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Stay Warm Without Breaking the Bank

ThermometerThe thermometer is cranked up past 70 degrees, but you're still shivering. You're not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 50 percent of a typical household's energy budget goes toward heating and cooling the home, yet many people say their houses never feel comfortably warm. That's enough to give anyone chills.

Heat Transference 101

Cold-weather management of heat transfer -- the movement of heat from inside to outside -- is the central task of efforts to keep warm.

Warm air doesn't want to stay trapped inside. It's always trying to escape out of your home -- through windows, roofs and the basement.

"A house acts like a chimney," said Mike Rogers, senior vice president of GreenHomes America. "Warm air tries to find a place to get out and cold air replaces it. The reason you feel so cold when the thermostat is so high is because warm air is escaping while cold air is taking its place. The goal is to break this cycle by eliminating the air leaks."

It's not just a matter of adding more insulation, said Rogers. Air blows through insulation. "You need to have air leaks fixed in tandem with adding insulation," he said. "Then you'll have addressed the issue."

Yet, in their attempts to keep warm air trapped and energy consumption bills down, many people follow advice that they really don't understand.

One common counsel is to close doors and heating vents to unused rooms. But that may backfire. Vast temperature swings in a home generate condensation, explained Rogers, and that begins the scourge of mold growth, disturbs the heating system's inner workings, misdirects the air flow or alters the air pressure in the home.

Instead of closing doors in an effort to conserve heat and dollars, others turn the thermostat way down during the day and crank it back up again at night. But does firing up the furnace use even more electricity, oil or gas?

"The best rule of thumb to save on energy consumption is to stay within 3 to 4 degrees below your comfort level rather than swinging it too low," said Jim Cosmas, general manager of The Weather Busters, a heating and cooling system repair and maintenance company. "If you feel comfortable at 72 degrees, don't turn the temperature down below 68 degrees. Then, you will see your greatest cost savings."

Cosmas explained that although it may seem as though you are saving money by turning down the thermostat 8 to 12 degrees during the day, it takes a lot of energy to run the heating equipment to bring the air back to a comfortable level. "Not only are you reducing the temperature of the air when you push the thermostat down," he said, "you are reducing the temperature of walls, floors and furniture -- and it takes a long time and a lot of energy to reheat the contents of a room."

Penny-Pinching Ideas

What can you do to stave off the chill when you don't have money to burn? A few tried-and-true "aha" ideas can help you defrost while waiting for the heating experts to close those air leaks.

Use outdoor items indoors. For example, wear ski bibs or ski pants inside. They are comfortable and made for the slopes, so they are ideal for chilly days in your home.

Drape a sleeping bag over blankets at night: If it's insulated enough for camping, it'll do in your bedroom.

Fill a steel water bottle with hot water, put it inside a thick sock, and take it to bed with you. It'll act like a mini space heater.

If you have a fireplace, look for free firewood. Spring and fall are prime times for tree trimming, and homeowners will be happy to give you wood if you remove it from the property. All you have to do is split and season it.

If you detect a small window draft, caulk it with glue from a glue gun for a quick fix.

Buy a $5 can of expanding foam sealant and apply it to the dozens of small holes, cracks and gaps inside and outside that allow air leakage.

For leaky windows that can't be replaced in the near future, cut down the drafts by hanging a clear plastic shower curtain under the drapes.

Space Heaters? Maybe a Heating Tune-Up, Instead

Space heaters, once the most shunned pieces of warming equipment, have gained acceptance among heating professionals. But paying a higher price for a space heater will not always purchase a vastly superior appliance. A $20 portable ceramic heater may raise the temperature just as quickly as some $200 models, according to experts.

"If you are an empty nester with a big house, but only use a few rooms, then you can turn the house thermostat down and heat one or two rooms with a space heater, and you'll certainly save some money," said Conservation Services Group's Bruce Harley, author of "Insulate and Weatherize" and "Cut Your Energy Bills Now."

"But," he added, "for most families it's not going to help much, because you're in a lot of rooms at once." Besides, it's more expensive and less convenient to heat multiple rooms with space heaters than to use your central heat.

If all else fails to warm up your house, it may be time for a system replacement. According to Cosmas, replacing a heating system that is 12 years or older can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 35 percent and eliminate costly repairs. An energy audit of your home can help you determine if a new heating system is required.

Still, even a heating system tune-up -- rather than an overhaul -- can ensure that your equipment is efficiently humming along. But at what cost?

Most gas or oil companies, as well as those that sell electric heat pumps, offer an annual service contract. For a fee, a technician will evaluate the condition and efficiency of your system. For an unbiased tune-up and maintenance service, experts say, it's best to hire a third party.

"The cost of a heating tune-up can vary from market to market, but you can find tune-ups for about $49 to $300," said Cosmas, whose company produced a YouTube video to explain the importance of a tune-up. But, he said, not all tune-ups are alike. It's important to choose a reputable HVAC contractor. You might otherwise end up with what Cosmas called a "drive-by tune-up."

"The cost of a quality tune-up is usually lowest if it is done early in the season or some time in January and early February, when most contractors are not as busy," said Cosmas.

The Building Performance Institute maintains a listed of accredited contractors.

Is an Energy Audit Worth It?

Regardless of your home's age, there are probably air leaks. They may be hidden in attics, garages or crawl spaces. An energy audit from a reputable company can help you find them.

"People think that they've weatherized their house if they caulk around the windows and install a door sweep or two," Harley said. "Most of the big savers do cost some money, but typically in the hundreds to a few thousand, not tens of thousands.

"And with fuel prices going up again," said Harley, speaking in early 2011, "the likelihood of a fast payback is high if you focus on the right measures."

An energy audit may be helpful on many levels, he added, but it is not a solution in and of itself. Harley said that in order to realize the value of an energy audit, you must follow through on the recommendations.

"The opportunities for significant savings involve sealing hidden air leaks, sealing leaky ducts in attics, adding insulation to attics and empty walls, and replacing older equipment with efficient units," he said.

An energy auditor may diagnose problems that affect your comfort and your wallet while helping you access programs that offer incentives for heating and air conditioning system improvements. For example, Harley said, an energy auditor will explain tax credits and rebates through local, state and federal government initiatives to encourage improvements, as well as special offers from local utility companies. He added, however, that a local utility company also represents a good starting place.

Like so many things, the solutions are often nearer than you think.

Tips & Warnings

Tips: The federal tax credits for installing insulation, sealing, and heating/cooling equipment in homes have been extended through 2011. Energy audits are sometimes free. Check with your local town hall or utility company to find out if they are available for no cost or a minimal charge. Find an auditor certified by The Residential Energy Sevices Network to conduct your energy audit. RESNET's standards are officially recognized by the federal government. Homeowners can visit the organization's website to learn about energy audit and rating processes and search its directory to find certified auditors and raters as well as qualified contractors and builders.

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