Here in Texas we haven't been pounded by the storms that the rest of the country has seen, but the weather this week really made us say "wow, it's cold in this room!" That got me thinking about heating bills and energy efficiency, so today I'd like to share a dozen inexpensive, low-tech ways to lower your heating bill. You can do things like adding a few more inches of insulation in the attic, installing a radiant barrier, or even upgrading to a more efficient furnace, but those solutions will cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. All of the solutions presented here should cost no more than $50, and many are free!
Use A Draft Snake
Drafts from exterior doors can waste 5% to 30% of your heating bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. You could buy one pre-made, but it's just as easy to use a rolled-up bath towel. Just be sure to put it back into place every time someone goes in or out.
Change Your Furnace Filters
The more dirt and dust that are collected on your filter, the harder it is for your furnace to push the air through it. Make a note on your calendar to check it every month. Also, you should consider switching to permanent filters - a disposable fiberglass filter only traps about 10% to 40% of the dust going through it, while an electrostatic filter can trap about 80%, and is much better at controlling the bacteria, mold, pollen and viruses that can cause allergies and illnesses.
Wrap Your Water Heater
Just like a human in the cold, a water heater will lose some of its heat to the surrounding air. And just like a human, it can wear a jacket to keep warm! Depending on how new your heater is, it may already be well insulated. If you're not sure, just touch the tank - if it feels warm, then you should insulate it.
You can buy an insulation kit for about $20 and install it in about an hour. You simply turn off the water heater, tape the blanket in place and mark any holes that need to be cut, cut them out, and then tape it permanently in place. It should save you about 5% - 10% in water heating costs, and pay for itself in less than a year.
Also, think about turning your water heater down. If you regularly run it around 140 degrees, trying turning it down to 120. Odds are you don't really need that much heat, and you'll save another 5% to 10% in heating costs.
Insulate Outlets And Light Switches
Find an electrical outlet or a light switch that's on a wall that faces the outside of your house, and put your hand against it. Does it feel cold? Take the cover plate off; I bet you'll be able to feel a slight draft coming in. You're not losing a significant amount of heat at each outlet, but all the outlets in your house combined add up to a good sized leak. You can use some small foam insulation pads on each switch or outlet to cut the draft down, and you don't even have to cut power to the outlets to install them. If you'd like even more insulation, you could add a row of caulk between the outlet box and the drywall.
Add Some Curtains
Heavy, insulated curtains are one of the best ways to guard against losing heat through the windows. The thicker the curtain, the better the insulation - a thin, filmy curtain that lets most of the light through won't help much. You can line thinner curtains yourself with some cheap fleece from the fabric store, or even with plastic shower curtains. If you've got direct sunlight hitting the windows, though, leave the curtains open until dusk - the radiant energy received from the sun will offset any heat loss.
Use Rugs On Tile And Hardwood Floors
Floors can account for up to 10% of your heat loss if they're not well insulated. If you don't like walking in your bare feet on the cold tile in the morning, then a rug or blanket on your floor can help with the heat loss, as well as keep your feet warm!
Insulate Your Windows With Bubble Wrap
You can use ordinary packing bubble wrap to insulate your windows and still let plenty of light in. The view through the windows will be fuzzy, but you'll still get plenty of light through. To install it, just cut the bubble wrap to size, spray a thin film of water on the window, and press the bubble wrap on with the bubbles towards the glass. The bubble wrap should last at least 6 years, so you can take it down in the spring, store it, and re-use it when the temperatures start to drop again. Just use a Sharpie to put a small number on the corner of each piece, and make a note on a piece of paper which window that corresponds to.
Leave The Oven Open When You're Done Cooking
If you've cooked something in your oven, leave the door open after you've finished so that the heat will radiate into your house rather than going to waste. Just be sure that children and pets (and adults as well!) won't burn themselves as they walk by.
Put Your Ceiling Fans On Reverse
Most ceiling fans will have a switch on them to reverse the direction that the blades rotate - it might be located on the remote (if you have one), or you might have to get up on a ladder to look for it. Since warm air rises and cool air sinks, if you reverse the direction of your fan the cooler air will be drawn upwards and force the warmer air near the ceiling back down into the room. Depending on the size of your rooms, and how many fans you have, you could save up to 10% on your heating costs.
Just remember, the blades should spin clockwise in winter, and counterclockwise in summer.
Install A Programmable Thermostat
Programmable thermostats can lower your heating bill by automatically adjusting the temperature to different settings at different times of the day. If you work a 9-to-5 job and your house is empty during the day, all the energy used to heat it during those hours is wasted. Instead, by using a programmable thermostat, you could have the heat go up a bit when you get up in the morning, then go back down when you leave for work. About an hour before you get home it can begin heating the house back up, then go back down at bedtime when you're tucked under some thick covers.
There are dozens of different models of programmable thermostats, with some that even offer smartphone control and the ability to "learn" what you like. Honestly though, to me they're just not worth the cost - $250 for the Nest Learning Thermostat versus $25 for a Honeywell programmable thermostat. In the 10 years that we've had our programmable thermostats installed, we've almost never changed the program, and I've honestly never thought to myself "I'd love to be able call my house and change the temperature".
Add Caulking And New Weatherstripping
Check the weatherstripping on all your outside doors and see if it needs to be replaced. In most cases, you simply peel the old strip off, remove the backing material from the old strip and press it into place.
When your windows and doors were installed they were sealed tightly to the frame. Over time, your house shifts and the sealing material deteriorates, causing leaks. You can slowly move a small lit candle around the edges of your doors and windows (stay away from curtains!); if the flame flickers you've got a draft. For windows, seal them with a bit of interior latex caulk, and for doors, you may need to get new (or thicker) weatherstripping.
Stay Away From Portable Electric Heaters
You might think that using one or two small electric heaters to heat the room you're in would be a way to same money, but I think you'll find the cost of operation to be surprising. I used a Kill-A-Watt Electricity Usage Monitor (check out our review of this handy device) to determine just what it costs to run a heater. The heater used 1.22 kWh (kilowatt-hours) of electricity per hour of use. We pay about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, so if you were to run this heater for 8 hours a night, it would cost you $1.07 per night, $7.49 per week, and about $32 per month. You're much better off investing that in some of the insulation methods I've described above!