Winter Energy Efficiency

Winter.JPGEach year, the average American family spends 43 percent of its utility bill on heating and cooling its living space, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Generally, more than half of that percentage is for heating. You can slash your heating bill by changing how you keep the cold out.

Here are some tips for how to do that:

Dress for winter inside – Often, we set our winter thermostats higher than needed. If you’re wearing sleeveless tops and shorts and going barefoot inside your house in winter, you’ve got the thermostat set too high. Lower it to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and you’ll be comfortable if you dress for winter. That means layering on long-sleeved shirts, sweats, sweaters and socks when inside, as well as outside. For every degree adjusted, you can save 1 to 3 percent on heating costs, depending on your heating source.

DOE points out that you can save 10 percent of your utility bill by turning back the thermostat 10 to 15 degrees for at least 8 hours.

Stop the drafts and leaks - Save up to 15 percent of your heating dollars by caulking, sealing and weather stripping wherever outside meets inside.

Take care of your furnace – Replace or clean the furnace filter each month you heat; dirty filters can greatly affect the heating ability of the furnace and waste valuable fuel. Vacuum heating registers and as far into the ducts as you can reach. If you have baseboard or electric wall heaters, brush and remove dust and dirt from the cooling fins and fan. Check and clean electronic air cleaners every three weeks or so.

Insulate – Insulation isn’t sexy, but it’s the low-hanging fruit of energy-efficiency improvements. Your home will be more comfortable winter and summer and your utility bill lower if you insulate to recommended (or above) levels. ENERGY STAR and the U.S. Department of Energy recommend:

Zone 5, Iowa and upper Missouri - R-49 to 60 for uninsulated attic, R-38 to 49 for existing insulated attic and R-25 to 30 for floor.

Zone 4, rest of Missouri R-38 to 60 uninsulated attic, R-38 existing insulated attic and R-25 to 30 floor.

Zone 3, Oklahoma R-30 to 60 uninsulated attic, R-25 to 38 existing insulated attic and R-19 to 25 floor.

Adjust your water heater temperature – It’s easy to forget your water heater is running 24/7 to keep water hot for the relatively small amount of time you need it. Lowering the set temperature of your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit can add up to significant savings when you multiply 24/7 by 52 weeks a year. According to DOE, every 10-degree Fahrenheit reduction in water temperature can save 3 to 5 percent in energy costs.

Reverse the switch on your ceiling fans – Push down the warm air that naturally rises – especially important in rooms with high ceilings.

Open heating vents – Make sure they are open and unblocked by furniture or other items to insure air is evenly distributed through the home.

Invest in a portable heater – If you’re willing to keep most of your house chillier and use the heater in just one room, then a portable heater can save heating dollars.

Check your ducts – Look for sections that have become separated. Seal leaks with mastic, butyl tape, foil tape or other heat-approved tapes – not duct tape.

Turn off ventilating fans within 20 minutes – After 20 minutes, these fans in bathrooms and kitchens suck out warm air and can empty a warm house in about an hour!

Throw down some rugs – If you have tile or wood floors, putting down some throw rugs will make you feel more comfortable.

Stop the leaks: tips for caulking, sealing and weather stripping

One of the best investments of time and money in prepping winter is stopping air leaks. Drafty homes waste 10 to 15 percent of your heating dollars. Simple weather stripping and caulking can stop most of the leaks.

Seal attic leaks – Sealing leaks will likely make the biggest impact on your energy bill. Start by plugging the big holes first, such as open stud cavities. If your attic is finished, seal behind the kneewalls. Next, seal around the furnace flue, using proper techniques and sealants. Then go after small gaps, using foam or caulk. Fill wiring and plumbing holes with expanding foam, and caulk around electrical junction boxes and fill holes in the box with caulk. If the space around your plumbing pipes is wider than three inches, stuff fiberglass insulation into the space. Once the fiberglass insulation is in place, follow the directions on the can to foam the space around the pipe. Finally, weather strip the attic hatch or door.

Check doors and windows – Weather strip and caulk any holes you see and around frames. Make sure doors seal properly.

Close the fireplace damper – When the fireplace is not in use, an open damper is like an open window that draws warm air out of the room and creates a draft.

Caulk or seal every duct, wire or pipe that penetrates walls, ceilings and floors - Plumbing vents can be especially bad, since they begin below the floor and go all the way through the roof.

Caulk to seal along the basement sill plate

Seal electrical outlets and switches on outside walls – Use inexpensive foam gaskets that fit behind light switches and electrical outlet plates.

Caulk around heating system floor registers to seal gaps – Registers often fit loosely, so they can be a significant source of energy loss.

Close or install storm windows and doors – You can reduce heating losses by as much as 50 percent with storm windows and doors, according to ENERGY STAR. Works in summer, too.

Remove window air conditioners – This prevents drafts and seals windows better.

Don’t duck duct care

Before winter sets in, give your ducts some TLC. Leaky ducts can lose as much as 20 percent of conditioned air before even reaching the rooms you want heated. Over time, these big, often concealed hoses can be crushed, flattened or cracked. Uninsulated ducts in a basement, crawl space or attic also lose heat.

So what’s a clue that your ducts are leaking? High winter and summer utility bills. Rooms that are difficult to heat and cool. Stuffy rooms that never seem to feel comfortable. Ducts in an attic, crawlspace or garage. Tangled or kinked flexible ducts.

If these describe your situation, first fix the ones that will make the biggest difference:

  • Seal those that run through the attic, crawl space, unheated basement or garage. Use duct sealant (mastic) or metal-backed (foil) tape to seal the seams and connections of ducts. Avoid duct tape, which can dry out or crack.
  • After sealing these ducts, wrap them in insulation to keep them from getting cold in winter and hot in summer.
  • Seal ducts you can access in the heated part of the house.
  • Seal the connections at vents and registers where they meet the floors, walls and ceiling.

Where to look for household air leaks

ENERGY STAR identifies these common sites for air leaks. Stop the leaks with insulation, weather stripping, wraps or caulking.

  • Behind kneewalls
  • Attic hatch
  • Wiring holes
  • Plumbing vents
  • Open soffit (the box that hides recessed lights)
  • Recessed lights
  • Furnace flue or duct chaseways (the hollow box or wall feature that hides ducts)
  • Basement rim joists (where the foundation meets the wood framing)
  • Windows and doors

Wrap your house in a blanket

Insulating your house is like wrapping it in a warm blanket. The better the insulation in your “building envelope,” the warmer you’ll feel this winter.

Insulation is measured by R-value: a material’s ability to resist heat flow. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating power. ENERGY STAR and the U.S. Department of Energy recommend:

Zone 5, Iowa and upper Missouri R-49 to 60 for uninsulated attic, R-38 to 49 for existing insulated attic and R-25 to 30 for floor.

Zone 4, rest of Missouri R-38 to 60 uninsulated attic, R-38 existing insulated attic and R-25 to 30 floor.

Zone 3, Oklahoma R-30 to 60 uninsulated attic, R-25 to 38 existing insulated attic and R-19 to 25 floor.

Whether you use cellulose, fiberglass, foam or some other insulating material, here are useful tips from ENERGY STAR, the University of Missouri Extension and on where to insulate:

  • Insulate your attic – This can be the most cost-efficient way to cut home heating costs
  • Weather strip and insulate the attic hatch or door
  • Seal holes in the attic that lead down into the house, such as open wall tops and duct, plumbing or electrical runs, with spray foam or rigid foam board
  • Keep insulation fluffy to 18 inches or higher for an R-49 in the attic
  • Add a vapor barrier where it makes sense to do so: it must be placed nearest the warm side of the space being insulated – under  attic insulation and between drywall and insulation in a wall, which may be difficult to do in an existing structure
  • Check your crawl space to make sure there is insulation under the floor; if batts are on the ground, tie them up with twine, staples or flexible rods to be in contact with the floor
  • Insulate to fill large gaps around chimneys, furnace flues, plumbing pipes, ductwork and light fixtures in attic
  • Lay insulation between attic floor joists and on the hatch or door or add more if already there
  • Insulate ceilings in unheated basements and around the walls in heated basements or unvented crawl spaces
  • Wrap older electric water heaters and those in unheated areas in a blanket of fiberglass (jacket kits are available in hardware or home improvement stores) to reduce heat loss by up to 45 percent. Verify with the water heater manufacturer that adding a blanket will not void your warranty ; if you have a natural gas water heater, follow safety procedures in wrapping the heater
  • Don’t forget to insulate these often neglected areas:
    • Walls separating the living area from the attached garage
    • Walls and ceiling of basement garages
    • Walls and ceiling of dormers
    • Sloping ceiling areas in upstairs rooms where the ceiling has been “clipped” to accommodate roof rafters
    • Narrow cracks around window and door frames
    • Between closely spaced studs at corners of exterior walls or at junctions of exterior and interior walls
    • Ceilings near exterior walls

Install a programmable thermostat

Make this the year to stop fussing with your thermostat and install a programmable one. If you’re away during the day and have a different weekend schedule, then a programmable thermostat will allow you to automatically turn down the heat when you’re gone or when you’re sleeping at night and then boost the temperature when you need it.

Properly using a programmable thermostat could cut your heating costs by at least 20 percent. Return on investment is typically within a year. Remember, if you set your thermostat at 80 degrees Fahrenheit and you’re not there to enjoy the warm house, you’re paying for wasteful energy.

Seal those windows

It's not too late to winterize your windows. There's good reason to do that: according to the U.S. Department of Energy, about one-third of a home’s heat loss is from windows and doors.

 To tighten your windows:

  • Caulk and weather strip windows.
  • Place plastic over single-pane windows either inside or outside, leaving a ½-inch to 4- inch air space between the two.
  • A more effective but expensive option than plastic is to install interior or exterior storm windows after sealing air leaks around your windows; this can reduce heating losses up to 50 percent, according to ENERGY STAR.
  • Let the sun shine in south windows during the day, but at night, close window shades and pull insulated drapery liners shut to block warm air from escaping around windows.

When to buy a furnace

Furnaces are expensive, and we often put off repairs or purchases until there's a crisis. The final weeks of fall are a good time to repair or buy new.

It’s generally more cost effective to repair your furnace than to retrofit or replace it, according to, which independently reviews a wide variety of products. But weigh the costs, particularly if you will likely replace the system in the next five years.

A new furnace will be much more efficient than your old one. Effective Jan. 1, 2015, weatherized (installed outdoors) furnaces must have a minimum AFUE annual fuel utilization efficiency of 81 percent for gas and 78 percent for oil. However, in 30 northern states, the standards for gas furnaces are more stringent, requiring a minimum AFUE of 90 percent.

Replacing an old furnace with a geothermal heat pump may also qualify  you for a 30 percent federal tax credit. Your cooperative may offer a rebate as well.

If your furnace or boiler is 10 to 20 years old, and you’re experiencing higher-than-normal utility bills, it may be time to go furnace shopping. Here are some clues from the U.S. Department of Energy, ENERGY STAR, the American Council of Energy-Efficient Economy and that it may be time to shop:

  • Old coal burner previously switched over to oil or gas with pilot lights instead of electronic ignition
  • Old gas furnace without electronic ignition; if it has a pilot light, it was probably installed before 1992 and has an efficiency of about 65 percent (the least efficient systems today are 80 percent, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
  • Old gas furnace without vent dampers or an induced draft fan, which limit the flow of heated air up the chimney when the system is off
  • Your furnace or boiler is more than 15 years old – older furnaces and boilers may have efficiencies only in the 56 to 70 percent range, compared to modern systems that can achieve 97 percent efficiency
  • Your heat exchanger or control module gives out in a system more than 15 years old
  • Your equipment needs frequent repairs and your energy bills are going up
  • Some rooms in your house are too hot or too cold
  • No one is home for long periods of the day, and you do not have a programmable thermostat
  • Your home has humidity problems
  • Your home has excessive dust
  • Your heating system is noisy

Don’t forget your chimney

Chimneys carry combustion byproducts, such as soot and carbon monoxide, out of your house. If your chimney is clogged or not functioning properly, you’re putting yourself at risk and may be wasting energy as well – literally $ up the chimney.

The U.S. Department of Energy says older gas furnaces and boilers have naturally drafting chimneys but are susceptible to chimney blockage, wind or pressures inside the home that overcome the buoyancy of the gases.

Open-combustion furnaces and boilers and fan-assisted furnaces and boilers should be vented into masonry chimneys, metal double-wall chimneys or another type of manufactured chimney.  Masonry chimneys should have a fireclay, masonry liner or a retrofitted metal flue liner.

Older chimneys could have deteriorated liners or no liners and must be relined when replacing a furnace or boiler. For example, a new furnace with an AFUE of 80 percent or more is more likely to deposit acidic condensation droplets in chimneys and require a chimney liner.

Likewise, a new 90+ percent AFUE furnace or heat pump will no longer vent into an old chimney, and the combustion water heater will be left to vent through an oversized chimney, leading to condensation and inadequate draft. The new chimney liner should be sized for the water heater alone, or the water heater in some cases can be vented directly through the wall.

Is this the year for radiant heating?

The Romans knew a thing or two about keeping toasty. Some of the floors of their villas were warmed by radiant heat in much the same way it’s used today.

Radiant heating warms objects in a room – including yourself – in the lower half of a room rather than heating the air in the room.

Here are some things to keep in mind about radiant heating:

Efficiency – The experts say radiant flooring is more efficient than baseboard and forced-air heating – from 25 to 40 percent more than for forced air. But if the system isn’t properly sized or installed or if its boiler is inefficient or there’s poor water pressure, the efficiency can rapidly drop off.

Cost to build – It all depends on the size of the system, type, flooring and contractor. But generally a radiant system is more expensive to install than a forced-air system because of increased labor costs. Radiant flooring can be expensive to install in an existing house. Better to put in radiant when building new or adding a room to an existing house.

Startup – Most radiant systems take about a day to heat up from a cold start. They first have to warm the floor before warming the objects in the room.

Programmable – Radiant systems can’t respond quickly to programmable thermostats (for the reasons above), so they are not recommended.

Types – Electric radiant floors use electric cables built into the floor; they can be costly to operate. Hydronic radiant floors use tubes built into the floor through which heated liquid flows. This is the most popular system for homes in part because it can run on a wide variety of fuel types. New dry radiant floors are gaining in popularity because they are less expensive to build; cables or tubing run in an air space beneath the floor.

Flooring – Ceramic tile is the most common and effective floor covering used with radiant floors, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Vinyl, linoleum, carpeting or wood also can be used but will decrease the system’s efficiency because they insulate the floor from the room.

Air conditioning – Radiant floors heat but don’t cool. You’ll need a separate air conditioning system.

How much money will efficiency save?

Switching to a high-efficiency heating system can save you some money. You can find out just how much from the accompanying the U.S. Department of Energy table.

Before buying a new furnace or boiler or modifying your existing unit, first make every effort to improve the energy efficiency of your home, then have a heating contractor size your furnace. Energy-efficiency improvements will save money on a new furnace or boiler, because you can purchase a smaller unit. A properly sized furnace or boiler will operate most efficiently.

When shopping for high-efficiency furnaces and boilers, look for the ENERGY STAR® label. If you live in a cold climate, it usually makes sense to invest in the highest-efficiency system. In milder climates with lower annual heating costs, the extra investment required to go from 80 percent to 90 or 95 percent efficiency may be hard to justify.

You can estimate the annual savings from heating system replacements by using the accompanying table, which assumes that both heating systems have the same heat output. However, most older systems are oversized and will be particularly oversized if you significantly improve the energy efficiency of your home. Because of this additional benefit, your actual savings in upgrading to a new system could be much higher than indicated in the table.

AFUE in the table refers to the ratio of annual heat output from a heating system compared to the total energy consumed by the unit. For example, a furnace with an AFUE of 90 percent means that 90 percent of the fuel consumed becomes heat.


*Assuming the same heat output

 The table compares inefficient systems as low as 50 percent to highly efficient systems up to 95 percent. For example, if your existing system is only 50 percent efficient (a contractor can tell you how efficient it is), upgrading to an 80 percent efficient system will save about $37.50 annually for every $100 in fuel costs. A 90 percent efficient system will save about $44.24.

On the other hand, if your current system is already 90 percent efficient, upgrading to 95 percent will save you only $5.30 per $100 in fuel costs annually.

Tax credits for energy efficiency in 2015

The good news is the 30 percent federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit is still in place through Dec. 31, 2016. This credit applies to qualifying geothermal systems in both primary residences and second homes; not to rentals.

There is no upper limit on cost, and the credit includes installation costs.