Money-Smart Ways to Heat Your Home Safely

The approach of winter brings a chill to homeowners and home insurance companies alike.

Homeowners feel the pinch in their pocketbooks from rising energy bills. Heating and cooling account for 56% of the energy use in a typical American home, according to the Department of Energy.

Home insurance companies take a similar hit from the estimated 54,500 home fires each year in the United States, one-third of which occur during January and February, causing an average of 190 deaths, 625 injuries and $286 million in property loss, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Despite the certainty of winter, many of us fail to take steps to save on winter heating bills and minimize heating-related home insurance risk.

"Most people don't really have a clue," says Kirk Lindstrom, vice president of operations for Building Energy Experts, an energy management firm near Chicago which conducts residential and commercial energy audits. "We focus on the building envelope. If it has a lot of holes in it, you've got issues."

Here are six money-smart ways to bundle up your home this winter, with cost-savings estimates by Building Energy Experts.

Insulation is Your Home's Parka Against Winter's Chill

Insulation is your home's all-purpose force field against high energy bills. It minimizes heat transfer in winter and summer, provides ventilation to control moisture and makes your home more livable.

Bringing your attic insulation up to code for your region is one of the most cost-effective ways to winter-proof your bear cave. The Department of Energy can get you started with its ZIP Code Insulation Calculator.

But before you blow insulation, be sure to seal all ductwork, plumbing and cable TV penetrations. Leaky ducts can account for 10% to 30% of heating and cooling costs.

"Most houses leak like sieves," says Lindstrom. "Attic access doors are one of the biggest offenders. By building an insulation dam around the scuttle opening and installing an insulated lid on it, you'll save big."

Cost: $500 to $1,000 to bring a typical attic up to code. Lindstrom recommends earth-friendly chopped cellulose, which is chemically treated to repel fire and insects and retains its loft better than fiberglass.

Savings: 20% to 30% off your monthly bill, with return on investment in as little as one year.

Teach Your Thermostat to Tame the Watts

Who says you can't change the weather? We alter the temperature inside our homes all the time with the press of a button or the turn of a dial on our thermostat.

But what many of us fail to do is "teach" our thermostat how to save us money.

You can save 10% on your winter heating bills by adjusting your thermostat 10 to 15 degrees cooler for the eight hours you're at work, according to the Department of Energy. Cut it back an additional eight hours when you sleep and you might save 20%.

Depending on where you live, that savings could pay for a new programmable thermostat in its first month of use.

"That's a no-brainer," says Lindstrom. "For $40 to $70, you can get a really nice setback thermostat that is going to last forever and you can program it any way you want. It's a big plus."

Cost: $40 to $70 plus installation.

Savings: 10% to 20% on winter heating bills.

Dial Back Your Hot Water Setting and Soak up Savings

The Department of Energy estimates that water heaters account for 14% to 25% of our monthly energy bill. Little wonder, since most water heaters are on 24/7.

Water heaters are often factory-set at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to scald. The Department of Energy says most of us can live comfortably with 120-degree water. You can save 3% to 5% on your water heating costs for every 10 degrees of setback.

To save even more, you can reduce hot water use with low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators, jacket the heater and wrap hot water pipes to minimize stand-by heat loss, and install a timer to take advantage of cheaper off-peak power.

"The quickest remedy is to set back your water temperature, but a tank insulator sleeve really helps a lot," says Lindstrom.

For greater savings, ditch the tank entirely and invest in an energy-saving, on-demand tankless water heater.

Cost: Free to adjust, inexpensive for attachments, $50 to insulate, $500 to $1,000 for on-demand systems.

Savings: 6% to 10% on water heating costs with 20-degree setback; 24% to 34% by going tankless.

Where's Money Lost? Look Through Any Window

Many homes lose costly heat the old-fashioned way: through outdated windows.

"Just look at them: They're big holes in your walls!" says Lindstrom. "In Florida, it's jalousie windows. In Chicago, it's double-hung windows with the uninsulated box where the cast-iron weight travels. People lose a ton of energy this way."

Double-pane thermal windows arrest the heat transfer by inserting dead-air space, a poor conductor, between two panes. Unlike single-pane windows, which can lose more heat in winter than they let in, energy-efficient windows enable homes to take advantage of free solar heating during chilly weather.

"If we go into an old house that has single-pane, glazed, weighted windows, we can save them 30% right off the top, no problem," says Lindstrom. "Your return on investment could be as little as two years."

As a make-do plan, create your own energy-saving dead-air space by affixing clear plastic sheeting over the interior opening of unused windows.

Cost: Energy-efficient double-pane windows start at around $150.

Savings: A whole-house window upgrade can save 16% to 21% on annual heating costs, according to EfficientWindows.org.

Don't Let All That Cash Go Up Your Chimney

As long as we're addressing large, costly holes in our home envelope, your chimney is a gaping one that goes in heat's favorite direction: up.

Although your chimney probably has a working damper, it's unlikely to be airtight. Poke your hand up inside the flue and you'll probably feel the draft.

"The majority of damping systems in a fireplace do not adequately seal off air infiltration from the outside," says Lindstrom. "You need to address that hole, because it's a big one."

Because masonry retrofits can prove costly and chimney caps are cumbersome during fireplace season, most homeowners opt to place fitted glass fireplace doors over this energy elephant in the living room. Some homeowners also leverage their fireplace by installing a heat exchanger, insert or woodstove to bring more heat into the room.

Cost: Glass fireplace doors run $300 to $500, woodstoves $700 to $1,200, inserts $1,400 to $2,300.

Savings: Glass fireplace doors can shave 1% to 2% off your heating bill.

Space Heaters, Fans and Energy Monitoring Apps

Portable space heaters contribute to 57,300 fires and 270 deaths caused by home heating every year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. To avoid this hazard, Lindstrom recommends a quartz or oil-filled heater, which look like radiators.

"If it looks like (an exposed toaster) in your house and you can touch the heating element, you've got problems," he says.

Here are more money-saving home energy tips:

  • Reverse your ceiling fans: It will help circulate rising heated air down to where you need it.
  • Close heating vents and doors to little-used rooms.
  • Insulate outlets and light switches with inexpensive switch insulators to eliminate these small but numerous energy leaks.
  • Replace the light bulbs you leave on longest with CFL, or compact flourescent light, bulbs. They use 75% less energy and save $40 in energy costs over their lifetime.
  • Download an energy monitoring app: New energy monitoring desktop applications can help you monitor your energy use in real time from your computer or smartphone.
  • Take advantage of federal and state tax rebates, including Energy Star appliance upgrades