A Long, Cold Winter? Simple Energy Projects Can Save You a Bundle

by David Tenenbaum

Gasoline is up. Heating oil is up, and the price of natural gas is through the roof. In the Midwest, natural gas prices are projected to rise 57%. No question: We'll be paying substantially more for heat this winter. The Energy Information Administration expects total U.S. energy spending to jump 24% over last year.

Winter is almost here, but it's not too late to consider four essential tactics for saving energy at home: programmable thermostats, insulation, weather stripping, and upgrading windows and doors.

Program your thermostat

Electronic thermostats that lower the temperature while you're in bed or away from home must be the fastest, easiest way to save energy. In a cold climate, you can save about 5% for a 5° setback that lasts for eight hours. A 10° setback, for eight hours, figure on saving about 10%.

Most of these thermostats sell for less than $100, and they're ultra-easy to install. If your existing thermostat has standard wiring, you just disconnect four color-coded wires from the old thermostat and reconnect them to the new version. (When you program the new thermostat, don't be ashamed to read the instruction manual.) Many thermostats have a setting for each day of the week, so you can cut the heat from Monday to Friday, but not on the weekend. Like many other energy-saving technologies, programmable thermostats also can reduce the cost of air conditioning.

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In a finished house, you cannot easily insulate the walls--but attics, basements, crawl spaces, and ducts may scream for insulation.

Start with an unheated attic: Heat rises, and without enough insulation on the attic floor, you wind up heating the sky. Recommended insulation levels (check the Web site below) vary by region, but they have increased over the years, so a house built 25 years ago may need more insulation to cope with current energy prices. To add insulation to an attic floor with existing insulation, unroll the new insulation at right angles to the old; this seals insulation gaps and covers the wood framing.

In a basement or crawl space, fasten foam or fiberglass panels to the walls and cover the insulation with drywall to prevent fire (foam) or control dust (fiberglass). Some people recommend gluing these panels to the wall, but it's often easier to secure skinny strips of wood called "furring strips" to the foundation, then attach the insulation and drywall to the furring strips.

Heating ducts that pass through unheated attics or basements cause major heat loss. If you have access to the ducts, wrap them with fiberglass insulation.

Weather strip and caulk

In a cold climate, you can save about 5% for a 5° thermostat setback that lasts for eight hours.

While insulation usually lasts a long time, weather stripping--the flexible sealer that prevents air leakage around the moving parts of windows and doors--often wears out. As weather strip has improved, it also has become more specialized, and many doors and windows require a specific style of weather strip. To replace a style not sold in local hardware stores, determine window or door brand (the label may be on top of a door or in a window's side channel), and contact the manufacturer or search the Web.

One of the handiest types of generic weather strip is a folded plastic product called the V-strip. This stuff adapts to many doors and windows, can be cut with scissors, and has an adhesive backing that sticks even in cold weather. You can slip a V-strip between a door and the jamb to back up a second weather strip. Clean the surface with rubbing alcohol before applying.

If the flexible strips that seal door bottoms to thresholds is shot, look for an identical replacement at a hardware store. A second tactic for improving the threshold is a "door sweep," which attaches to the bottom and seals against the floor or threshold. An inside door has good weather stripping if it briefly resists closing when the storm door already is closed. This resistance proves that you have an air lock, and your payback for having to shove the door closed is the saving of heating money.

Heating ducts that pass through unheated attics or basements cause major heat loss.

Caulking is flexible goop that you squeeze into cracks with a caulking gun ($7 or so). Check the temperature limitations; you can use many caulks in cold weather. Prowl outside your house for cracks around windows, doors, pipes, and vents. Scrape away old caulking with a trowel or paint scraper, clean off dust and dirt with cleanser on a rag, then squirt caulking into the crack.

Replace windows or storm door

Windows can create major drafts, but replacing a whole window is a big job, even if you have the tools and time. An easy alternative for double-hung windows (the kind that slide up and down) is called the "jamb kit." Marvin Window's version, sold as "Tilt-Pacs," has insulating glass and can be cleaned from inside. (Jambs are a window's interior frame.)

Once you get the hang of it, you can install a jamb kit in less than an hour, largely because you don't touch the storm window, jambs, or the molding that trims the window to the walls. Measure the window and order the size you need. Once the kit arrives, remove and discard the narrow molding that holds the moving window sash in place, and discard the sash. Nail the vertical tracks provided inside the side jambs and insert the replacement sash.

Exterior doors are tough to replace, but battered, bruised and beaten storm doors are easy to replace. On a standard-size door opening (32" or 36" wide between the side jambs, and 80" tall, from the sill to the top jamb), replacement is an affordable afternoon project. For durability and energy saving, skip those cheap, all-aluminum doors. Even though any type of storm door will reduce drafts, a wood-core door will last longer and has more insulation.

While insulation usually lasts a long time, weatherstripping--the flexible sealer that prevents air leakage around the moving parts of windows and doors--often wears out.

Strip off the old door and follow directions to screw the new one to the jambs. Because you attach the door to the face of the jambs, exact cutting is not needed. Basic tools are all you need, so long as you have a drill to attach the latch and drive screws.

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