Cold weather in a southern climate tends to result in unusually high utility bills for many. However, you don’t have to give up comfort to control your heating bill. Following are winter energy efficiency strategies for southern homes that offer the best bang (in energy savings and comfort) for the buck.
For the typical gulf region home, the strategies likely to provide you the fastest return on investment (in priority order) include:
- Assess your home:. Start with a do-it-yourself home energy check-up. Visit www.Energystar.gov and use the ENERGY STAR HOME ADVISOR tool (in the Save Energy at home tab) to get a prioritized list of energy-saving recommendations customized for your location and home. If you want to make major improvements in home performance, hire a RESNET or BPI certified home energy rater or analyst for more precise recommendations with a cost-benefit analysis.
- Vary the setting. Fully heating an empty house is like burning cash. A free way to save big is to set a programmable thermostat or manually reduce your normal setting 8-10 °F whenever the house is unoccupied and when sleeping. A bonus benefit is studies show that people tend to sleep better in a cool 60-65°F temperature.
- Optimize your heating system and ductwork. First, change the air filters in forced air systems since dirty filters reduce efficiency. It’s also good to annually get the heating system professionally inspected, adjusted and cleaned – for both efficiency and safety.
- If ductwork is in an unconditioned space, like a vented attic, duct leaks and losses can cause a large waste of the heat (and cooling in summer) that you’re paying for. So, it’s a winning investment to have your duct system thoroughly sealed with either a specialized aerosol sealant system for ducts, or with mastic (not duct tape since it doesn’t hold over time) on all joints and connections, and to caulk the gaps between the duct boots and drywall behind the air register grilles.
- It’s important to have the ductwork professionally leak tested and measured with specialized equipment after sealing to verify effectiveness and find remaining leaks. When replacing or installing new ductwork, upgrade to R-8 insulated ducts and insist on “best practice” layout and installation.
- Find and seal building air leaks. In a cold day, temporarily turn on exhaust fans to cause a suction, and feel around to find all the cold air leaks throughout your home. There are consumer-priced leak detectors on the market that signal temperature differences to make it easier and faster to find the leaks.
- Electric outlet and light switch gaskets are very inexpensive and easy to install behind the face plates. Choose and install durable weather-stripping around doors, windows, and attic access stairs or panels. Use expanding foam sealant around pipe penetrations in walls. If you can remove trim around doors and windows to seal gaps, use low expansion foam.
- The ceiling (attic floor) is often the largest source of air leakage, especially if your home has recessed can lights that are not “ICAT” rated types (insulation contact, air tight). Specialized, fire code compliant covers are available to reduce the leakage, or they can be replaced with ICAT housings. Visit www.energystar.gov to see DIY methods to plug and seal other penetrations and air bypasses in the attic floor.
- A typical fireplace is designed to pull air up and out the chimney, including air you’ve paid to heat, thus increasing cold air leaks and drafts. In fact, using an open hearth fireplace with your central heating system on can actually increase your heating bill!When using a fireplace for heat, turn off your central heater. When not using the fireplace, make sure the damper is fully closed. If it doesn’t seal tightly, install a chimney balloon.
- Insulate the water heater tank and pipes. Water heating is typically the second largest part of a home utility bill (after cooling and heating). Inexpensive kits and pipe insulation tubes are a simple way to reduce heat loss, as well as prevent frozen pipes.
- Top off attic insulation to R-38. After sealing the attic floor and access panel or pull-down stair, consider adding more insulation if you have less than R-30, and especially if you have only R-19 or less as is typical in older homes (such as 6-inch thick batts or loose fill). There are kits designed add insulation to the cover of attic pull-down stairs or you can make a boxed cover with rigid foam board.
After doing these top six energy saving strategies, the following bigger jobs may be worthwhile investments in the long run, when remodeling and when replacements are needed.
- Replace an aged, inefficient heating system and electric strip (resistance) heaters with an Energy Star labeled gas furnace or electric heat pump. The Energy Star label means the equipment is more efficient than the standard model and will ultimately save you far more than the price difference. Make sure it is right-sized for your home’s heating load; bigger is NOT better.
- Insulate single-pane windows and wood doors with storm windows and doors, or replace them with new Energy Star labeled windows and doors for your climate zone on the label map. When buying window treatments, consider insulated types to increase winter comfort.
- Insulate raised floors with air-tight, moisture impermeable insulation systems -- rigid foam board under the joists, or closed cell spray foam under the subfloor -- that both insulate and prevent summer moisture problems. Visit lsuagcenter.com/LaHouse publications page to read Insulating Raised Floors in a Hot, Humid Climate. If your home site has zero risk of ever flooding, another option is a sealed, semi-conditioned crawl space detailed like a small basement (See guidance at the DOE Building America Solution Center website, www.basc.pnnl.gov )