1. Caulk or weatherstrip windows and doors . Materials for the average twelve-window, two-door house could cost about $25, but savings in annual energy costs might amount to more than 10 percent of your yearly heating bill. According to the Department of Energy, if every gas-heated home were properly caulked and weather-stripped, we'd save enough natural gas each year to heat almost 4 million more homes. Two sources of weather stripping online are M-D Building Products and Resource Conservation Technology. You can also find weatherstripping at most hardware stores. To minimize indoor air pollution from the weatherstripping materials you use, try Quick Shield VOC-Free Sealant or Polyseamseal caulks.
2. Install storm windows and doors. Combination screen and storm windows and doors are the most convenient and energy efficient because they can be opened easily when there is no need to run heating or cooling equipment. Installing high efficiency Energy Star windows can reduce heating and cooling costs by 15 percent; you can save from $125-$340 a year when you replace single pane windows with their Energy Star equivalents. If you don't want to buy new windows, cover existing window with a heavy-duty, clear plastic sheet on the frame. You can buy a ready-made kit here. A third alternative? Thermal draperies, made with a thick, fiber-filled backing to fit snugly against the entire window frame, can reduce heat loss by as much as 50 percent and save you $15 per window each winter. Even simple heavy drapes can save about $10 per window annually.
3. Insulate . You can reduce your energy needs by as much as 20 to 30 percent, and save about four months' worth of household energy, by investing in insulation. Focus on your attic floor or top floor ceiling, crawlspace, exterior walls. basement ceilings and walls, and rooms over unheated spaces, like garages. The "Simply Insulate" website maintained by the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association will tell you how much insulation you need in the different parts of your house, depending on where you live. Think about using cotton insulation made from recycled cotton or denim scrap that will have no impact on your indoor air quality, unlike the formaldehyde ingredients in fiberglass insulation.
4. Use a programmable thermostat. A programmable thermostat allows you to predetermine temperatures for daytime and evening comfort as well as energy savings. It can save you as much as 20 percent if you opt to reduce temperatures by 5 degrees at night and 10 degrees during the day when most people are out of the house.
5. Get an energy audit. At low or no cost, your local utility may provide a specially trained auditor to examine your home and explain what inexpensive and free energy conservation actions you can take to save money and energy immediately. The auditor may also take an infrared photograph of your home to help you pinpoint exactly where heat is being lost. You can also use this do-it-yourself audit tool developed by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.
6. Set your water heater to 120 degrees. If you currently heat your water to 140 degrees, you may save as much as 10 percent on water-heating costs.
7. Wrap your water heater in an insulating blanket. This is one of the most cost-effective energy-saving steps you'll ever take. Insulating blankets or "jackets" cost only around $10, but they can reduce the loss of heat through the walls of the tank by 25-40%, saving 4-9% on heating bills. Do it, and forget about it. The same goes for the hot water pipes that move hot water from the tank to your faucets.
8. Use less hot water. Wash laundry in cold water. Install low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators. Fix leaky faucets. Wash full loads of laundry and dishes.
9. Maintain your furnace. If you heat with oil, have your furnace serviced at least once a year to save 10 percent in fuel consumption (if you do this in summer, you'll get cheaper, off-season rates). Clean or replace the filters in your forced-air heating system each month. Dust or vacuum radiator surfaces frequently. If you must replace your furnace, buy the most energy-efficient model you can afford. If you have a fireplace, keep the damper closed to avoid losing as much as 8 percent of your home's heated or cooled air.
10. Upgrade your appliances. When you replace your appliances, choose Energy Star models, which use 10-50% less energy and water than the standard alternatives. If just one in 10 homes used ENERGY STAR qualified appliances, the environmental benefit would be like planting 1.7 million new acres of trees.
(Get more appliances tips here)
My husband and I were lucky enough to be able to build our own house twenty years ago. When we did, we tried to make it as energy-efficient as possible. We sited it in among the existing trees on our lot to take advantage of natural shading in the summer and solar heating in the winter. We insulated it to the max to reduce our heating and cooling bills. All our windows are double-paned, which were the most efficient available at the time. We've put insulating fabric panels on the French doors and picture windows; the rest of the windows all have tight fighting honey-comb style mini-blinds that do a great job keeping out the cold air in the winter. A programmable thermostat automatically turns down the temperature on our heat pump when we're not home, and we've wrapped our water tank in an insulating blanket to minimize heat loss. Our major appliances are all energy-savers, and we use compact fluorescent light bulbs wherever we can (some fixtures have only been changed two or three times since we moved into the house!). According to the energy audit our local utility did for us after we moved in, we're using 70% less energy than other homes of comparable size.
If you're thinking of buying a new home or renovating your current one, Energy Efficient and Energy Improvement Mortgages can help pay for green renovations through the savings gained on energy bills. See "Make Your House Pay," the Residential Energy Services Network, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Energy Efficient Mortgages Program.
Some energy utilities offer rebates for purchasing green items that will reduce the amount of energy your home uses. To see if yours does, check here.