Mention winterizing a house to most homeowners and the knee jerk responses are bound to begin flying: Time consuming, expensive, unnecessary.
Tackling the last comment first, it’s true that energy takes a smaller bite out of most homeowners’ budgets than it used to. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, energy now accounts for about 5 percent of disposable income, down from a high of 8 percent in the 1960s.
And a homeowner's energy bill could be even less.
“Very few houses these days are as energy-efficient as they could be,” says TV home improvement expert Danny Lipford.
Nor does making your home as energy smart as possible mandate blocking out weeks free time or a carte blanche budget. Buttoning up your home for the winter can be relatively quick and inexpensive if you know where to put both your efforts and cash to the best use.
Watch your behavior
One first step is identifying where winterizing a home won't necessarily involve a single penny, just changing some bad habits and behavior, says Lipford.
Start with the curtains, blinds and other window coverings in your house. Keep them open during daylight hours to let in natural light and heat and closed when the sun goes down to retain that heat.
In many households, only one person — usually a parent — is allowed to touch the thermostat. That tyranny can pay off if the thermostat handler uses a light touch. Setting a home thermostat to 68 degrees during daylight hours and lowering it while you’re asleep or away can produce big-time savings. The federal Department of Energy estimates turning a thermostat back 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours can trim as much as 15 percent off heating bills — a savings of as much as 1 percent for each degree over an eight-hour period.
If manually regulating the thermostat is too much bother, a programmable thermostat may be the answer, allowing homeowners to program the temperature for certain times of the day. Prices start at anywhere from $25 and up depending on the sophistication of the device and whether it needs professional installation.
Little payout, big payback
Even for those home energy improvements that cost something, the initial expense can be as little as a flashlight or a stick of incense.
Those tools can be used, as Lipford notes, to identify cracks, tiny openings and other hard-to-see breaches that can be major energy loss culprits. Have a friend or family member go outside in the evening and shine a flashlight along the perimeters of doors and windows. To accomplish roughly the same job in the home’s interior, light a stick of incense and watch for a change in the smoke flow that can indicate a leak.
Once problems have been identified, inexpensive caulking can shore up your house’s overall seal.
“They even have outside caulk now that can match the color of your house,” Lipford says. “By doing this, when you close a window or a door, you know they’re truly closed.”
Give some thought as well to what window treatments you have in place. Jay Fayloga, general manager of Decorview, a designer of custom window coverings, says cellular or honeycomb patterned shades are less expensive than wooden shades and more effective in retaining heat.
As for the windows themselves, replacing old and leaky windows can be expensive. As a cost-effective stopgap, consider the plastic window sealant kits available at hardware stores and home improvement warehouses.
If adding plastic sheeting to windows isn’t aesthetically pleasing (even though, when properly applied, the plastic is virtually invisible), consider just windows in bedrooms and upstairs rooms that are less noticeable.
Another sneaky energy loss source comes via electrical outlets and light switch plates on exterior facing walls. The solution is gasket covers that add an extra layer of seal inside the plate. The price for a package of 16 outlet gaskets and eight switch gaskets on Amazon — $7.75.
One last budget conscious step is checking the furnace air filters. Old or clogged filters can strain a furnace’s performance and burn up more fuel in the process. Some filters may be need to be replaced. However, as experts at the home improvement franchise Mr. Handyman note, metal filters can often be washed off and put back into place at no cost.
No time at all
For some homeowners, the time it might take to study their entire home and catalog potential projects is a stumbling block. No problem: have a pro do the initial legwork of identifying energy issues and fixes. As the national consumer organization Angie’s List points out, many utility companies offer these free of charge. Angie’s List also offers suggestions on cost conscious winterization.
Keep in mind that many of these tips also provide benefits once Old Man Winter goes back on hiatus. Sealing leaks and ensuring energy efficiency can not only trim your heating costs in the cold months, but can also hold down cooling costs in the heat of the summer.
Lastly, don’t take on every project before the cold weather sets in. Even a few upgrades and fixes now, leaving the rest for next year, can provide savings that make the time spent worthwhile.
“We all feel good when we know we’re doing something smart,” says Lipford.
The tax credit question
One last winterization issue remains as uncertain as the weather itself.
Until the end of 2013, home energy improvements paid off in more ways than lower energy bills. Looking to spur energy efficiency, the federal government offered a number of tax credits for a variety of energy upgrades, from home improvements to the purchase of energy stingy appliances.
Those perks lapsed at the end of 2013 and have yet to be renewed. However, they are included in the so-called "tax extenders” package that may be considered by the lame duck Congress before the end of the year. The caveat is that the package — which takes in more than 50 tax measures — has been languishing in Congress for months and passage remains uncertain — be it before year's end or in 2015.
Homeowners whose focus is primarily on energy savings can certainly go ahead with plans to upgrade, no matter the fate of the extenders bill. On the other hand, if the appeal of tax credits, which could be worth up to thousands of dollars, is a tipping point, consider holding off, at least for now.
"The best bet is to wait and see if Congress takes action this year," says Tom Wheelwright, CEO of the Phoenix-based tax firm ProVision. "Worst case is that they take action in January and people do their home energy improvements in 2015."