Get ready for winter

Special to Washington PostOctober 5, 2012 

John Bristol’s 4,500- square-foot, four-level colonial would have been pricey to heat even without air leaks, but the two rooms with wood-burning fireplaces were always cold in winter. “There just seemed to be a lot of downdraft; those two rooms were always cold,” he said. “I started searching around on the Internet and found chimney pillows.” He bought them for the two fireplaces and found that they were easy to install.

The chimney pillow is a large plastic bag that is inflated to block airflow through a chimney so that air neither escapes from nor enters the interior of the house. The plastic bag, which comes with an inflation tube, is usually installed by partially inflating the bag, which is placed inside the chimney and then inflated to fit snugly. Homeowners are advised to leave the inflation tube hanging down into the fireplace so that they remember to deflate the bag and remove it before lighting a fire.

For an investment of about $55 per pillow, Bristol saw his energy bill drop by $722 over seven months, or $103 a month. By Bristol’s calculations, he saved $623 from February to April and as much as 9 percent ($99) May through August.

Winter lurks just around the corner. Will your house be ready? The average U.S. household will spend about $990 for winter heating costs this year, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. That’s an incentive to make changes that are easy and realistic. Sealing air leaks and improving insulation, for instance, can save as much as 20 percent on heating bills, according to Allyson Schmutter, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy.

Homeowners don’t need to spend a ton of cash to make some very simple improvements, according to Mark Tyrol, owner of Massachusetts-based Battic Door Energy Conservation Products. The key is to find and seal off “overlooked openings,” according to Tyrol. The company’s two top-selling products cost less than $100: an attic stair cover ($99) and fireplace plugs ($54.95).

Here are some tips to help you get ready for winter:

Seal ducts: Along with installing energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, homeowners can save as much as 20 percent by correctly sealing the air shafts between walls and floors that distribute air in those units, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Sealing ducts, according to the EPA, can not only help homeowners heat their homes more evenly but also save them as much as $140 a year in energy costs.

Check your heating system: Replace air filters and clean your system or have it professionally cleaned and inspected. Dirt and neglect are the main causes of system failure, according to the EPA. You don’t want to be one of the many calling the heating service company the first night a cold snap strains your furnace or heat pump.

Air seal your home: A number of companies provide energy assessments and identify leaks. Complete air sealing includes the entire outer shell of the structure, including the attic, the exterior walls and the foundation.

Perform an online energy assessment: At Energy Star (energystar.gov/homeimprovement), you can enter totals of your previous year’s worth of energy bills to compare your expenses with those of similar homeowners.

Program the thermostat: Install or properly use a programmable thermostat. By adjusting settings for hours when no one is home, you can save $100 a year, according to the EPA.

Check doors, windows and gutters: If any weatherstripping is loose, repair or replace it. Swap out summer window screens for solid panes. Thoroughly clean gutters, check or install leaf guards, and make sure the drainage spouts are tightly attached to the bottom of the gutter to direct melting snow away from the house.

Locate your snow shovel: Remember when you lent it to your neighbor after the last storm? Inspect it for wear to make sure it won’t break with the season’s first snow. Don’t be the person racing to the hardware store only to find the shovels are sold out.

Check batteries: Make sure your flashlights are working and that you have extra batteries on hand in case of a winter power outage.

Get an energy evaluation: Many power companies provide these audits free or for a nominal charge. Duke Energy offers a free “Home Energy House Call” to customers. An energy specialist will analyze your energy usage, check for leaks, examine insulation levels, your appliances and heating/cooling system and provide a report detailing steps you can take to increase efficiency and reduce energy costs. Call 877-388-7676. PSNC Energy has a similar in-home audit for $25. Visit psncenergy.com for details. Progress Energy customers can complete an online energy audit at progress-energy.com. Click “Save Energy & Money” and “Customized Home Energy Report.”

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