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Thrifty Ways to Heat your Home this Winter

Woman shoveling snow

This winter, the cost of heating a home is going to leave many people feeling anything but warm and cozy. After you've bundled up in warm layers and wrapped your hands around a hot beverage, take a look at these 12 ideas for staying warm on the cheap.

Improving Insulation

One surefire way to keep the heat you've paid for is to bulk up on inadequate insulation. If your walls are cool to the touch, or you regularly see icicles forming on your eaves during the winter, you can bet that your insulation is allowing too much heat to seep outside.

1. The Department of Energy (DOE) suggests hiring an energy auditor to pinpoint the exact spots where thicker insulation can help lower your energy bills in the long run, but this may not be in your budget. For a newer home, talk with the home's builder to determine the type of insulation you have, as well as its thickness. Or, if you're willing to do some investigating on your own, remove the outlet covers on exterior walls in several rooms to take a look at the insulation type and thickness to determine if your insulation is sufficient. The DOE provides a handy zip code insulation calculator to gauge the amount of insulation your home should have. If your insulation doesn't meet the suggested thickness, you might consider a major overhaul for long-term savings.

2. If you're not ready to start ripping out drywall, you can find a simpler solution by looking to this adage: heat rises. For just this reason, the attic is usually the most cost-effective place to add insulation. You can do this yourself by laying batts sideways on existing insulation. Make sure you're not blocking any venting with the new batts. Also check around light fixtures and other holes, such as plumbing stacks, for other areas where cold air can move down from the attic. These areas should be sealed securely.

3. For an even quicker solution, cover attic stairs with an insulated cover to block gaps between the stairs and the ceiling. This too can keep the heat in the home from escaping into the attic and the cold attic air from leaking into your house.

Windows and Doors

Anytime two types of building materials meet -- such as where the wall meets a window or door -- you'll find joints that have the potential to allow in drafts. Fortunately, there are a number of simple solutions for sealing these areas.

4. New weatherstripping or thresholds can tighten the seals around your door frame. A draft guard or "door snake" is another inexpensive option for keeping cold air outside. This can be as simple as a rolled towel placed against the bottom of your exterior doors or against window ledges, although cost-effective decorator versions also are available. In addition, several manufacturers sell a cost-effective window film that is applied to the edge of the window where glass meets the frame, secured by a double-sided tape, and then sealed securely by applying a hair dryer to tighten the film. Finally, if you have storm windows, make sure they are in place and securely closed to give yourself an extra line of defense against the cold.

5. Keep in mind, windows don't just let in cold air -- they also allow you to take advantage of the sun's heat. During the day, keep window shades open to take advantage of the solar heat. Prune back tree branches that might obstruct part of the sunlight, and remove any awnings over windows that might create cooling shadows. At night, simply close heavy, insulated curtains to block the incoming chill.

6. You also can close the door on seldom-used rooms to keep the air from circulating beyond the spaces you regularly use. Close the vents in those rooms or pick up a magnetic vent cover to block your registers and prevent the waste of warm air on a spare room. Be sure to clear rugs, furniture and other materials away from the vents that are in use to keep air circulating efficiently. In addition, make sure that the temperature in any closed-off rooms does not approach freezing, especially if you have water pipes in the walls of that room as these may potentially freeze.

Chimneys and Ducts

Even if you have a top-of-the-line furnace or wood stove keeping things toasty, it's important to be aware of the areas where these systems may be allowing heat to escape.

7. When your wood stove is not in use, the chimney is a conduit for winter drafts. Place a chimney stopper (an inexpensive, often inflatable plug) at the lowest part of the flue in your fireplace when it's not in use to prevent drafts. Remember to remove the plug before you light a fire.

8. In addition, the Energy Star program notes that about 20 percent of the air moving through a typical home's ductwork escapes through leaks and holes. Checking your furnace's ductwork for escaping heat and inadequate insulation is particularly important if the ducts are outside the thermal envelope of the house, such as in the basement or attic. In these easily accessible areas, you can seal air leaks in the ducts with a mastic sealant or metal tape, and then wrap them with fiberglass batts in order to keep the circulating air at a constant, warm temperature.

Single-Spot Solutions

9. In addition to these whole house solutions, you might focus on a few interior areas that you most frequently inhabit. For starters, if you find yourself wishing for radiant in-floor heating in your bathroom or on your kitchen's linoleum floors, cover those bare floors with dark carpets that can absorb the sun's energy and warm the room.

10. Do you spend most of your time in only one or two rooms? Then turn down your thermostat and invest in an inexpensive space heater. A small portable heater may be more cost- efficient in the long run than using central heating. Keep in mind, though, that these small heaters carry more risk than a central heating system. According to the National Fire Protection Association, "All heaters need space. Keep things that can burn, such as paper, bedding or furniture, at least 3 feet away from heating equipment." NFPA advises only using heating equipment with the label of a recognized testing laboratory.

Repair and Maintenance

11. Of course, the best way to keep your home heated for less is to ensure that your furnace, boiler and/or water heater is operating in good condition. Don't let the costs of annual maintenance prevent you from caring for your heating system -- especially since this is generally a condition for keeping a warranty valid. Consider negotiating for annual maintenance as part of any new furnace purchase and ask the contractor for conservation and saving tips specific to your house. Homeowners with oil furnaces also might consider joining a fuel co-op to reduce oil costs.

Extra Help

12. If you've warmed your house as well as you can and the cold is still getting in and getting you down, look to the resources in your community that are available for home heating. Among these resources is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program helps keep the homes of qualifying families warm through a cash grant that can be applied toward utility bills or more significant weatherization of your home.

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