Projections are for a colder winter throughout the northern U.S. and we’re already seeing record lows. So how are Americans keeping their homes warm?
- 54% of homes use natural gas; most are in Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest
- 38% use electricity; most are in Southeast, Southwest, and California
- 6% use oil; most are in New York and New England
- Few use propane, wood or other energy sources
Heat rises and so does the price of heating
The cost of heating has risen since a year ago, making winter energy savings a hot topic. Expect rates to be higher by 2% (electricity) up to 13% (natural gas), while the cost of oil can spike depending upon demand.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates 90% of the 116 million homes in the U.S. will pay more for heating this winter (October 1, 2013-March 31, 2014) than last year:
- Natural gas: $679 ($80 more than last year)
- Electricity: $909 ($18 more than last year)
- Propane: $1,666 ($120 more than last year)
- Oil: $2,046 ($46 less than last year)
How can you save on heating costs in 2013?
Before we talk about specific ways to save on heating costs, remember that there are a lot of ways you can save on your overall energy costs. One of the easiest is to use ENERGY STAR certified appliances and fixtures, and to replace incandescent light bulbs with CFL or LED bulbs.
In addition, make sure your heating equipment is in good condition so that it can operate efficiently. If you central air conditioning, a SEER 16 unit is a good choice for year-round savings on both heating and cooling. Otherwise, many of the tips that save money on heating will also save money on cooling your home.
Step 1: seal your home.
Leaky homes let cold air in and warm air out. Make sure your home is tightly sealed. This is relatively inexpensive and can mean significant savings, especially in an older home. Some electric companies offer inexpensive energy audits, or you can hire a professional to conduct an energy loss assessment. In any event, do the following:
- Caulk all windows
- Weather strip all doors, including any doors to an attached garage or enclosed porch
- Weather strip attic hatch or door
- Seal small gaps around plumbing stacks or electric power supply lines in the attic and in the basement
- Seal holes or gaps around chimney or furnace flues; keep damper closed or consider sealing the top of the chimney (the fireplace will become nonworking)
- Make sure your AC ducts are properly sealed and repaired; about 20% of air is lost due to leaking or improperly connected ducts
- Repair any cracks in mortar or exterior stucco
- Repair settlement cracks especially if there are small gaps along the baseboard and the rim joist where the cement meets your home’s wood framing
- Use winter storm windows and doors in northern climates
- Remove AC window units and close windows during winter
- Unroll area rugs on top of wooden floors, especially in older homes
- Use inexpensive gaskets to seat electrical outlets when not in use
Step 2: insulate everything
Properly insulating the attic and walls can save up to 10% annually. Don’t forget the wall between an attached garage and your living space; attached garages and enclosed porches can be significant sources of energy loss. Also remember to use an insulated attic hatch or door. Insulating pipes and your water heater can save on hot water costs.
- Insulation should be above the attic floor joists
- Recommended insulation is R-38 at about 12-15 inches
- In colder climates, R-49 insulation is preferred
- Use insulation wraps and sheets around pipes, water heaters, and on attic hatch
Step 3: reset your thermostat and ceiling fans
The Department of Energy (DOE) estimate you can save about 3% on your natural gas bill for every degree that your turn your thermostat down during the winter. This means that in Michigan, you could save about $30 a month for a three-degree change.
- Use a programmable thermostat and set “away” and “bedtime” temperatures to 62 degrees and “at-home” temperature to 68-70 degrees.
- Heating your home with electricity costs two to three times more than cooling it (about $1.15 per hour in a 1700-square foot house based on 12 cents per kilowatt hour)
- Do not close registers or air returns in unused rooms; it can damage your ducts and will make your system less efficient
- Set reversible fans to blow air up; this will push hot at the top of room and distribute it throughout the room
- Do not leave fans running in unused rooms; this can waste about $7 per month per fan
- Space heaters are a major cause of fires and so we do not recommend them; instead use heated blankets or Snuggies to stay warm in a colder room
Step 4: control humidity
Controlling humidity is an important way to feel more comfortable year round. Humidity inside your home is related to exterior humidity. In warm climates, high interior humidity means that you will feel too cold. In cold climates, the opposite is true and humidity is usually too dry for comfort. In both cases, the real problem is that exterior air is finding its way into your home. In general, during the winter your interior humidity should be around 40-50% in most homes. In Florida, Louisiana, and other humid areas, it will be a little higher.
- In general, indoor humidity around 50% is most comfortable; this will vary depending on where you live, how your home is built, and how you heat it
- In cold climates, if interior humidity is too high ice will form on the inside of windows and walls, causing damage and possible illness; this usually happens when people add humidifiers because the interior air is too dry for comfort
- In cold climates, too little interior humidity can cause coughs and nosebleeds; low humidity is usually a problem in cold climates because cold air cannot contain much water and it occurs when too much exterior air is coming into the home
- Sealing your home is usually the solution, no matter where you live
Step 5: layer like an Antarctic explorer
You don’t have to heat your whole home when you take the chill off by putting on a few layers. Many thin, warm layers will insulate you better against the cold than a few thick layers.
- Science has debunked that we lose most of our body heat through our heads, but your head and face are more sensitive to cold, so wearing a knit cap will make you feel warmer.
- Socks will make you feel more comfortable, especially if you have poor circulation. Both cotton and wool absorb and retain a lot more moisture than acrylic, so a good-quality acrylic or synthetic-blend sock will keep your feet drier. U.S.-made socks are usually of better quality than those made in China. Cotton especially retains moisture and will draw heat away from your body.
- If you choose to wear long underwear, a “wicking” synthetic brand is lightweight and feels soft, but synthetic fibers can stain easily and odors may build up. Silk is luxurious and thin, but difficult to care for and expensive. Merino wool is non-itchy and stain resistant, but costly and can shrink in the dryer.
- When you layer for warmth, wear a wicking layer (non-cotton) garment first as your base layer. This should be formfitting and long underwear is ideal. The next layer should be looser but not baggy to hold warmth in the air spaces. Consider a hoodie or bulky knit sweater. Common fabrics are synthetic fleece, polyester, and wool. Cotton is not very warm compared to other fabrics. Wear wicking socks and knit slippers, plus a cap and you are good to go. If you’ll be watching TV or reading, snuggle up with a heated throw.
- Dress your bed, especially in cold climates. Begin with an electric mattress pad. Then add flannel, fleece, or knit polyester jersey sheets that wick moisture (cotton is out). If you don’t want to buy different sheets for summer and winter, buy good quality cotton-synthetic blend sheets. The next layer might be an acrylic blanket or lightweight cotton quilt. Then add a wool blanket. If it is really cold, top it all off with a comforter and duvet. While down comforters are warm, they are difficult to clean and many people are allergic to them. Down alternatives are pretty good performers, are usually machine washable, and are fine for allergy sufferers. The more layers you use on a bed, the warmer you’ll be – and sleeping partners who like it colder can flip back a few layers onto your side. Many people swear by electric blankets, but you can stay warm with the right layers without paying the utility company.
- Take a tip from your great-grandmother and use a hot water bottle wrapped up in a towel (can leak, though) to warm the foot of your bed. Microwavable bags of rice stay warm, don’t slip around, don’t leak and you can make them easily. We recommend against sleeping with an electric heating pad due to the risk of burns.
What are your tips for keeping warm this winter?