Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tips and Tricks - Winter Conservation

Written by April Collett

As the seasons change each year, depending on where you live, consumption of resources will naturally change as well. If you’re looking at a cold front this winter, we’ve compiled some useful wintertime conservation tips to lower your utility bills and keep your family warm.

First and easiest, check your windows! According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, one third of energy loss in homes occurs through windows. Of course, newer windows featuring low-e coating, double or triple panes, and features like an insulating argon gas fill between panes are a great place to start. But it’s already November and for those of you looking to pinch some pennies this season without investing in new windows just yet, here’s a couple quick tips.

Keep your windows covered! If you've got blinds or curtains, keep them closed. The exception here is your south facing windows. If the sun is out, a generous amount of heat can come in with the morning and early afternoon sun, saving your furnace a few hours of work each day. Be sure to cover these windows back up once the sun is no longer reaching them to conserve the heat you let in.

Check for gaps or faulty seals around your windows. You can pick up a can of silicone window caulk or spray foam insulation at your local home improvement store. Caulk is great for any small gaps or imperfections/cracks in the seal and the spray foam can work for gaps as large as 3” wide. Ask your retailer for tips on how to use these products properly for your area – different climate conditions can change the effectiveness of these products.

For an even easier and cost effective window insulation trick, try bubble wrap! You can temporarily decrease energy loss at your windows by using bubble wrap and tape to cover windows from edge to edge. This is especially great in places like basement window wells or attic windows as those usually get little use and are a common area for energy loss.

Check your home for drafts or areas that cold air may be leaking in such as doors, the attic hatch or the fireplace damper. The fireplace damper is an easy place for hot air to escape; make sure it’s closed. Like the windows, check around doors for cracks or gaps in the caulk or seal. Repair these areas again using caulk or spray foam insulation and consider extra insulation around doors and the attic hatch to further prevent cool air settling in. Use a door sweep or a weather stop on your exterior and garage doors to further reduce the transfer of cool air into your home.

The next greatest area for energy loss is your HVAC system – that’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning.  Although there aren't as many quick fixes, the best place to start is with the air filter. Your air filter should be checked each month to be sure it’s clean enough to allow a steady flow of air. Ideally you’ll change your filter once every three months. The more work the HVAC system has to do to force air through the filter, the more energy is used to do so. If you ever notice that you can’t get your furnace on, or it comes on but for only a minute, your air filter is probably clogged. For a quick fix, you can brush off the built up lint with a damp cloth or a brush, but this shouldn't be relied upon for any longer than necessary before a new filter can be obtained. A dirty filter can be a fire hazard and adds harmful stress to the whole system.

Next, check the air registers. Look to see that the seals where the register and duct meet the wall, ceiling or floors are tight and well connected. These are common areas for disconnected ductwork. Take this time to ensure that the registers aren’t blocked by any furniture or rugs to improve air flow and comfort throughout the home.
If you have a home with multiple levels, an excellent way to conserve without any cost at all is to close the upper level registers in the winter while keeping the lower level registers open. This forces the air flow to move first through the cooler bottom levels of the home and naturally upwards to heat the entire house using less energy overall and making better use of the residual heat in the home. With this in mind, added attic insulation will improve your home’s ability to retain the heat once it rises.

The same is true in the summer – but in reverse. As you cool your home in the warmer summer months, close the lower level registers and open the upper level registers. Your home will cool more efficiently allowing the cooled air to settle through the home naturally.

An important note on your attic space; while you do want your attic well insulated so rising heat escapes slowly, you never want to block off the fresh air flow contained in your attic space. This area is designed to breathe – make sure that the attic ventilation is good to extend the life of your roof shingles and prevent ice dams and other moisture related winter-time problems. Be sure that attic soffit vents and gable vents are not blocked so air flows freely through.

In any unfinished areas of your home, or areas where ductwork is visible, check to see if you can find any weak spots where air may be leaking. Look for holes, tears or other signs of leaking ducts and seal those using either mastic or metal (foil) tape, caulk, spray foam insulation, or weather stripping. You can also choose to add extra insulation to any ducts you can access – especially ducts that may pass through an area that could conduct colder outdoor temperatures such as a garage, attic or crawlspace. Insulating these ducts can greatly reduce energy loss.

As long as you’re insulating your HVAC system, you can also consider adding insulation to your water pipes to better retain heat as the water travels through your home, especially in cold or exposed areas. This fix can also shorten the amount of time needed to run your faucet before hot water comes out, decreasing water consumption to a degree. For a less costly and quick option, you can add insulation to the hot water heater to improve the amount of energy used to maintain the temperature of the water in the tank.

The addition of extra insulation can be a difficult do-it-yourself task. However, depending on where you live, the additional insulation can be so helpful in conserving resources, you could qualify for energy rebates and savings, as can adding additional insulation in the attic and some other projects. Check to find programs in your area.

Lastly, as you decorate this holiday season, try to consolidate exterior lighting and features to an efficient power strip so you can easily shut them off and avoid a Clark Griswold-type fiasco this season.