Paying my utility bills this past year was a shock. Even though I'm on an even payment plan, I found myself writing bigger and bigger checks -- and I'm not alone in facing this problem. To combat high utility bills regardless of the season, consider making these 10 upgrades to your home. Although some projects are more involved and require a fair amount of money, others are small, easy to do and cost very little.
We divided the upgrades into two categories: obvious and not-so-obvious. Obvious upgrades are the projects you've heard about but may not have bothered with, thinking they really wouldn't make a difference. (They can.) You can complete these projects with products found at a home center or hardware store, and they generally don't cost much. The not-so-obvious upgrades range from quick fixes to larger, more expensive jobs. Each upgrade will help lower utility usage, if only slightly. Complete several and the cumulative effects can make a big difference.
Windows can be big energy wasters because of what they are -- glass framed by wood. Glass generally transfers heat and cold rapidly, and wood shrinks over time.
Window film can help reduce heating and cooling costs year
round. Gila's Heat Control Insulating Film is applied to the
interior surface of window glass. In the summer, it reflects as
much as 55 percent of the sun's heat outside, preventing it from
warming the room. Conversely, in the winter, it reflects as much
as 45 percent of the room's heat back into the room, preventing it
from escaping through the glass. The film also blocks as much as
99 percent of the sun's UV rays, which can damage carpet,
furniture and drapes as well as cause the window's wood frame to
Another common problem with windows is a draft around the sash.
To stop drafts, apply a shrink-type window film, such as Manco's
pretaped RollOn Shrink Window Kit. This product is easier to apply
than other shrink film because the top edge of the film is
attached to the tape that secures it to the window molding. You do
need to apply the supplied double
Have you ever felt a draft emanating from an electrical receptacle or switch on a cold day? If you took off the cover plate, you'd find a gap between the electrical box and the drywall.
Fixing this energy waster is easy and inexpensive. Install a
plastic foam seal over the switch or receptacle. Available at
hardware stores and home centers, these products cost about a buck
for a pack of six, and they work. You won't shave enough dollars
off of your heating bill to buy a Humvee or take a Caribbean
cruise. But without drafts you'll feel more comfortable, which
means you're less likely to kick up the thermostat.
Another sound investment is a programmable thermostat. It allows you to program your home's temperature for maximum efficiency so that you don't waste money heating or cooling the house to your comfort level when you're not at home. You can spend as little as $40 or more than $200 for a unit, depending on how much technology you want. A seven day programmable heating/cooling thermostat (about $50) will meet most homeowners' needs. Buy a good quality brand such as Honeywell. Off brand units may not cost as much, but they're often hard to program and are more likely to fail.
Compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs have been around for more than a decade. Although the first generation of these bulbs operated for about half the cost of their incandescent counterparts, the shape limited the types of fixtures they could be used in, and the color they produced was not very true (or pleasing). Today's CF bulbs still give you huge savings in energy costs -- and they fit a variety of fixtures. For example, the Philips Marathon Super Long Life CF Flood bulb can replace an older style R30 flood lamp. At 10 cents per kilowatt hour, the 15watt CF bulb uses $12 of electricity during its 8,000hour life, compared with $40 to run a 50watt incandescent R30 for the same period.
Besides the operating-cost savings, you'll spend less on bulbs, too. An R30 incandescent bulb costs about $4 and may last as long as nine months. The Marathon CF bulb costs $22, but it is guaranteed for six years! You'll spend $22 for a CF versus $32 for R30 bulbs, and you won't have to change bulbs as often.
Best of all, the color balance is what most people want. These bulbs produce a soft white light similar to the light from an incandescent bulb.
THE NOT SO OBVIOUS
The glass and sash aren't the only parts of windows that waste
energy. Pull off your window trim and you'll probably see a wide
gap between the wall framing and the window jamb. If you're lucky,
your builder may have stuffed a little fiberglass insulation into
A better way to fill the void is with one of the new Minimal expanding foam insulations, such as Great Stuff Window and Door Polyurethane Foam Sealant.
The Great Stuff sealant has a lowpressure formula that is easy to control and expands less than regular expanding foams. It still expands, however. Follow the instructions and fill the void only 1/3 full. Then you'll have a filled area with no overflow. One can seals four 36 x 60in. windows and sells for about $7.
Another place you're likely to find gaps is underneath your kitchen sink. If your house is like mine, you'll probably find a hole that's at least 1/2 to 1 in. larger than the diameter of the drainline coming through the wall. You can fill this gap with an expanding foam sealant.
Unless your home was built during the last five to 10 years,
you're probably losing a lot of heated and cooled air at the
joints in your ductwork. To ensure this conditioned air makes it
to the vents at the end of the ducts, seal each joint with
foil-faced duct tape. This tape is designed to withstand the
temperature differences of conditioned air -- especially important
if the joint is located close to the furnace takeoff. Don't use
If a new home or a room addition is in your plans, make sure the area under construction is fully insulated and sealed to help keep your energy costs down. One new system that eliminates the need for house wrap is the Icynene Insulation System, a onestep spray-in-place expanding insulation foam.
Icynene is water-based and contains no formaldehyde, CFCs or HCFCs. It's also inert, so it's not food for termites, carpenter ants or rodents. It expands to 100 times its size and adheres to surrounding building components. This seals all joints, crevices and gaps, which prevents air infiltration through walls, floors and ceilings.
Icynene can be used in new construction and in retrofit projects. It is not a do-it-yourself product, but investing in it can reduce your utility bills by 30 percent to 50 percent.
Before central air conditioning, the best way to mechanically cool a house was with a centrally located whole house fan. When installed in the ceiling of the uppermost central hallway, these fans did a good job of pulling the hot, humid air out of the house and expelling it into the attic. Trying to seal off the fan in the winter, however, was a real challenge, but not anymore.
Tamarack Technologies' HV1000 Whole House Cooler is a dualfan unit that changes the air in a 1,500sf house in only 15 minutes. The best feature, however, is the automatic motorized-door assembly that opens when the unit is running, then closes and completely seals the opening when the fan is turned off. The doors have an insulating value of R22 and can be upgraded to R38. The unit fits between 16or 24in.OC joists, so you don't have to cut the joists.
Installing an HV1000 is a DIY project if you're comfortable
with electrical work. The electrical connections are accessible
from the top of the fan housing. You need a constant power source
as well as a switched power source to turn the fan off and
Stanley's new StaTru Plus Steel Doors offer an R-value of 9 (compared with 2 for typical wood entry doors) along with good looks and low maintenance. I visited the Stanley door facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, this past June. After seeing how Stanley designs and manufactures its doors, I'm impressed with the quality. The foam that forms the insulating core is sprayed in place while the door skin and frame are lying flat, which facilitates uniform coverage. When most steel doors are made, the foam is injected while the door is in a vertical position, a practice that can lead to gaps and voids that reduce the insulating efficiency. With the Stanley door, once the foam was sprayed, the top skin was installed and the door was heated to expand and cure the foam.
Another significant difference is in the weather stripping.
You're probably used to hearing a click when the magnetic weather
stripping found on most steel doors comes in contact with the
door's metal skin. After extensive testing, Stanley discovered
that magnetic weather stripping was still subject to air leaks and
pulled away in strong winds. Stanley now uses compression style
weather stripping on all of the entry doors it