about saving money on home heating costs abounds this
time of year, but some of it is oversimplified,
marketing hype or just plain wrong, while some
long-standing myths persist about keeping warm on the
example, programmable thermostats are not the holy grail
of home heating, cranking up the furnace does nothing to
heat a chilly house faster and fireplaces used as
heating sources literally suck ó suck paid-for warm
air up the chimney.
tape? Not good for sealing ducts.
truth-test heating advice and unveil some myths, we
sought help from Max Sherman, a senior scientist at the
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory overseeing
research for residential energy efficiency. Besides
being a serious scientist, he gained notoriety in the
late 1990s as Dr. Duct Tape for discovering that the
gray-backed sticky tape "failed reliably and often
catastrophically" when used for sealing ducts.
"It will get old and fall off after a year or so of
heating cycles," Sherman said. "Plenty of
tapes are good for sealing, but standard duct tape isnít
one of them."
are a few other home-heating myths.
fallacy. If you enjoy the sound, smell and ambience of a
wood fireplace, go for it. Just donít think youíre
helping your wallet. "A fireplace is a particularly
bad way of heating your home," Sherman said.
thereís paying for firewood, as many urban and
suburban dwellers do. Then you feed the fireís
appetite for oxygen with your paid-for heated indoor air
and shoot it up the chimney.
a recipe for financial savings.
possible exception is if you want to turn down the heat
in the rest of the house and close off and heat only one
room ó the one that includes the fireplace. Or, as
Sherman notes, it might be a net benefit if the
fireplace has sealed glass doors and "youíve gone
through the trouble of essentially turning it into a
sealed wood stove ... then you no longer have the nice,
cheery fire you probably had in mind when you said, ĎLetís
use the fireplace.í"
thermostat problem. These highly touted devices simply
do automatically what you could do yourself, namely walk
over to the thermostat and adjust it.
programmable thermostats require, as the name implies,
programming. The simple or "dumb" ones are
clocks that adjust the temperature at prescribed times
ó although some might come with a built-in program.
"Itís definitely going to save you money in the
default mode because it will turn it down at night and
save energy," Sherman said.
like the fireplace, a programmable thermostat might
enhance your life but could end up costing you money, at
least compared with diligently setting the temperature
manually every day.
said his heating bill went up when he installed one.
Why? Like most people he used to turn the heat up when
he got up in the morning. With a programmable, he could
warm the house in advance of his feet hitting the floor.
"I liked it, but it did not save energy," he
if you have a heat pump, which donít work as well with
widely varying temperatures, the value of a programmable
thermostat can be diminished, he said. "Because of
the way heat pumps work, set-back can be a difficult
thing for them and may not save nearly as much."
you want the convenience of a programmable thermostat,
remember to actually program it, or use pricier
"smart" thermostats that can learn how your
house works and make adjustments. The point is not to
avoid programmable thermostats. They can be convenient.
Itís to use them wisely to use less energy. Consumer
Reports in its October issue rated models ranging in
price from $50 to more than $500.
it up. Something in human nature leads homeowners who
walk into a frigid house to believe that cranking the
thermostat to 85 degrees will somehow heat the home
quicker. "It is a common misconception,"
Sherman said. It doesnít work that way. Think of
furnaces like light switches, not dimmers. They are
either on or off. The only result of your thermostat
cranking will be heating your house beyond a desirable
temperature and wasting energy ó and money.
it up. Another common refrain is that itís cheaper to
keep your home at a constant temperature, even when youíre
not home. "Almost never true," Sherman said,
noting again that homes with heat pumps can be an
exception. "If the system is running less, it means
itís using less energy," he said. Says the U.S.
Department of Energy on energy.gov, "You can easily
save energy in the winter by setting the thermostat to
68 degrees while youíre awake and setting it lower
while youíre asleep or away from home." Figure
you save up to 1 percent per year on your heating bill
for each degree you set back the thermostat for eight
hours, such as when youíre sleeping or at work. A
10-degree drop could be 10 percent savings.
warning. Marketers of window replacements have the story
half right. Replacing drafty windows with
energy-efficient ones will save on energy use. But
windows are so expensive, often thousands of dollars,
that the break-even will be measured in decades. Among
energy upgrades aimed at saving money, replacing windows
might rank dead last. "On the cost-benefit priority
list, windows are usually behind air sealing, insulation
and system efficiency improvements," Sherman said.
That said, if you have decided to replace windows for a
different reason ó perhaps cosmetic reasons or to
eliminate drafts ó you might as well pay for highly
replacing them just for energy may be quite costly,
moving to high-efficiency windows when they need to be
replaced anyway is almost always a good idea,"
Sherman said. "The marginal difference is
should you do? Itís not rocket science. Sealing gaps
and cracks around windows, doors, ducts, pipe cutouts
and other areas is among the most cost-effective moves.
Consumer Reports says blowing sealant into ductwork,
called aerosealing, is effective, albeit expensive
upfront, $1,500 to $2,500 with promised savings of $250
to $850 per year. See aeroseal.com. It also says a
professional energy audit can be worthwhile too,
although it costs $250 to $800.
consider changes that allow you to lower the thermostat
a few degrees, including dressing for winter, which
might mean wearing a sweater and slippers around the
house. Electric blankets use little energy and can make
it easier to lower the thermostat a few more degrees at
more information and suggestions on cost-effective home
energy improvements, see energystar.gov and
homeenergysaver.lbl.gov. The American Society of
Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers
offers tips at tinyurl.com/ashraetips.