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Tips for Reducing Heating Bills This Winter

102805tip_dl.jpgBOONE – With natural gas prices soaring and electricity rates poised to increase, many homeowners are wondering which efficiency measures make the most sense for their homes.

Appalachian State University’s Building Science Program in the Department of Technology has evaluated a host of options for existing homes. Energy saving measures can be divided into two categories: measures that are no cost or low cost, and measures that have moderate cost but provide an excellent payback.

No-cost/low-cost measures

These measures involve either changing the way a home is operated or finding and fixing major problem areas:

Heat and cool smartly:

Set the thermostat a few degrees cooler during winter days. Each degree lower will save 3 to 6 percent on heating bills.

Set the thermostat to 60 degrees (or lower) at night and snuggle up with an extra blanket or comforter.

Find the big leaks:

If you have a central heating system with ductwork, inspect the duct system while the blower is operating for noticeable leaks and make sure all of the ductwork is connected. Seal the leaks carefully with duct sealing mastic available at many building supply outlets, as well as heating and cooling supply stores. A fact sheet on duct leakage and sealing is available at www.ncenergystar.org.

Inspect under the bottom floor of the home, in the crawl space or unheated basement, for large air leaks up into the home. Typical locations are around the bathtub trap and where ductwork extends into the home. Seal leaks with combinations of foam sealant, caulking and foam board insulation cut to fit. While working on the big holes, seal around other holes for piping, wiring and ductwork.

While in the crawl space, push any insulation that is falling out back in place. A few gaps in the insulation will drastically reduce its effectiveness.

Inspect the attic for large leaks, but be careful walking up there – one misstep could result in a plunge through the ceiling to the floor below. It’s best to install a walkboard on top of the attic insulation first. Common leaks are around flues for fireplaces, wood stoves, furnaces and water heaters; open chases for ductwork and plumbing; and framed areas over cabinetry, closets, and shower-bathtub units. Be careful sealing around flues, as they usually require a clearance – an air space between the flue pipe itself and any combustible materials. A factsheet on air sealing details is available at www.ncenergystar.org.

While in the attic, make the insulation as continuous as possible. If the insulation is a loose-fill product, a steel rake – used gently around plumbing, wiring, and ductwork – can help create an even layer.

Smart appliance and lighting use:

Appliances and lighting contribute 20 to 40 percent of total energy bills in a home. The first step is to keep them off when not in use. Always turn off lights, televisions and other entertainment equipment, computers and space heaters in unoccupied rooms.

Try turning the refrigerator temperature up a degree or two in the winter – but don’t risk spoiling any food.

Use smart cooking procedures – cover all pots and pans, use the microwave whenever possible and pick the right sized burner for the job.

When washing clothes, use cold or warm water wash whenever possible. Always wash full loads; select “medium” or “small” settings for partial loads.

When using a dishwasher, always wait for full loads and avoid using the dry cycle.

Set the water heater temperature to 140 degrees if the dishwasher does not have a built-in heater. Set it to 120 degrees if the dishwasher has a booster heater.

Install a water heater wrap, available in building supply stores, around the water heater. Follow the instructions carefully, particularly in the case of gas water heaters.

If showers have higher flow fixtures, purchase and install a quality, low-flow model. Low-flow showerheads have received negative publicity because some models deliver a poor velocity spray. Target showers that receive the most use.

Investing in Energy Efficiency

Insulation, Air Sealing and Duct Sealing:

Homes with little or no attic insulation should be insulated as soon as possible. Specify R-30 to R-38. Loose-fill insulation is usually a better buy, but make sure the insulation contractor is reputable. They should provide an attic card, which shows what R-value and how many bags they install.

Exterior walls without insulation can be insulated using the so-called dense-pack method, which also helps reduce air leakage. This job will be expensive, but can pay back the investment in four to eight years.

Floors over crawl spaces or unheated basements should be insulated. Depending on the home, a sealed crawl space system may be a good choice, which eliminates the crawl space wall vents. In sealed crawl spaces, the homeowner can choose between insulating under the floor or against the crawl space walls. It’s always a good idea to cover the earth floor of a crawl space or unfinished basement with a full layer of plastic. Find out more about sealed crawl spaces at www.crawlspaces.org.

The major energy liability in many homes is excessive air leakage and duct leakage, which also can create air quality and health problems. Contractors that may provide services to seal leaks include heating and cooling dealers, insulation contractors and home energy raters.

Heating and Cooling Systems:

At least every two years, and preferably every year, have a reliable heating and cooling contractor inspect your heating and cooling system for proper operation.

Units more than 15 years old are likely to need replacement. When selecting a new unit, always err on the side of efficiency, no matter the recommendations of your contractor. Furnaces that use natural gas or propane should have annual efficiencies over 90 percent. Oil furnaces should be at least 80 percent efficient. Never replace an electric furnace with another electric furnace – select a heat pump or fuel-fired furnace instead. Heat pumps should have Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER) of at least 13 and heating efficiencies, measured by the Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF), of at least 7.8 and preferably higher.

Whenever replacing HVAC systems, always have the duct system sealed and the insulation repaired. Require a follow-up duct tightness test using a duct testing blower.

Appliances and Lighting

Replace as many incandescent lamps as possible with compact fluorescent lamps (CFL). The fluorescent lamps are 60 to 70 percent more efficient and should last four to nine times longer. They will now fit in many fixtures; some products come with a globe covering so they look like standard incandescents. Pick the wattage carefully so the lamp will fit in the fixture and deliver as much light as possible. It’s often better to pick a little higher wattage so you can see better and still save substantially on your lighting energy use.

When replacing your water heater, use the Efficiency Factor label as a guide. For gas water heaters, the Efficiency Factor should exceed 0.60, while for electric units, the factor should be at least 0.91. It can still make sense to install a water heater wrap on these units.

Whenever replacing appliances, always pick units with the Energy Star label. They come in a wide range of style, cost and energy savings. Sometimes those that save the most will have considerably more initial cost, so choose carefully.

How Will I Save?

The exact energy savings from these actions will vary drastically. Many homeowners can save hundreds of dollars annually by adopting key measures above. An excellent guide to energy retrofitting measures, with lots of do-it-yourself products, is available at www.southface.org.

Spread the Word

The importance of energy efficiency has never been clearer. The energy savings available in homes apply to businesses as well, so taking action in the workplace helps to save, too.

For more information on retrofitting your home to save energy, contact Appalachian State University’s Department of Technology at (828) 262-7289 or visit www.ncenergystar.org or attend North Carolina’s first Energy Star Conference, sponsored by the State Energy Office and the North Carolina Homebuilder Association, Dec. 8 at the Hilton Raleigh-Durham Airport at Research Triangle Park.

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Picture Caption: Checking the attic for any gaps in your home’s insulation is among tips for reducing heating bills this winter. Appalachian State University students Joe Hallock, standing, and Matt Johnson demonstrate how to insulate an attic. Both are studying building science in Appalachian’s Department of Technology. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Mike Rominger)