In watching our gas and electric bills, I (like many of you, I am sure) have seen a complete reversal in cost and usage occur between the warm and cold months. My electric bill has been slashed and our gas bill has jumped by about 200 percent – and that is just since November!

Then, seeing temperatures as varied as 10° and 70° this week got me thinking, “Are there any other simple (aka low cost) things I could do in the house to help make it more efficient?”

First thing I do when faced with a problem is I make a list (I like lists…a lot).

1) Is the water heater really set at 120°?

Everyone says the water heater should be at 120°, but is it really? If you are like me, your water heater does not have a knob labeled with the temperature set points.

thermoHere is how you test your water temperature:

  1.  Get a thermometer
  2. Go to the sink that is closest to the water heater.
  3. Let the water run for 2-3 minutes. (You want to flush out the colder water and get to the truly hot stuff.)
  4. Pour a glass of hot water into a clear glass.
  5. Insert thermometer immediately and voila!
  6. Adjust the knob on your water heater and repeat every two to three hours until you get to 120°.

I did this recently and was concerned about wasting all that water so I poured it into a watering can, then let it cool a bit before I watered our plants.

2) Is the programmable thermostat set correctly?

Now that we are back from our holiday travels, I took a minute to go through the cycles of our thermostat and make sure they are aligned with our living habits.

We live in a three-story home with one control panel for the entire house. That means the basement is cold and the top floor is warm. We are renting, so we are not going to upgrade the HVAC system anytime soon. We have found 72° is the setting that leaves everyone comfortable. At night I kick it down to 66° or 68° and roughly the same when we are not home.

If you are looking for a programmable thermostat, I would recommend either the Lux 7-Day Programmable Thermostat or the Honeywell Deluxe 5/1/1 Day Programmable Thermostat. Both cost under $100 and are easy to use and install.

3) Are there any vent obstructions?

Now that the thermostat is set, it would be pretty silly to be blowing hot air into the bottom of a bookshelf. Luckily, when we moved in we were very aware of the vents and adjusted our furniture layout accordingly.

Don’t fret if you didn’t! This is a fun thing to do that next cold and rainy day when you can’t get outside. You want to make sure that both the intake vents (usually on the wall) and the supply vents (smaller vents usually on the floor or ceiling) are clear.

First, turn the kids loose on rearranging their bedrooms to unblock the vents. Then come together as a family and work together in the living room, dining room, etc…

The house gets a ‘spring’ cleaning and the air will circulate better, allowing your system to work more efficiently.

4) Are the windows leaking?

A common weak point for homes is windows. It is estimated that 1/3rd of a home’s total heat is lost out of the windows. So I am sure they are leaking, but can I reduce the leakage without breaking the bank?

  1. Make sure your storm windows are all installed and shut.
  2. Check that the top window is as high as it can go and hasn’t slipped down. At the same time, lock your windows.
  3. Fill gaps with chalk or weather stripping.
  4. Open drapes and blinds during the day to let in sunlight to naturally heat the home and close them at night.

Think about it this way: Say you spend $200 a month on heating your home over the four coldest months of the year (Total: $800). If you do nothing, you will continue to waste one third of the total. So instead of pouring $240 down the drain, spend a couple of bucks now to make sure your windows don’t leak.

5) Is the flue closed in the fireplace?

This one reminds me of the first question you get when you call customer service about a computer problem: “Sir, is the computer turned on?”

It might seem like a no-brainer, but we moved into our current home last April and we have a gas fireplace. Well, not only was I going over every nook and cranny of the house during move-in, but there were inspectors and people working throughout the house.

I had assumed that we closed the flue the last time we were messing with the fireplace, but you should have seen my face when I took a peek in the fireplace this past October. The flue was WIDE open. It couldn’t get any more open. I couldn’t believe it! Immediately my mind started racing with images of dollar bills going up the chimney.

If the fireplace isn’t in use, the flue should be closed.

For more energy-saving tips for your home, visit these sites:

100 Ways to Save Energy at Home (Duke Energy/Progress)
Energy Saver (Department of Energy)
Home Energy Saving Tips (RESNET)