Seal Air Leaks to Reduce Home Energy Use and Cost

Snug House - Scarf Wrapped Around Miniature HouseA snug house is a good defense against high heating and cooling bills. Eliminating air leaks into and out of your home is a relatively low-cost way to reduce energy use and cost. According to the U.S. EPA, a 1/8” gap under a 36-inch door lets in as much air as having a 2 ¼” hole in the wall. Feeling a draft is an indication of an air leak and turning up the thermostat only pumps out more heat that is then lost through leaks and cracks.

Handy homeowners can check for air leaks and cracks and then seal most if not all leaks themselves. Home improvement stores provide advice on materials, tools, and installation techniques and may offer workshops for novices. A plethora of information is available online from professionals and do-it-yourself experts via websites, blogs, and videos. Not so handy? Find a friend or family member who is or hire a professional.

Check for Air Leaks and Cracks

The U.S. Department of Energy and ENERGY STAR offer resources for do-it-yourself homeowners. Some areas to check for air leaks and cracks include:

  • Common Home Air Leaks - ENERGY STARWindows, doors (including garage), baseboard moldings.
  • Attic hatch or door, basement rim joists.
  • Chimney openings, furnace and water heater flues.
  • Electrical outlets, switches, and water faucets (especially on exterior walls).
  • Penetrations through insulated walls, floors, ceilings for plumbing, wiring, cable TV and phone lines, light fixtures, fans, mail chutes, doggie doors, and dryer vents.

Seal Air Leaks and Cracks

There are a variety of materials and methods for sealing air leaks and cracks. For instance, a tube of white latex window and door caulking and a caulking gun could cost as little as $10. Some actions are free.
  • Close the fireplace damper when the fireplace is not in use.
  • Close curtains and blinds at night in cold weather.
  • Cracks and gaps less than ¼” wide can usually be sealed with a caulking gun.
  • Expanding or flexible foam or other types of weatherstripping can be used to fill large cracks or holes.
  • Door sweeps help keep air, moisture, and insects out. This goes for garage doors too. Draft “snakes” or even a rolled towel will help minimize door drafts.

Take energy use reduction and cost savings to the next level by performing a home energy auditSome utilities, local governments, or nonprofit organizations will provide low-cost or free home energy audits and may offer financial assistance, rebate, and tax incentive programs.

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Use Your Thermostat to Save Energy and Money

Author's Home Thermostat Circa 1980sThat little plastic box mounted on the wall in the hallway, called a thermostat, can have a significant impact on heating and cooling energy use and cost, especially for those who live in areas with cold winters and/or hot summers. Use your thermostat to save energy and money, and still be comfortable in your home.

The powers that be (whoever they are) apparently established thermostat setting guidelines intended to provide a balance between comfort and energy use. I could not find the original source of the guidelines but they are now ubiquitous on the Web.

  • During the day when the house is occupied, set the thermostat at 68°F or lower.
  • At night or when the house will be empty for 4 or more hours, lower the thermostat to 55°F or below.
  • A common misconception is that a furnace must work harder to warm up a home after the thermostat has been set back, thus negating any energy savings. In fact, as soon as the home drops below its normal temperature, it will lose heat more slowly and the longer it remains at a lower temperature the slower the heat loss. The concept works in reverse for air conditioning.
  • During the summer, when the house is occupied, set the thermostat at 78°F or higher.
  • When no one is home, set the thermostat higher or turn it off.

What is a Thermostat?

A thermostat is a control device that senses the air temperature and switches heating or cooling systems on or off in order to maintain a temperature setting or setpoint determined by the user.

For the best performance in homes, thermostats are typically placed in a central hallway away from direct sunlight, drafts, doorways, skylights, and windows. Some homes may have two or more heating/cooling zones controlled by separate thermostats.

Thermostat Types

Electromechanical thermostats often involve pegs or sliding bars to set the desired temperature. They are easy to use but do not offer finite adjustment. This is the type of thermostat we have at home (see above photo).

Programmable ThermostatProgrammable Digital thermostats have no moving parts and may offer features like multiple setback settings, overrides, and adjustments for daylight savings time. Users may select a specific temperature but some people find them difficult to program.

Nest Smart ThermostatSmart thermostats represent the next generation of programmable thermostats and offer users the ability to control their home’s temperature from a smartphone or computer. Some claim to learn a family’s heating and cooling habits and then program themselves.

Do You Need a New Thermostat?

Most homes probably already have an adequate thermostat. They key is to actually use it. Do you need a new thermostat? Maybe or maybe not. Consider the following:

  1. Are winters cold and/or summers hot where you live? If so, you probably have a potential to reduce energy use and costs more than someone living in a temperate climate. A programmable thermostat may help you reduce energy use.
  2. Do you have time and/or remember to adjust your thermostat when leaving the house or at bedtime? A busy parent trying to get 3 kids out the door on a weekday might benefit from a thermostat that will automatically adjust itself.
  3. Evaluate the cost of the thermostat against how much money you can save in reduced energy costs. Savings will recur each year and can really add up.
  4. Are you handy enough to install a new thermostat yourself? I’ve read that people who have installed a light fixture can probably install a thermostat themselves. If not, remember to add installation to the budget.

We live in a moderate climate, do not even have a cooling system (besides an open window), have an old style thermostat, are in the habit of adjusting it, and have low heating costs. So even though I would love to have one of the new sleek smart thermostats, for us it just doesn’t pencil out. But if we ever move to where it snows…

Reader Note: It took me five years to realize a smart thermostat was a good investment (no we did not move to a place where it snows). You can read about what made me change my mind in the post Shrink Your Carbon Footprint with a Smart Thermostat.

Home Energy Management Systems

Home energy management systems take a whole house approach to monitoring and managing home energy use which can include heating and cooling, water heating, lighting, appliances, and electronics. A growing number of companies offer an automated monthly service that manages home energy use on behalf of homeowners.

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