Q&A: How can I lower my heating bills this winter?

Consumer Reports News: January 04, 2008 03:20 PM

My first heating bill this winter was outrageous! How can I cut how much I'm spending to heat my home?

While you can't lower the price of heating oil, natural gas, propane, or electricity, you can use far less of the stuff that heats your home. "Your home is consuming and probably wasting energy 24/7," says Tony Lisanti, director of energy sales and service at Robison, an Elmsford, New York-based energy-services company. "The big savings are in making your home more efficient."

Simply having the heating system in your home checked annually by an HVAC pro will save wasted fuel costs. To lower your home-heating bills even more, also try some of these low- and no-cost moves:

Plug the big leaks. Adding insulation and weather stripping can slash your annual energy costs up to 30 percent by keeping out the cold or heat and minimizing the stack effect (shown).

Start by sealing large gaps around the chimney, furnace flue, plumbing pipes, ductwork, light fixtures, and soffits in your attic. Then lay insulation between attic-floor joists and on the hatch or door, or add more if it's already there. Look for insulation that’s become dirty, a sign of air movement that reveals other gaps you must fill. Also insulate ducts running through the attic.

Seal air leaks in the basement. Insulate the ceiling in an unheated basement and around the walls in a heated basement or unvented crawl space. Also insulate ducts and hot-water pipes.

Program thermostats for savings. Shave up to 20 percent off your heating costs by lowering the thermostat 5°F at night and 10°F during the day if no one is home. Most electronic setback thermostats let you set different schedules for weekdays and weekends. Some automatically switch from heating to cooling, and many tell you when it's time to change your furnace or air-conditioner filter. Read our October 2007 report on thermostats for more expert advice, and see how we test thermostats.

Make ventilation a priority. Sealing leaks isn't about eliminating ventilation. It's about bringing air in where and when you need it. Proper venting helps control moisture and avoid indoor air-quality problems (never block attic vents with insulation, for example). Install and use bathroom and kitchen range exhaust fans.

Have your fuel-burning fireplaces, furnace or boiler, water heater and clothes dryer checked for proper operation and ensure their chimney or vent system is in good condition and functioning correctly. Also install a carbon-monoxide alarm that will be audible from all living and sleeping quarters. If you live in a large home, you might need multiple alarms.

Don’t get locked in on pricing. Many utilities and heating-fuel suppliers tout level-billing plans and deals that let you lock in fuel prices at earlier rates as a hedge against huge winter bills. In reality, level billing simply divides your estimated annual bill equally over the next 12 months. Keep the extra cash in your bank account, where it will earn interest. Fuel lock-in plans can be a good deal when prices are rising, but beware of surcharges and cancellation fees, which can eliminate your savings.

Essential information: Discover more ways to save hundreds on energy costs at your home. And discuss heating topics with other homeowners in our Home forums.

Illustration by Troy Doolittle/TopDog Illustration

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