The seasonal chill is already biting where I live, and I'm having visions of dollar bills trickling out through the broken seals of my vinyl-pane windows.
We spent about $3,300 on heat (oil plus a little propane) a year ago, when oil was about $3.50 a gallon. Under our current deal with the fuel company, we're stuck paying as much as $4.41 per gallon, and if oil prices rise again when winter hits, we could end up paying a total of $4,000 or more.
So our priority is to make our house as energy-efficient as possible -- by Thanksgiving. Our goal is to knock 30% off our bill, saving more than $1,000.
We've tried this before. In our previous house, we followed a lot of the standard advice about winterizing. We put plastic over the windows, wrapped insulation around the water heater, put weatherstripping around doors and emptied tubes of caulk into various cracks.
But we didn't really notice any change in our heating bills, and we want big gains for this year. The trick is figuring out which repairs would make the most difference to our bottom line. When you need heavy artillery and real expertise, who ya gonna call?
The Insulation Man, of course. Pat Dundon is a home-heating expert based in Windsor, N.Y. His company logo is a knight on horseback, and his motto is "One cold knight is one too many."
Dundon gave our house a basement-to-attic inspection and then provided us with a detailed report and recommendations for keeping that pricey hot air inside and the frigid air out.
Diagnosing your houseWe'd hoped Dundon would also give us something like "The Insulation Man's Golden Rule Book," guaranteed to apply to every house. Something like rock, paper, scissors: Replacing the windows trumps sealing the basement, or something.
No such luck. But there are basic principles that can help homeowners diagnose the severity of a house's problems:
1. Air must move. Houses really do breathe. "Air moves, very easily," Dundon says. "As it moves, it carries heat and water." And typically, air that escapes from your home pulls more air in. Dundon says ventilation is just as important for your home's efficiency as heat itself.
Self-assessment: Determine where air is coming in and flowing out. There needs to be a balance. Air should not seep out of cracks but, rather, be channeled.
2. Heat is sneaky. Hot air rises; every school kid knows that. It's handy for keeping your second floor warm. But it also works against budget-conscious homeowners. Air that has been heated is always looking for a way out of your house -- through walls, doors, windows, the roof, the basement, almost anywhere it can sneak out.
Self-assessment: Look beyond windows and doors. Examine or have an expert examine your basement, foundation and especially the attic, which can account for up to 20% of the heat lost from your home.
- Talk back: Are you trying to cut your energy bill?
And don't neglect walls. They account for 80% of your home's facade, while windows are generally only 20%. And unless your windows are truly drafty, they probably don't need plastic shields, Dundon says, let alone replacements.
Your walls are probably insulated, but it's wise to check how well they're insulated. The insulation in our 100-year-old walls, through the lens of Dundon's infrared camera, looked like an old quilt, lumpy and patchy and full of holes.
3. Watch for water. Moisture is complicated. You need a certain amount of humidity in your home, but too much dampness spells higher heating bills. Why? Because warm air tends to hold more moisture, and your heating system has to work harder to heat both air and water.
4. Consider the whole system. Many homeowners want straightforward solutions, Dundon says, like "upgrade your furnace" or "buy new windows."
"But if you put a new furnace in an inefficient house, you're not going to see any savings," Dundon says. He takes a whole-house, or systems, approach to heating and cooling.
The main trouble with a whole-house approach is that it ain't cheap. Of course, spending money on quick fixes that do nothing isn't money-smart at all, and that's the main point.
To tackle the root of your problems, you have to be prepared to invest more than the $10 for those little foam strips that go around the windows and air conditioners.
- Find a contractor (select "Air Conditioning")
Unfortunately for us, that could mean spending between $1,900 and $8,100, depending on how many upgrades we want to do.
The good news is that you can do one repair at a time, Dundon says, over a period of years. Each repair enhances the next and gradually increases the fuel efficiency of your house.
Self-assessment: This one requires an expert, and every home is different. Your state's energy department may provide a list of recommended contractors who can look at the efficiency of your entire house and suggest repairs that will make a real difference.