This week Gail helps with fixes around the house that can save you big...and announces book winners.
In the past six months I‘ve written three columns suggesting ways to save energy and perhaps get a tax break in the process. The Energy Tax Incentives Act of 2005 lists a host of home improvements and appliances that qualify. It also outlines the requirements that new vehicles must meet in order to give you a tax credit for driving "green."
The most recent column, 'More Energy-Saving Ideas,' listed ways to significantly cut your home utility bills by spending a modest amount of money. I also gave you a chance to win one of 20 free copies of the "Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings" from the non-profit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).
Although much of the Northeast was enjoying a relatively mild winter, the letters poured in. You told me that your heating and utility bills have skyrocketed thanks to higher energy prices. I was frankly surprised by the number of letters I received from folks who live in the southern half of our country — from Texas to Tennessee to Georgia — who were not only upset by the jump in their winter heating bills, but also worried about the cost of cooling their homes come summer.
Many of you had specific problems you hoped to have addressed, such as how to reduce the amount of heat lost through a crawl space under your home, or why one room in your house is colder than the rest. Thanks to the concerned individuals at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, in this and my next column I'm printing suggestions for solving these issues.
The first ten lucky winners of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings will be listed this week and the remaining ten will be named in the second column. If you are not among them, I strongly encourage you to visit the Council's website which has extensive information about saving energy at home, picking the right contractor for the job, an up-to-date list of vehicles that qualify for energy-saving tax credits, and more.
You can also order the Guide online for $13.95, postage-paid. Go here.
A checklist of simple steps you can take to reduce your home energy costs can also be found here.
Now, here are some of your energy-related issues, followed by the suggestions of ACEEE staffers. [Note: the responses may contain references to products that are examples of the type of material you should try. However, ACEEE does not endorse specific brands]:
Q: I've had a problem sealing the doors and windows. My home exterior is native stone and experiences shifting during hot/cold and wet/dry periods. Caulking doesn't adhere well to the stone, so it's tough to fill the gaps between the stone veneer and wooden door/window encasements.
A: There are two approaches that are worth trying. The first is using a low-expansion spray foam, such as "Great Stuff." Do NOT use the high-expansion material, as it may warp the door jambs and window assemblies. If there are very wide gaps, you may want to start with "backer rod," which is foam material used for just this purpose in commercial construction.
Q: We have a crawl space under the house where the ductwork runs. I'm sure we're losing a lot of heat there.
A: In the last decade, most building scientists in this field have recommended converting a crawl space to one that is sealed and insulated, rather than ventilated. This avoids the need to insulate the duct and floors, and greatly reduces energy loss. Proper installations allow inspection for termites, too. More from the ACEEE here.
Q: My husband and I live in New Hampshire within sight of the famous Mount Washington famous for the" world's worst weather." In addition to the cold, we get winds of up to 65 MPH! We are trying to figure out how to "button up" the house more, especially in the crawl space under the house (we have no cellar because we are built on ledge!). I have taken another job just to pay the heating costs alone!
A: See above.
Q: We purchased an older home that needs A LOT of gentle, loving care. When we started to replace the windows we discovered there is NO insulation in the walls — nothing between the outer brick wall and the inner plaster and lath! Naturally, the walls are always cold in the winter.
A: Wall insulation is very important, perhaps second only to attic insulation. Don't give up, yet! At today's (and projected) energy prices, if there is a 1 1/2-inch or larger gap between the outer brick wall and the plaster and lath, it would likely be cost-effective to blow in high-density cellulose or foam. In addition to lowering heating and cooling bills, this will improve comfort, by keeping the interior wall temperature closer to what you want. A highly qualified contractor is the key, and using an infrared inspection after installation is almost required to assure quality.
If you want to upgrade your heating or cooling system, first and foremost, find a qualified contractor. Choosing a good contractor to install a new furnace or air conditioner can be as important as the equipment you choose because proper installation and maintenance is needed for the equipment to operate safely, reliably, and at maximum efficiency. For more information, see ACEEE's tips on picking the right contractor, read the advice from Energy Star, and download their useful HVAC guide here (PDF).
Q: When we moved into this house, all the light bulbs were 75-100 watt. We have reduced the wattage, sealed doors, put foam insulators in outlets, and put plastic over some windows. I'm sure more can be done, but I am out of ideas.
A: Change to modern ENERGY STAR-rated compact fluorescent lamps bulbs, which use one-quarter to one-third as much energy, and last ten times as long. Over the lifetime of the bulb, you will save about $40 to $50 per bulb, depending on how often you use it.
Q: I live in an older home in a rural area. The cost of butane is over $2.00 per gallon at the present time. I need some inexpensive steps I can take to save my heat in the winter and cool air in the summer months.
A: Review ACEEE's online checklist to see the simple things you can do today, this week, and over the coming months to save energy. Inexpensive ideas for saving on cooling and heating bills usually involve tightening up air leaks in the doors, windows, un-insulated wall cavities, and air ducts. If you are considering upgrading your heating or cooling system the key is to use a qualified contractor. (See above.)
Q: We are retired and live in a 20+ year-old mobile home in the mountains near Yosemite National Park. Our place has none of the energy saving ideas you mention. My husband is handy around the home and we plan to implement most of the things Gail wrote about. However, we have no basement or attic so can't insulate. What would be the most effective things we can do to save energy around our place?
A: Mobile homes represent many of the same challenges as site-built ones, and some that are unique. Almost all mobile homes use forced-air heat distribution, with supply ducts in the "belly." Where you live, it is imperative that these ducts be completely sealed and very well insulated. This is a great job for a retiree! It will make a bigger difference than anything else, since ducts in average to poor condition can waste 20% or more of the energy delivered to them by the furnace.
Q: Living in the northern Plains means breezes blow in through the outlets, windows, doors and every other opening. I sealed the doors, put foam insulation gaskets in all outlets, and installed plastic over some windows. It's helped somewhat. The problem is, our fourth child arrives soon, and the nursery is the coldest room in the house.
A: If you have one room that is particularly cold during the winter it could be caused by one of several factors. Fortunately, these are usually easy to correct. Most often, you've got a heat distribution problem. If you have forced air heat, check to see whether a decent amount of air comes out of the register(s) when the door to the room is open. If not, the supply duct may be kinked, disconnected, or undersized.
If air comes out with the register open, see if closing the door to the room cuts the air flow. If this is the case, you can either add a return duct, cut about 1 1/2-inch off the bottom of the door to allow air to return that way, or just leave the door open.
If you have a hot water system with radiators, a cold room is likely due to a bad radiator
valve. However, you might just have an undersized radiator based on the size of the room or the type of construction you have. Sometimes the room is an addition with too much exposure and too little insulation. In this case, the problem can be hard to fix.
You should also check for adequate attic insulation. If the room is over a crawl space, sealing the crawl space may help. (See above.)
Here are the first 10 winners of ACEEE's "Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings":
I am disabled and trying to hold on to my home. Natural gas costs are killing me, even though where I live is not the coldest place on earth. It is still costing a fortune to heat this home of 1400 sq ft. I would like very much to get this booklet and see if I can afford to implement any of these ideas.
I enjoy saving energy to ensure there is enough fossil fuel for future
generations and also to see a reduction in my energy bills now. With 5
children and one income (I home school) we are challenged to do all we can to
make ends meet each month and still maintain a pleasant life experience of
learning and growing for our children.
By my reasoning, every $10 I can save weekly (whether energy-related or not) would be the equivalent of getting a 30-cent an hour raise, tax-free. Because my wife and I are so used to paying ourselves first, any money we can save on our energy costs will most likely wind up in the bank. Money saved is money earned!
I take care of my 93-year old Dad, and with his medicine, heat, electricity, and insurance all going up in cost, we are finding it very tough to make ends meet. Our local National Grid raised out "budget" payment by $100 a month. We have a new energy saving furnace, but would appreciate any additional ideas.
We have two small children and I am home full-time so our income is very budgeted. With prices going up, we're trying to make our home more energy efficient without huge expenses like replacing windows, etc. I loved some of your ideas and plan to try them. I didn't even realize some of those products existed. Thanks for the tips!
We are a family of 7 so we have to try to make our money stretch as far as possible since only one of us works outside the home. Hopefully the book "Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings" would help us save more.
I live in a community heavy with retirees. We will share this booklet with out neighbors.
I am a southern California native who now lives in southeast Nebraska. I am a not used to these types of elements! We are lease-optioning a 2BR 1BA home with a full basement and subterranean garage/shop. In the past two months, I have seen my utility bills skyrocket: $250 last month and $350 for this month. I could use some guidance in cutting down my heating expenses for this time of year, as well as in the summer.
Good day Gail,
We (me, my wife, and two small children) live in Houston where energy consumption is extremely high. Many people, including myself, just have no idea how to cut their bills down and save money.
I am a huge conservationist (or at least try to be) and would really be interested in getting a copy of the "Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings". Not only for myself, but for my family and friends. No one that I know is particularly wealthy and to be able to cut energy expenses and at the same time help Mother Nature is a win-win situation.
We need to save money. We just bought our home a little over a year
ago. Then, when Katrina hit, our household grew from three to seven people.
Obviously, all of our utilities increased. Any hints, tips, or ideas that
will save money will be greatly appreciated.
Thank you for your time.
Please be patient. The books are being sent from ACEEE. The remaining ten winners will appear in my next column.
Hope this helps,
If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to: email@example.com, along with your name and phone number.