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Keeping the house warm without breaking the bank
Homeowners can expect greater heating costs this winter, as the combination of a colder weather forecast intersects with higher energy prices.
According to the most recent outlook from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, those who heat their homes with heating oil could see heating costs rise 25.6 percent this winter, compared with last winter. Those who use propane could see their costs rise 20.2 percent, and those who use natural gas could see a 10.7 percent rise.
Those estimates could change with the weather, said Jonathan Cogan, energy information specialist at the Energy Information Administration. A warmer-than-expected winter could drive costs down, while a colder one could boost them up even more. But people who aren't willing to gamble with Mother Nature might want to consider home improvements that will help keep costs down this year as the weather gets chilly.
Sometimes the hardest part about making those improvements is deciding how to select and prioritize the projects, said Maria Vargas, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman for the government's Energy Star program.
To help, Energy Star recently released an online tool, the Energy Star Home Advisor, which can help homeowners decide which improvements to make by entering in information including ZIP code, how the home is heated and the home's type of water heater. A link to the tool can be found on the Energy Star Web site,http://www.energystar.gov .
Remember, too, that some projects are eligible for federal income tax credits if they're done before the end of the year, said Ronnie Kweller, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports energy efficiency.
The maximum tax credit is $500, she said. There are qualifications and rules for each improvement; homeowners can get a credit for 10 percent of insulation materials, for example. Other improvements eligible for credits include exterior window and door replacements. Seehttp://www.ase.org/taxcredits for more details.
The credits take some of the sting off of the upfront price of the improvements, Vargas said.
"People look at the first price tag and say 'What does it cost?'" Vargas said. They often don't look at the "hidden price tag," that is, what the savings will be after the improvement is made to the home, she added.
That said, it often doesn't require a fortune to cut down on heating bills. The following five improvements can make noticeable differences in home heating costs.
1 Seal air leaks and insulate. One of the simplest and most inexpensive ways to cut down on costs is to seal any air leaks that are in the home, Vargas said. The biggest leaks are often in the basement or crawl space.
And savings can be significant: Add up all the leaks in the average American home, and the draft let into the home is the equivalent to leaving a window open all year long, she said. In fact, homeowners can shave off 10 percent of their annual energy bills just by air sealing their homes and adding insulation in areas such as attics and crawl spaces, Vargas said.
While some homeowners may feel comfortable doing this project on their own, others might want to hire a professional to do the work, Vargas said. Professionals also might find leaks that homeowners wouldn't find on their own, she added.
Note: Materials including caulk and blanket insulation are eligible for the federal tax credit, but labor costs for installation are not, Kweller said.
2 Seal duct work too. Make sure that heat isn't escaping through the duct work, Vargas said. Sealing and insulating ducts will likely require the help of a professional, but in some cases it could improve the efficiency of a heating and cooling system by 20 percent or more, she said.
Well-sealed duct work is especially important if a homeowner is considering the replacement of their heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. "You can buy an efficient unit ... but if there's inefficient duct work, that's a waste of money," she said.
3 Get a programmable thermostat. Programmable thermostats might cost $100 at a big box store, but they'll save a homeowner about 10 percent on heating and cooling bills and will likely pay for themselves in a year, Kweller said. The device conveniently will turn down the heat during the hours that no one is at home, and turn it back up before people return -- so that homeowners return to a warm house.
Remember, however, that the thermostat must be programmed correctly for it to actually cut down on costs, Vargas reminded. She estimates the device could shave $150 off of the average homeowner's energy bills.
4 Little things add up. Other small ways to cut down on heating costs include keeping the furnace filters clean, setting the water heater to 120 degrees and considering a water heater blanket for added insulation, Kweller said. Doing laundry in cold water instead of hot water can also save about $70 a year for the average family that does about seven loads of laundry a week, she added.
5 Let the sun shine in. Finally, don't dismiss the power of sunlight in heating the home, Kweller added.
"It's as simple and free as opening the blinds and shades and curtains on the sunny side of the house during the day," she said.