily make yourself. Just place a rolled bath towel under a drafty door, or make a more attractive DIY draft snake with googly eyes, felt tongues and the like. You can use any scraps of fabric, even neckties, and fill with sand or kitty litter for heft.
Make sure drafts aren't giving your thermostat a false reading, too. (Read on for more advanced solutions.)
6. Install Storm Doors and Windows
The simple act of installing a storm door can increase energy efficiency by 45 percent by sealing drafts and reducing air flow. Storm doors also offer greater flexibility for letting light and ventilation enter your home. Look for Energy Star-certified models.
Similarly, storm windows can make a huge difference when the cold wind starts blowing. It may be a pain, but it is well worth it to get them out of the shed or attic and install them for the season. (Make sure each is securely shut—they don't do much good if you leave them in the up position by mistake!)
Federal tax credits are available at 10 percent of cost (not including installation costs), up to $200 for windows and skylights and up to $500 for doors. Cumulative maximum tax credits for windows, doors and skylights for all years combined is $500.
7. Give Your Heating System a Tune-Up
You probably already know that cars need periodic tune-ups in order to run their best. Well, the same is true for heating equipment. Keeping your furnace clean, lubricated and properly adjusted will reduce energy use, saving up to 5 percent of heating costs.
The good news is many utilities offer free annual checkups by qualified technicians—but you often have to call early, as HVAC crews get backed up once heating season starts. Some furnace manufacturers and dealers also offer free or discounted inspections.
If your entire furnace is in need of replacement, it will cost a lot more—but replacing an inefficient burner for a modern machine will save you money every month through the heating season. Be sure to take advantage of federal tax credits for new furnaces, which can cover 10 percent of cost up to $500 or a specific amount from $50 to $300. This tax credit expires December 31, 2016, so act now.
8. Mind That Thermostat
It's easy to forget to turn down the heat when you leave the building, but doing so is one of the surest ways to save money. Most households shell out 50 to 70 percent of their energy budgets on heating and cooling, so why pay for what no one uses?
For every degree you lower the thermostat during heating season, you'll save between 1 and 3 percent of your heating bill. Make it easier with a programmable thermostat. They are widely available for as little as $50, and the average family will save $180 a year with one.
Go a step further and ask your local utility if it's making smart meters available in your area as part of recent federal smart grid investments.
9. Put Up Some Plastic
For just a few dollars, pick up a window insulation kit at your local hardware or discount store. Don't worry, properly installed window plastic is essentially invisible. Adding a buffer against drafts and extra still air space can give a nice boost to your home's ability to hold heat. Check out our guide for winterizing drafty windows.
Save even more by hiring a pro to install a high-tech "low-e" film directly to the window glass.
If your windows are old, consider investing in a set of efficient windows—which qualify for a federal tax credit covering 10 percent of cost (not including installation costs), up to $200 for windows and skylights.
10. Use an Energy Monitor
Measure your way to savings with an energy monitor (pictured is the Rainforest EMU-2 energy monitor, which costs $70). Such a device indicates household electrical usage in real time and projects your monthly bill. Research has found that such info leads consumers to reduce their electricity consumption significantly.
In fact, according to the company you'll save 15 to 20 percent on each bill, which would amount to hundreds of dollars a year. By seeing exactly how much each appliance or activity costs, you'll start seeing easy ways to cut waste.
11. Use Caulking and Weatherstripping
Simple leaks can sap home energy efficiency by 5 to 30 percent a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That means it pays to seal up gaps with caulking and weatherstripping.
Take a close look at places where two different building materials meet, such as corners, around chimneys, where pipes or wires exit, and along the foundation. Use the incense test: Carefully (avoiding drapes and other flammables) move a lit stick along walls. Where the smoke wavers, you have air sneaking in, and heating or cooling sneaking out.
In another method, have someone on the outside blow a hair dryer around each window while you hold a lighted candle inside. If the candle flickers or goes out, you need to caulk or weather strip around the frame.
Low-income households can qualify for an average of $6,500 worth of weatherization improvements to their homes through government programs administered by each state. Find out about your state's program by contacting local energy agencies.
12. Boost Insulation
It may not seem sexy, but insulation is one of the best ways to save energy and money at home. It can make a big difference to add more insulation between walls, and make sure your attic floor and basement ceiling are well covered.
The federal government will reimburse you for 10 percent of the cost, up to $500 for highly efficient insulation. Additionally, low-income households can qualify for an average of $6,500 worth of weatherization improvements to their homes through government programs administered by each state. Find out about your state's program by contacting local energy agencies.
13. Put On A Sweater
Make like Jimmy Carter and dress warmer for winter, even inside. Gone are the days (for most of us at least) when we can afford to lounge around in our underwear while it's frosty outside. Remember what we said about each degree on the thermostat costing you money?
Roughly speaking, a light long-sleeved sweater is worth about 2 degrees in added warmth, while a heavy sweater (even the ugliest of ugly sweaters) adds about 4 degrees. So cozy up and start saving.
14. Insulate Your Pipes
Pay less for hot water by insulating pipes. That can also help decrease the chance of pipes freezing, which can be disastrous. Check to see if your pipes are warm to the touch. If so, they are good candidates for insulation. (Use the same method to determine if your hot water heater would benefit from some insulation.)
You can get pre-slit pipe foam at most hardware stores. Cut it to size and fasten in place with duct tape. Ideally, choose the insulation with the highest R-value practical, which is a measure of its heat-blocking power. Pipe insulation is often R-3, or, for batt styles that you wrap around, a stronger R-7.
15. Seal Those Ducts
Move even deeper into a home's infrastructure, and one encounters ductwork. Studies show 10 to 30 percent of heated (or cooled) air in an average system escapes from ducts.
Therefore, it could pay to hire a professional technician to come out and test your duct system and fix any problems. Properly sealing ducts can save the average home up to $140 annually, according to the American Solar Energy Society. Plus, you'll have better protection against mold and dust.
Many utilities offer incentive programs for duct improvement. Be wary of "duct cleaning" services, however. Absent an air quality problem, most homes don't need their ducts cleaned.
16. Take Advantage of Tax Credits
A host of lucrative tax credits can help homeowners install renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.
Various local, state and federal incentives exist to encourage the use of efficient windows and doors, insulation, roofing, HVAC (including geothermal ground source heat pumps), water heaters (including solar water heaters) and alternative energy technologies, like solar power, geothermal heating and cooling, biomass stoves, small wind turbines and even fuel cells.
Learn about local incentives by searching this Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.
17. Choose the Right Contractor
To choose which project to tackle first, it may help to try perform your own energy audit. Or, if some of these improvements prove to be a little ambitious for you, hire an expert. But how do you get someone who shares your values?
Green building pros are setting up shop all across the country, so they're getting easier to find. The Department of Energy certifies Energy Star home performance contractors, who are trained to improve energy efficiency in residential homes. (Be careful: Many state and federal incentives require that the work be done by a certified contractor—so check the rules before hiring anyone.) Ask potential contractors about their interest in and experience with going green, and find out if they are approved for work that qualifies for a green home label.
18. Get Creative and Go Alternative
Various local, state and federal incentivesexist to encourage the use of alternative energy technologies, like solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, biomass stoves, small wind turbines and even fuel cells—all of which require a front-end investment that typically pays itself off in energy savings over a number of years.
Tired of paying to chill food when it's cold outside? Take advantage of natural cool air by rigging up an ambient air refrigerator (pictured above) on the side of your dwelling. The process is more simple than you might think. You just need some wood, insulation and a couple of computer fans.
19. Upgrade to an Efficient Furnace
Thankfully, it's not something you have to do every year (or even every decade), but if your furnace is old you could save a lot of money in the long run (and improve your home's value) by upgrading to a new unit.
Make it an Energy Star-certified furnace and you'll save 15 to 20 percent versus standard new models. You could save 50 percent or more compared with many old furnaces still in operation. Be sure to take advantage of federal tax credits for new furnaces, which can cover $150 for furnace and $50 for advanced main air circulating fan.
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