Tips for Holding Down Your Winter Heating Bills

Home heating bills are expected to be significantly higher this winter, but there’s still time to take steps to make your living space more energy-efficient and hold down costs.

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs.jpeg

Illustration: Thomas Fuchs

The recent spurt of inflation is being driven, in part, by spikes in the cost of natural gas, heating oil, propane and electricity, which may be unwelcome news to consumers who have become accustomed to lower fuel prices in recent years.

Nearly half of American households heat mainly with natural gas, and they will spend on average 29% more on heat this winter, according to a forecast from the federal Energy Information Administration. Households using heating oil and propane will face double-digit increases, while electricity costs are expected to rise 6%, on average. Those costs could vary, if temperatures are much higher or lower than expected.

Whatever type of fuel, now is the time to make your home more comfortable and save on heating costs.

“It’s not too late,” said Doug Anderson, project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, which researches and promotes cost-effective ways to make homes more energy efficient. “Get on it right away.”

Start with your attic. Heat rises, so your house tends to lose warmth at the top. Just as wearing a hat in winter keeps you warm, repairing or adding insulation in your attic will help keep your house cozy, said Richard Trethewey, a heating and plumbing contractor and a regular on home renovation show “This Old House.”

“Look at the ‘hat’ of your building,” he said. “Insulate at the top.”

You can get a good idea of where insulation is needed with a simple visual inspection, he said. Reposition any insulation that has shifted. Pay attention to any gaps around pipes and ducts. You can also get relatively inexpensive thermal camera attachments for your cellphone, which can help pinpoint areas where heat is leaking, Trethewey said.

You can add insulation yourself, if you have a truck to haul it home and don’t mind getting dirty and itchy. Rigid-foam insulation, for instance, can be cut and wedged between joists — the horizontal beams at the base of your attic — to supplement insulation that’s already there. There’s even a tax credit of up to $500 available for the material used, according to Energy Star.

But for many homeowners, professional installation is preferable. “It becomes gnarly for people,” Trethewey said.

To get a full picture of your home’s heating profile, you can schedule a residential energy assessment, also called an energy audit. Some gaps may be obvious, such as light between an exterior door and its frame. That can be dealt with by applying weatherstripping to keep out drafts.

“If you’re near a window and can feel a breeze, you know there’s a problem,” said Nancy Kaplan, director of workforce development for the Building Performance Institute, which sets standards for upgrading homes and certifies technicians that do the work.

Other leaks might be less visible, however, and many homeowners lack the tools or skills to find them, said Larry Zarker, the institute’s chief executive. For instance, a detailed energy audit often involves temporarily installing a special blower at a door to depressurize your house. This will draw air into the house through any gaps, showing areas — identifiable with a thermal camera — that should be sealed or insulated.

A home energy audit can cost $200 to $500, depending on your location and the size of the house, but some utilities cover the cost, Kaplan said.

The Energy Department offers a weatherization program, geared to low-income households, that can help pay for recommended upgrades, like added insulation or more efficient heating systems.

To get started, check with your local utility or your state weatherization agency.

You can save money on your heating bill by turning down your thermostat when you are sleeping or away from home. A programmable thermostat can do it for you automatically. The Energy Department estimates you can save up to 10% a year on heating by lowering your thermostat by 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit from its normal setting for eight hours a day.

You can still see savings even if you work from home: The department recommends setting the thermostat at 68 degrees while you’re awake and lowering it while you’re asleep.

For advice on what smart thermostat to use, see ratings on Wirecutter, The New York Times’ product-rating affiliate. Consumer Reports ranks both traditional programmable thermostats as well as newer, web-linked versions.

Low-income families may qualify for financial help if they can’t afford their heating bills. Check with your state agency or contact the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program.

Here are some questions and answers about home heating:

Q: I rent my apartment. Is there anything I can do?

A: Apartment renters can also make fixes that will help them keep thermostats lower and save on heating bills. Pay special attention to drafty windows, said Anderson of Energy Star. You can install plastic window film to reduce heat loss. Sealing the edges of the film with a blow dryer helps pull the sheet taut and reduce annoying flapping, Trethewey said.

It’s worth spending a little bit more to get high-quality clear film, so you can still see outside. (The downside is that you can’t open your windows until spring.) There’s also removable caulk, a temporary sealant that comes in strips and can be applied to window gaps, then removed when warmer weather arrives.

Drafts sometimes come through electrical outlets. You can install inexpensive foam gasket covers that fit between the switch plate and the socket to stop the airflow.

If you have window air conditioning units, it’s best to remove them for the winter or at least to invest in a heavy cover to reduce drafts.

Check to make sure furniture isn’t blocking any vents so heat can circulate freely. “You don’t want to heat up the bottom of your couch,” Anderson said.

Apartments with radiators can consider heat “reflectors,” foil or metal sheets that fit behind the radiator and direct heat away from the wall and into the room.

Q: When should I consider replacing my heating system?

A: Heating systems typically last about 12 to 20 years, depending on the type. But people often wait until the systems fail before replacing them, Anderson said. If yours is past its prime, you may want to seek quotes on a replacement now. The cost will probably be greater if the unit fails during the winter and has to be replaced on an emergency basis. Upgrading to a more efficient heating system can save up to 20% on energy costs, according to Energy Star.

Replacing a furnace costs roughly $2,700 to $6,400 — more if you choose a high-efficiency model or if your ductwork needs repair, according to HomeAdvisor, a contractor-matching service.

“You’ll have to spend money upfront, but you’ll save money for a long time to come,” said David Nemtzow, director of the Energy Department’s building technologies office.

You may be able to pay for the upgrade via an “energy efficient mortgage” by wrapping the cost into a refinancing of your home, said Steve Baden, executive director of the Residential Energy Services Network, or RESNET, which sets the standards for and promotes the benefits of home energy efficiency, focusing on new construction. Borrowers can often get more favorable financing terms because lenders take into account the value of the utility savings. Details are available from Energy Star and Fannie Mae.

Tax credits are also available if you upgrade to a more efficient heating system or water heater.

At the very least, have your heating system inspected to be sure it is functioning well before cold weather arrives. A professional will check electrical connections, oil any moving parts and maybe change the filter (which you should do at least every four months, professionals say). “It’s worth it to get a tuneup,” Anderson said.

Q: What other steps can I take?

A: Remember the advice your father offered when you were young? “Put on a sweater!” Or, as a video from the Energy Department advises: “Grab a blanket. Invest in a new set of slippers. Make yourself a cup of tea.” It may take a while for your body to adapt, the department says, but you’ll appreciate the savings on your heating bill.

Leave a Reply