15 Ways to Cut Heating Costs This Winter

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WARM AND SOLVENT

Chilly winter weather is synonymous with cozy sweaters, hot cocoa -- and steep energy bills. It's no surprise that running the heating system on high nonstop pushes monthly costs sky high. But there's no reason to go broke staying warm. Here are 15 energy-efficient tips that should make heating bills less burdensome.

TAKE THE HEAT DOWN A NOTCH

Each degree lower on the thermostat for a period of at least eight hours -- when everyone is asleep or at work -- can cut the heating bill by 1 percent, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy. This doesn't mean freezing at night. Just throw on warmer pajamas or snuggle under an extra blanket.

INSTALL A PROGRAMMABLE THERMOSTAT

Anyone afraid they won't remember to turn down the heat before leaving the house or going to bed should consider installing a programmable thermostat. These nifty devices control the indoor temperature 24/7 and will generate the most savings if no one messes with the settings when they feel chilly. Grab a sweater instead.

REDUCE DRAFTS

Realize savings up to 30 percent on energy bills by covering up drafty windows and doors and sealing air leaks, according to the Department of Energy. A rolled-up towel is an easy and cheap way to stop a draft. Seal small spaces open to the outdoors with a scrap of fabric or an old necktie filled with sand. Cover up windows with insulating plastic to keep heat in.

INSTALL STORM DOORS AND WINDOWS

This is a more permanent way to cut down on drafts that enter the house through inefficient doors and windows. The home improvement site ImproveNet lays out the costs and the pros and cons of this project, and asserts it can boost a home's energy efficiency by 45 percent.

CHANGE FURNACE FILTERS

Dirty furnace filters can restrict airflow, making the heating system work harder, which in turn can boost heating bills. Filters should be cleaned or replaced monthly during the cold season. Keeping tabs on the furnace filter also can pare medical bills. The more efficient the filter, the more allergens and debris it catches, thus preventing these irritants from circulating in the air.

RUN FANS IN REVERSE

Changing the direction of a ceiling fan can shave as much as 10 percent off monthly heating bills. Flipping a switch on the fan turns the traditional counterclockwise rotation that produces a cool breeze to a clockwise rotation that pushes warm air back into circulation.

TURN DOWN THE WATER HEATER

The standard setting for a hot water heater is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But The Simple Dollar notes that dialing down to 120 degrees, which is still plenty warm, can push energy costs down by 6 to 10 percent. Other strategies, such as a tankless or solar water heater, may have a bigger impact but require an initial investment of at least several hundred dollars.

BE DILIGENT ABOUT MAINTENANCE

Just like any other major appliance, a furnace needs regular tune-ups. Keeping it clean and properly adjusted helps it run efficiently and prolongs its lifespan. Check with the local utility company or the furnace manufacturer about annual inspections -- some offer this service at no charge. And plan ahead, because many consumers will be calling for a technician as the weather turns colder.

USE CAULK AND WEATHER STRIPPING

Windows and doors aren't the only spots where warm air leaks out of the house. Keep an eye out for places where two types of building materials meet -- corners, chimneys, and around pipes and wires. Test for leaks by waving a stick of incense around the house and noting areas where the smoke wafts. Walk around the outside of the house with a hair dryer and aim it at trouble spots, such as windows; if a lit candle on the inside flickers or goes out, there's a leak. Plug up these energy suckers with caulk and weather stripping.

SEAL THE DUCTS

The Energy Department warns that about 20 percent of heated air can escape through the ductwork in a house. Have the ducts evaluated by a professional to determine if sealing or any other improvement is necessary. Although there's a cost to these repairs, annual savings can hit $120. Properly sealed ductwork also better protects against dust and mold.

KEEP AN EYE ON WARM WATER USAGE

Who doesn't love a long, hot shower in the depths of winter? But the more water a shower head disperses, the more heat is needed to warm it. Installing a low-flow shower head saves money in two ways: It cuts down on energy usage as well as on water usage. Insulating the water tank yields even more savings.

LOOK AT THE CLOCK

Energy is cheaper during off-peak hours; that is, before about 7 a.m. and after about 10 p.m., depending on the local utility. Set the thermostat to heat the house shortly before and after off-peak hours end and begin, and to turn off when the desired temperature is reached. A well-sealed home will retain the heat until everyone leaves for the day or retires for the night. Also, running appliances at off-peak times shaves dollars off monthly energy bills.

HEAT A SMALLER SPACE

Why heat the rest of the house when you're using only one room? Buy a space heater for about $30 and set it up in the most heavily used area of the home. By concentrating the heat in one spot, it's possible to lower the thermostat. Although running the portable heater certainly has a cost, it may be less than keeping the entire house at a toasty temperature.

BLOCK THE CHIMNEY

Make sure the damper in the chimney is shut tight. This simple step will prevent heated air from escaping the home out the chimney. The financial benefits are apparent without making any additional investment.

INSULATE THE ATTIC AND BASEMENT

Out of sight and out of mind, perhaps, but the cool air in uninsulated parts of the house contributes to the overall cost of heating. According to the Energy Star program, insulating an attic, crawl space, basement walls, and the floor above an unfinished basement can reduce heating costs by an average of 15 percent. Although the price of insulating an attic can exceed $1,000, the investment should pay off in a few seasons.