November 10, 2004 | By: Ellen Brightwell

With wholesale oil prices exceeding $49 a barrel, consumers are suffering "sticker shock" when they open home heating bills. The good news is that winterizing a home is one way to reduce energy consumption and thus, costs.

Natural gas prices are likely to remain high because supply is not keeping pace with demand. The price of wholesale natural gas has increased approximately 75 percent from this time last year, according to the Kentucky Division of Energy. Forty-four percent of Kentucky households heat with natural gas. Three percent of Kentucky households use No. 2 heating oil, which has increased in price approximately 55 percent from last year and is at an all-time high, according to the Division of Energy. Ten percent of Kentucky households heat with propane gas, which has increased approximately 29 percent over last year's price.

"A good way to decrease home heating costs is to reduce energy losses by sealing duct leaks, caulking and weather stripping," said Linda Adler, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension specialist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "No-cost or minimal-cost ways to lower heating bills are to have a home energy audit done, regularly clean or replace air filters and lower heating system and hot water heater thermostats. Other ways to lower home heating expenses are to install a programmable thermostat, have a professional inspect the heating system annually, add more insulation and buy energy-efficient models when appliances must be replaced.”

Inspect ducts for sections that should be joined, but have separated, and for obvious holes. Leaking ducts reduce the efficiency of a forced-air furnace or heat pump by 20 percent, causing equipment to work harder than necessary and leading to early repairs or replacement. A properly installed duct system can save up to $140 annually in energy costs.

Air leaks caused by gaps and cracks and insufficient insulation contribute to high energy bills. Properly sealing a home can reduce energy bills by up to 10 percent. Caulk and weather strip windows and door frames that leak air. Seal holes, cracks and penetrations between the home interior and attic, exterior walls and floors over an unheated basement or crawl space. Install weather stripping gaskets on all electrical outlets, including those on interior walls.

"Because caulk and weatherstripping reduce indoor-outdoor circulation, assess indoor air quality before applying these materials," Adler said. "Some homes contain dust, carbon dioxide, mold and other indoor air contaminants, and sealing air leaks without proper ventilation could seal in these air pollutants. Always look at your home's ventilation needs before undertaking practices to tighten air circulation."

Most major utility companies will conduct an energy audit to identify problem areas and suggest corrective actions. This audit often is free or at a nominal charge.

Adler said dirt and neglect are a major cause of system failures. Regularly clean or replace filters so the system will more efficiently operate. Write the filter clean or replace date on a calendar as a reminder.

New water heaters may have higher-than-necessary temperature settings, or you may find a lower hot water temperature is sufficient for the household. A temperature setting of 115 or 120 degrees provides comfortable hot water for most uses, unless 140 degrees is needed for dishwashing. Review the dishwasher owner's manual, because the appliance may not require this high a temperature.

Lowering the heating system thermostat to 70 degrees Fahrenheit or lower is another practice to reduce energy use. Going from 72 degrees F to 68 degrees can save 15 percent or more on your gas bill, and programmable thermostats can save even more, according to information from the Kentucky Public Service Commission Web site.

"A programmable thermostat automatically adjusts your home's temperature setting to save energy when you are asleep or not at home," Adler said. "Regulating the home temperature with four programmable settings can save about $100 on annual energy costs. This thermostat will pay for itself in energy savings within a few years."

Adler recommended having a licensed professional routinely inspect the heating and cooling system.

"Just as you have a car tune-up to improve gas mileage, a seasonal check-up of your system can ensure that it is operating efficiently and safely to maximize efficiency and comfort," she said. "A check-up can identify any problems early. Before embarking on a major heating system overhaul, find an experienced, licensed contractor whose technicians are certified by North American Technician Excellence."

Compact fluorescent lighting is a true energy saver, according to Adler. A CFL bulb uses about one-fourth as much energy as an incandescent bulb with the same light quality and lasts 10 times as long. CFL is especially good for often-used lights and those in hard-to-reach locations.

Installing high-performance windows is another way to reduce home heating costs. These windows are better insulated and more air tight reducing heating energy consumption and resulting in lower utility bills.

"Appliances more than 10 years old consume much more energy than today's more efficient models," Adler said. "When it is necessary to replace an appliance, remember there are two price tags – the price you pay and monthly operational costs during the appliance's lifetime."

She advised buyers to look for the ENERGY STAR label and the bright yellow and black Energy Guide label. The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy have identified ENERGY STAR appliances as the most energy-efficient products in their classes. They usually substantially exceed minimum federal standards. These appliances may reduce home energy costs by 10 to 50 percent, compared to conventional models and even more compared to older models. The Energy Guide lists the annual energy consumption and operating costs so buyers can compare appliances.

Local Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service offices have more material on energy


Writer: Ellen Brightwell 859-257-4736 ext. 257
Sources: Linda Adler 859-257-7555