Between holiday lights, cooking for the whole family, and your heater running all the time, higher utility bills are often a given during the winter. For some families, this may just be an inconvenience. But for many families it can be a source of dread. In the United States alone, 31% of households struggle to pay utility bills. Sometimes it means a choice between staying warm and eating dinner.
While you might think you can tough it out with layers of sweaters and blankets, studies have shown that keeping your living spaces lower than 65°F can lead to hypothermia and other health problems over time. This can be hard to manage without sending your bill through the roof, especially if you live in an older building with outdated appliances and poor insulation. Short of making drastic and costly home improvements or cranking up the heat, what can you do to keep your living spaces comfortable and safe during the colder months?
We’ve got you covered. By taking steps to improve your insulation, utilize other heat sources, and optimize your HVAC setup, you can stay warm this winter without breaking the bank.
Improve Your Insulation
Improving your wall insulation is one of the best ways to prevent heat from escaping your home. However, if you live in an apartment or you’re renting your home, re-insulating your walls may not be entirely within your control. Beyond that, professional insulation jobs are often invasive and expensive for homeowners. Luckily, there are other ways that you can insulate your home without spending so much time or money.
Insulate Your Attic
We all know that hot air rises. That’s the reason a lot of heat is lost through your ceiling or attic. In fact, roughly 25% of heat in your home is lost through your roof. While insulating your walls may not be an option, you may be able to add some insulation to your attic.
Keep in mind that this won’t stop heat from escaping through the roof. The ideal solution is to have your attic properly sealed. However, you can slow heat loss dramatically by adding more insulation to what is already in place. Some reports suggest that adding just 10-11 inches of insulation to your attic can save up to $180 per year in utility bills.
Assuming your attic is already insulated, you want to use unfaced fiberglass or wool insulation. In many places, you can find small rolls or batts of unfaced insulation at local hardware stores for great prices. They’re also not that hard to install, if you watch a few YouTube tutorials. Just be sure to wear gloves and eye protection when installing anything containing fiberglass.
Seal Cracks and Drafts
When trying to keep hot air inside your home, pay special attention to windows and doors. All of these are meant to be open at one time or another. But during the winter months, you want to keep them closed tight as much as possible. Any amount of air that slips out through gaps or cracks is lost energy.
That said, these areas are often prone to drafts. Door frames wear down and warp with age. Old windows may be too thin or improperly fitted to prevent heat loss in the winter. Even your chimney (as warm as it may seem when fitted with a working fireplace) can allow heat to escape through an open flue.
Aside from that, you want to be sure that the areas around your vents and ducts are leak-proof. Air that escapes into the walls or the air outside before it reaches the room doesn’t do you any good.
Search your home for drafts and seal them up as best you can with caulk or weatherstripping. How do you locate a draft? Other than feeling around for small breezes, you can light a candle and hold it near your windows and doors. If the flame flickers or goes out completely, a draft is nearby. You can also try holding a flashlight on one side of the fixture and having another person stand on the other side. If the other person can see the light between the door frame on the other side, that indicates a gap or draft.
You can find an abundance of weatherstripping options for low prices in most hardware stores, and caulk is usually just as cheap. In addition, these stores may also carry kits that help you seal your windows with plastic. The goal with this is to trap air in a small pocket between the plastic and your windows. This air bubble will trap heat and prevent it from escaping your home. While it may not always look nice, sealing your windows this way can make a huge difference in your insulation efforts.
Cover Your Floor With a Rug
Just like heat is lost through your ceiling, about 10% of your heat can also be lost through the floor. If you have hardwood floors that aren’t properly sealed, heat can quickly escape through small gaps between boards. If your heat sources are close to the ground (e.g. baseboard heaters), this increases the potential for heat loss, and you may be looking at enormous electric bills just to stay warm.
Once again, the ideal solution is to seal the floor better. However, rugs have been helping people insulate their floors for centuries. Consider purchasing a thick wool area rug to lay over the floor in your most vulnerable room. In addition to preventing heat loss through your floorboards, a rug will also trap more warmth under your feet as you walk across it.
Utilize Alternative Heat Sources
While your HVAC solution (a furnace, wall unit, etc.) may be your home’s main source of heat, your home also produces heat in many other places that you can take advantage of. Don’t waste these other heat sources in your effort to stay warm during winter. By finding ways to conserve extra heat, you won’t have to use as much energy from your HVAC appliances to stay warm.
Use Solar Heat
Even when it’s cold outside, the sun provides natural heat that you can utilize to warm your home. Try opening your blinds (especially those on your south-facing windows) during the day when the sun is at its peak. Although the effect may seem slight, doing this will actually allow a significant amount of infrared light from the sun to heat your home naturally. This decreases the need to run your heating appliances as long or as often. If your house is made of a material that absorbs heat (like brick or stone) and has direct access to sunlight, the effect may be even stronger due to thermal mass.
At night, be sure to keep your curtains closed to prevent heat from escaping through the window glass. To maximize this effect, blackout curtains or curtains with thermal lining are ideal.
Humidify Your Home
Although most people try to dehumidify their homes to prevent mold, a small amount of humidity can help your home feel much warmer than it is. If you boil water when you cook, try cooking without a lid or leaving the hood fan off to let the vapor warm the room. You can accomplish a similar effect by leaving your bathroom door open when you take a hot shower. The steam will spread into the rest of the surrounding rooms and provide an extra boost of latent heat.
Of course, you can also purchase a humidifier if it is within your budget. Just make sure you keep your humidity levels at about 45%. Anything more than that could create mold and moisture problems.
Use the Oven
While it’s never a good idea to use your oven as a main source of heat, it can help you stay warm when you’re already using it. If you’re baking cookies or cooking a ham or turkey for the holidays, try leaving the oven door slightly open after you’re finished using it and the oven is powering down. Just like the steam from boiling water, heat from the oven can really keep your kitchen warm and even spread heat to the rest of your home. Just be sure to turn it off before you leave it cracked.
Optimize Your HVAC
Since your HVAC solution is the main way you keep your home warm, it’s important to make sure it’s working properly. You may have to replace a few things or make some adjustments to your setup. But with careful attention, the energy savings are sure to pay off.
Keep Your Thermostat between 68° -72°F
The ideal temperature range for your thermostat is 68° -72°F. This ensures that your indoor space stays a few degrees above the minimum (65°F) while still saving money. While you may think to turn up the heat to 80°F so that you get warm fast, every degree you are able to lower your thermostat can save you 3% on energy bills.
If you have a programmable thermostat, you can save even more money by shifting the temperature during certain hours. Whenever you leave your home, try programming your thermostat to lower the temperature during those hours. Then, set it to turn back up to your preferred temperature just 30 minutes before you come home. This way, the house has just enough time to heat up before you arrive, and you end up saving money while you’re away.
Change the Direction of the Ceiling Fan
If your house has ceiling fans, don’t let them collect dust during the winter. You can use them to preserve heat by spinning them in the other direction.
First, find the switch on the fan that allows you to change the spin direction. When your fan spins clockwise, it creates an updraft. This pushes hot air that is trapped near the ceiling downward into your living space. Some still may escape through the ceiling, but it definitely helps you use more of the available heat.
Close Vents to Unused Rooms
Much like turning down your thermostat when you’re away, closing vents to unused rooms can help you conserve energy. For instance, you can close vents to guest rooms when no one is staying there.
Doing this conserves airflow to the rooms you’ll most often occupy, and closing off outlets makes airflow much more powerful. If possible, don’t waste any heat or air on rooms that don’t need it. However, be careful when doing this as some rooms could have pipes that may freeze if the room is not properly heated.
To be sure your furnace or wall unit is working properly, you’ll want to make sure it runs long enough to heat the room well. Short cycling is just the opposite, where the unit does not run long enough each time it comes on. Most often, the unit will run for a few minutes and shut off, then come back on just a few minutes later and shut off again soon after.
The most reliable way to prevent this is by using an HVAC unit that is the correct size for your space. Oversized units may seem more powerful, but bigger is not always better. If a unit is too large (or too powerful) for your space, it will reach its set temperature point too quickly and stop running before it is truly able to heat the space.
Other times, a unit could short-cycle due to an issue with your thermostat. Sometimes it could be in the wrong location (e.g. near the heater itself). This means that it will reach the target temperature long before the rest of the room and shut off too quickly. It could also be the result of a bad thermistor, the component that helps your unit accurately respond to the temperature around it. In other cases, a simple change in the cycle rate settings may be required so that it runs slightly longer. To be sure, try to follow the troubleshooting steps in your unit’s handbook.
Upgrade Your HVAC Solution
If you’re in the market for an energy-efficient heating or cooling solution, consider upgrading your equipment to something of higher quality that’s still in your price range.
You can start your shopping with heat pumps. These units work by absorbing heat from the surrounding environment (outdoors) and pumping that heat indoors. According to the department of energy, using a heat pump can decrease energy costs by 50% in comparison to a furnace or baseboard heater.
PTACs (Packaged Terminal Air Conditioners) are a great affordable solution for heating and cooling needs. During the winter, these machines are especially powerful in small spaces. They also offer temperature control from the unit itself without requiring a complex duct system. They simply need to be installed in a sleeve that goes through an outside wall. Some PTACs even incorporate heat pump technology for better efficiency.
That said, you still want to look at the efficiency rating of any PTAC unit you choose. An EER rating of 8.5 or more is the minimum recommendation, and there are many models available with ratings of 11 or higher. Just be sure to choose the right size for your space so that you can take advantage of the energy savings and avoid short-cycling.
As some parts of the world begin reaching negative temperatures, it might seem like high utility bills are inevitable. But there are plenty of affordable ways you can improve your space to stay warm during the winter months. All you have to do is pay attention to the details of your home and take steps to conserve heat wherever you can. Be thrifty with your heat usage, make a few good investments, and you’ll be on your way to a warm and cozy home for you and your family this winter.
If you are looking to invest in or upgrade to a new HVAC system, consider a PTAC. We carry a variety of models that boast heat pumps and high efficiency ratings all at an affordable price. Check out our new and refurbished units to heat your home or apartment today.