Steamed over high heating bills? Many homeowners pay hundreds or thousands of dollars just to stay warm each winter. Unfortunately, many heating-bill–busting strategies come with massive price tags of their own—upgrading to triple-paned windows or a furnace with a high Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating costs thousands of dollars.
Here are nine often-overlooked heating-bill–lowering projects that don’t come with big bills themselves…
Improve the insulation over your attic ladder or scuttle hole. You probably already know that adding insulation in an attic can lower heating bills. But even in homes that have abundant attic insulation, there’s often a big gap in the spot where the attic is accessed from below. Maybe there’s supposed to be insulation here, but it slides out of place whenever the attic is accessed…or maybe there’s no insulation at all to allow room for a folding ladder.
To fix this problem, buy an “attic tent,” which stands over the attic access area to create an insulating air cushion, much like the insulation provided by the air between the panes of glass in a double-paned window. Example: Duck Brand Attic Stairway Cover, available in several sizes for around $40.
Hang insulated curtains. Even if your home has modern, energy-efficient windows, some heat will inevitably escape through them—glass doesn’t insulate as well as insulated walls. But it is possible to insulate windows, at least at night. Hang “thermal insulated” curtains, which typically include one or more layers of cotton batting, flannel, felt or foam sandwiched between a decorative fabric and an inner liner. These create an insulating air pocket between the curtain and the window, reducing the amount of heat that escapes and preventing drafts from getting in. These curtains are most effective when they reach from ceiling to floor.
Put aluminum foil behind radiators. If your home has radiators, cut pieces of cardboard to approximately the size of those radiators…cover the cardboard with aluminum foil on one side…and position the cardboard between the radiators and exterior walls, with the foil facing the radiator. The foil reflects heat back into the room that otherwise would have been lost into the exterior walls.
Use HVAC air filters that tell you when to change them. You may already know that changing your HVAC system’s filter regularly helps the system function efficiently—a filter full of dirt and pet hair can inhibit air flow. Rather than trust a preset filter-change schedule, use Bluetooth-enabled filters that monitor air pressure and send an alert to your smartphone when they actually need to be changed. Example: 3M Filtrete Smart Filters, available in multiple sizes, $44 for a package of two.
Move obstructions away from HVAC vents, registers and radiators. Furniture or curtains within 12 inches of these can inhibit air flow or, in the case of radiators, block heat from radiating throughout the space. The result can be decreased heating efficiency and/or cold spots in rooms.
Run ceiling fans in the winter. The temperature at ceiling height often is 10 degrees or more warmer than it is lower in a room, because hot air rises. A ceiling fan can circulate that hot air back down through the living space. Run fans clockwise at their lowest speed to accomplish this—a ceiling fan turning clockwise pulls cold air up from below rather than pushing hot air down from above. Either direction should circulate hot air back down from ceiling height, but pulling cold air up at low speed does so without generating a cooling breeze that would be unwelcome in winter.
Run a humidifier. We feel warmer when air is more humid—that’s why humid summer days feel oppressive even when the temperature isn’t tremendously high. Similarly, operating a humidifier can make you feel warmer in winter without cranking up your thermostat. Humidifiers cost just pennies per day to run, so you’ll almost certainly save money compared with cranking up the heat. But don’t increase the relative humidity in your home above 40% in the winter—too much humidity feels uncomfortable and promotes mold and mildew growth. Digital hygrometers that track indoor relative humidity are available for around $10 to $15 in home centers and online.
Find and fix duct leaks. Much of the hot air produced by your furnace might never reach its destination—according to the Department of Energy, 20% to 30% of the air that moves through duct systems escapes through leaks, holes and disconnected ductwork. Homeowners can’t easily examine ducts inside walls, but they can turn on their heat or air-conditioning—it doesn’t matter which—then follow along accessible ductwork in attics, basements and crawl spaces, holding their hands near all ductwork joints to feel for drafts. Pay particular attention to spots where duct lines branch off—gaps are especially common here. Wherever you feel air escaping, cover the leak with aluminum foil tape, then use a paintbrush to apply a generous coating of duct mastic, a sticky material that dries to form a strong airtight seal.
Fly a “chimney balloon.” The damper in your chimney probably doesn’t do a particularly good job of preventing hot air from escaping up the chimney. A chimney balloon is a reusable, durable bladder that’s inserted in a chimney then inflated, preventing air from getting past. Caution: Installing the balloon can be a little tricky and messy…and you will need a large garbage bag to store it. The balloon must be removed, of course, before starting a fire. Example: Chimney Balloon, available in a range of sizes, $45 to $60.