How to Prep Your Home for Cold Weather — And Save on Your Energy Bills

How to Prep Your Home for Cold Weather — And Save on Your Energy Bills

Wouldn't it be nice if life came with step-by-step instructions? Now it does! We break down how to master pretty much any money-related task right here in our "How to Do Everything" series. Whatever the goal, we'll cover the steps to take and things to know to reach your next financial milestone, all in one place.

Here, we offer a guide to prepping your home for the cold weather so you can stay warm — and save on your energy costs at the same time.

If you’re wondering where all your money goes in the winter, this could be the culprit: your energy bill. Heating and cooling account for almost half your energy costs, making it the largest energy expense in most homes. If you don’t properly winterize your home, the cold drafts won’t be the only things that’ll be chilling.

Sick of burning through bucks on your bill? Here’s a step-by-step guide to keeping more of the warm air in your house — and more of your money in your wallet.

1. Put Your Windows Into Winter Mode

The simplest winter-preparedness mistakes are often the biggest and most costly ones, notes Scott Thomas Fischer, energy efficiency consultant and owner of Ciel Power LLC in Kearney, New Jersey. “Homeowners who don't take time to put their homes into a 'winter state' often suffer some of the biggest comfort issues during colder winter months.” Here are the small tasks on his list that can make a big difference.

  • Remove window air conditioning units
  • Close and fully latch interior windows
  • Close exterior storm windows
  • Replace the screen in your storm door with winter glass

2. Seal the Drafts

No matter how high you crank your heat, you’re still going to feel a chill if you don’t seal up the leaks in your house. There are three main places to check.

Ducts. A professional duct leak test will determine if and where your ducts are wasting heated air. A contractor will pressurize the duct work that's being tested, measure the flow that's required to maintain the pressure and then compare it to duct leakage standards to figure out the extent of the leaks, says Chuck Larsen, owner of Gator Air & Energy in Gainesville, Florida. While the test runs around $200, fixing the leaks could end up saving you up to 20% on your energy bills, he estimates.

Once the leaks are identified, you can do some DIY home duct-leak repair using mastic sealant or metal tape to insulate all the ducts that you can access. The one thing you shouldn’t use? “Never use duct tape, as it is not long-lasting,” he notes. Ironic, right? Any ducts you can’t access should be treated by a professional.

Exterior Cracks. Check for cracks in the exterior walls of your home and use caulk to seal them, recommends home efficiency expert Vince Youndt, owner of Vertex Mechanical in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “This small investment in time and materials is one of the easiest and most important things you can do to drastically reduce how much cold air seeps into your house.”

Windows. Yup, you’ve still got more work to do on those windows. To check for drafts, first make sure each window is properly closed and latched and that any exterior storm windows are closed, says Fischer. Then check for any visible gaps or seams around the window or the surrounding molding and apply caulk to those you see.

“Even the best windows on the market offer relatively little resistance to extreme outdoor temperatures, so make sure you’ve sealed them tight,” he says. Fischer also recommends homeowners add layered window treatments, including insulated drapes, for extra warmth.

3. Tune Up Your Furnace

Check to see if your filter should be replaced; typically you’ll want a new one each season, says DIY expert Ron Hazelton, former home improvement editor for “Good Morning America.”

Then Fischer says to watch for these issues:

  • Flame rollout, which is when you can see the flames build up inside when your furnace is on. One sign this could be happening is discoloration of the furnace’s exterior painted surfaces
  • Uneven combustion. The flames should be mostly blue with minimal orange
  • Rust or corrosion at the unit's exhaust points
  • Unusual noises

If you spot any of these, call an HVAC professional. “Improperly functioning combustion appliances can generate high levels of carbon monoxide,” Fischer warns, adding that you should always keep a functioning carbon monoxide detector near combustion appliances. (While you’re at it, make sure your carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms have fresh batteries, Hazelton adds.)

But even if you don’t visibly notice any problems, it’s not a bad idea to have your service checked every year, Youndt says. “A professional heating system tune-up will boost your system’s efficiency, saving you between 10% and 20% on your energy bill.”

4. Insulate Your Attic

Tempted to spend your energy-saving dollars on new windows, doors or some other glam project? Fischer says that prioritizing the attic will give you the most bang for your buck. “Homeowners who forego air-sealing and insulating their attic floors may inadvertently be worsening winter heat loss by accelerating the convective movement of warm air escaping through the attic during colder winter months,” he says.

A properly air-sealed and insulated attic will also help prevent cold, damp replacement air from being pulled into living spaces through the basement and into the lower regions of the home.

Not sure if you need more insulation? A quick eyeball test will do the trick. As you look across your attic, the insulation should be the same level as, or above, the floor joists and evenly distributed throughout. If it’s not, you can tackle it as a (somewhat messy) weekend project, or call in a contractor.

5. Clean Your Fireplace

Want to ward off the chill with a cozy fire? Make sure your chimney is in prime condition first.

“Before firing up for warmth, make sure your fireplace is ready to go by checking the flue to ensure the area is free of creosote and soot,” Hazelton says. He recommends having a professional chimney sweep (yup, they’re not just characters in “Mary Poppins”!) inspect the chimney for possible obstructions and any loose mortar between firebox blocks or bricks. They’ll also make sure there is a watertight seal between the chimney and roof.

Another reason for chimney TLC: A fireplace that’s not properly maintained can spark a house fire. In fact, the Chimney Safety Institute of America estimates that there are more than 20,000 chimney-related fires each year.

6. Look Into Energy Efficiency Programs

If the price tag of any retrofits you might have to do is giving you sticker shock, your state may have some local energy efficiency programs that can help offset the cost. Check out the Department of Energy’s website to see what your state has to offer.

Fischer says owners of older homes especially often just resign themselves to the reality that their home is “old and cold,” and that little can be done to improve its comfort or energy efficiency, but some incentives are specifically targeted to older homes. “These programs offer a combination of cash and financing incentives to upgrade heating, air-conditioning systems and insulation, and often have no income qualifiers,” he adds.

Even better, many programs include a home-energy audit, which will provide detailed information on how and where your home is losing or wasting energy, along with prescriptive advice on simple fixes you can make.

RELATED: Confessions of Utility Providers: 4 Insiders Reveal How to Slash High Winter Bills

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