There’s nothing that gets you thinking about energy efficiency quite like a cold breeze blowing over your toes while standing next to your front door. The farmhouse my partner and I bought this year is more than 100 years old, and while it’s full of historic charm, it’s seriously lacking in things like insulation and airtight sealing—no biggie, right?
Our biggest Year One project was replacing all the original single-pane windows in the house, and while I can’t wait to see the difference it makes in our oil bill, I know there’s still a lot we can do to (hopefully) reduce our wintertime heating costs.
To get an idea of the best ways to improve my home’s energy efficiency, I spoke with Dan Jarmolowicz, owner of Affordable Energy Ratings, which provides energy audits to homeowners in Massachusetts. Here are several of his expert-recommended tactics that you can use, too. (And no, he’s not going to tell you to buy new windows—in fact, he says it’s one of the least cost-effective options!)
Find Those Drafts
It might not seem like a big deal if you have a little draft coming from a door or window, but sealing up these air leaks can save you a whopping 10 to 20 percent on energy costs each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Doors and windows are the biggest culprits here, but drafts can also come from your chimney or even electrical outlets.
“Find and seal air leaks,” recommends Jarmolowicz. “Insulation doesn't have a chance to do its job if you have air bypassing it. The biggest return will be in sealing leaks to the attic—attic hatches, plumbing chases, chimney chases, recessed lighting—and basement, where your home meets your foundation. ”
The easiest (and cheapest) way to locate drafts is to simply hold your hand around the edges of closed doors and windows to feel if there’s cold air coming in. You can also use a stick of incense or a smoke pen to aid in your hunt—if you see the smoke blowing away or being sucked in a particular direction, it’s an indication you have a draft.
Once you’ve located drafty areas in your home, it’s fairly easy to seal them up. Fresh caulking around window frames will keep cold air out, and a new door sweep or draft stopper can be used on the bottom of doors. There are even insulating gaskets you can put in electrical outlets and switches. All of these solutions are quite affordable, but they can make a noticable difference in your heating costs during the cold winter months.
Service Your Heating Equipment
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: I really wish there was an all-encompassing guide to owning a house. There are just so many things I didn’t know you had to do, and that includes having the oil burner cleaned annually. (Luckily, my mom told me about it when the weather started getting cold. Thanks, mom!)
In case you’re like me, here’s a reminder: Your heating system needs regular maintenance to function at peak efficiency. Furnaces need to be cleaned, and boilers need maintenance to eliminate buildup on the heat exchanger. Plus, you should be changing air filters regularly—at least every three months, but potentially even more often—during these high-use periods.
While you’re at it, you should take the opportunity to examine and seal your home’s ductwork. Energy Star notes that in your average home, 20 to 30 percent of air that moves through the duct system is lost due to leaks, holes, and poor insulation. If your ducts are particularly bad, you might need to call a professional to repair or replace them, but you can seal joints and small leaks yourself using sealant tape.
Upgrade Your Thermostat
Smart thermostats are extremely convenient, and they can also save you big bucks on heating costs. Google claims that its third-generation Nest Thermostat saves users an average of 10 to 12 percent on heating bills, while Ecobee says its Smart Thermostat can save you 26 percent on annual energy costs. Not too shabby, right?
Basically, a smart thermostat learns your habits and creates an optimized heating schedule for your home. So if you leave for work at 8 a.m. and come home at 4 p.m., it will automatically drop the temperature a few degrees during that time to lower your energy costs. (You can achieve the same effect with a programmable thermostat, but they typically offer less granular control.)
Get a Professional Energy Assessment
Did you know that many utility providers offer free home energy audits to their customers? Professionals will come in and evaluate factors like your home’s insulation, ventilation, air quality, and more, and a lot of times they’ll even provide you with LED light bulbs, power strips, and other energy-saving products.
“I typically include a blower door test in my audits to determine the leakage of the whole home,” explains Jarmolowicz. “This helps diagnose air leakage and helps set a baseline for improvements. Other items include insulation, lighting, HVAC, water heater and appliances.”
After having an assessment done, you might even be able to get discounted rates on insulation improvements, targeted air sealing, and more. Obviously, this all depends on where you live and your utility provider, but it’s fairly common in the U.S.
Don’t Forget The Basics!
In addition to these larger energy-saving strategies, there are plenty of small ways to minimize energy use during the winter (and year-round). While they may not seem like much, little changes can add up to significant savings when you stick with them!
- Switch to LED light bulbs, which use 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs, according to the Department of Energy.
- Plug electronics into a power strip to easily turn them off when not in use, reducing phantom power loads.
- Install water-saving showerheads, which could save you up to save 2,700 gallons per year, according to the EPA.
- Clean your appliances regularly to ensure they’re working efficiently. This means dusting your refrigerator coils, removing lint from the dryer, washing A/C air filters, and so on.
- Reverse ceiling fans in the winter to create an updraft that forces warm air near the ceiling down into the room.
- Wash clothes in cold water whenever possible, and wait until you have a full load to run your washing machine.