Batten down the hatches!

A guide to winterizing your home for savings and comfort

Posted on Nov 09 2006 in Energy, Features

NovCoverIf your home has air leaks around walls, doors and windows or if you’ve left the fireplace damper open, it’s the same as having your money blow right out of your house. You’re paying for that heat that’s lost with the wind. So, if you haven’t done so already, now’s the time to prepare your home for the cold weather. Making your home more energy efficient saves money and makes you more comfortable.

Wintertime is coming; you can feel it in the air. For a lot of folks that includes the air around their easy chair beside the fireplace, in the bathroom as they brush their teeth, or by the hallway closet as they grab that wool sweater or blanket. If your home has air leaks and is drafty, now’s the time you’ll begin feeling it. If you don’t do something now to prepare your home for winter, you’ll really be feeling its chilling effects on your body — and your budget — come January.

Air leaks, or “infiltration,” can account for more than 30 percent of a home’s heating/cooling costs. And heating/cooling accounts for more than half of a home’s total energy bill. But oftentimes, folks will look in the wrong place when those high energy bills start coming. They’ll blame their heating/cooling system, or blame their energy supplier. Says nationally-known home energy efficiency consultant Doug Rye, “People get high utility bills and what do they do? They call their utility company. [The utility] didn’t build your house. Why call them?”

A heating and cooling system and the energy that powers it are just part of a home’s overall “comfort system.” The major component of the comfort system is the home itself — the walls, ceiling, floors, doors and windows that create the thermal shell folks live in. Reducing air leaks can significantly cut your annual energy bill and make your home more comfortable.

Though autumn is quickly passing, it’s not too late to get your home’s comfort system — the thermal shell and its heating/cooling system — in shape for savings and comfort. With the help of Bob Geswein, an energy efficiency specialist at Harrison REMC, and other energy experts, we’ve compiled a list of items that can affect your heating bill. Your local electric co-op has experts on hand to help you, too. Here’s a partial list of things to consider.


Most homes are built with enough cracks and holes to equal one or two doors left open the entire year, says Doug Rye. The solution: “Close the door!” If your house is totally electric, seal every crack you find with caulk or insulating foam. If your house is heated by gas and naturally vented, be careful; sealing it up too tightly can create a problem with back drafts.

How can you tell how leaky your house is? Call your electric co-op. Some offer blower-door tests or can tell you who in your area does. A telltale sign of air infiltration through outside walls is light carpet that appears gray and dingy at the baseboards. This indicates outside air, carrying pollen and dirt, is being sucked into the home and the carpet is acting as an air filter.

To stop air infiltration:

  • Caulk around the baseboards with a clear caulk. You might not need to pull back the carpet.
  • Seal electrical switches, outlets and circuit breaker boxes and wire penetration points with caulk or foam.
  • Seal light fixture boxes, bath and kitchen ventilation fans with caulk or foam.
  • Seal around pipes where they come through walls.
  • Ensure weather stripping around windows and doors is tight.
  • Ensure windows are closed tightly and locked.


Using a fireplace on very cold days wastes more of a home’s energy than it provides back in heat. A fireplace has its place as an accessory, Geswein says, but not as a way to heat your home in conjunction with your home’s heating system. The draft of a fireplace draws 1,500 percent more air up a chimney flue than a naturally-vented gas furnace. “All that air that’s going up is drawing in cold air through leaks. So your heating system is trying to preheat the air that’s going up your fireplace.”

There’s no denying a fireplace, wood or gas, adds ambience, especially during the holidays, and can take a chill out of a room. But using it will send heated air up the flue and be reflected in your energy bill. Geswein says, “Choose the days to use it, and accept the penalties.”

To make the most of a fireplace:

  • Use a fireplace for only short periods to take the chill out of a room on mildly cold days.
  • Install and use closable tempered glass doors.
  • Close the damper when not in use. A flue is designed to let smoke escape, so until the damper is closed, heated air also escapes 24 hours a day.
  • Plug or seal the flue if never used.
  • Read the owner’s manual and fully understand the safety precautions for the “ventless” types of gas fireplaces. The combustion is not pure, Geswein says. Prolonged use requires a window to be opened. Since natural gas and propane contain a lot of water vapor, ventless gas fireplaces also introduce a lot of humidity to a home that can swell and warp woodwork and furniture and cause condensation on windows.


You want the total R-value of your attic insulation in the 40-50 range. If your attic has blown-in fiberglass insulation less than 17 inches deep, or batt insulation less than 13 inches deep (for an R-value less than 30), you’ll benefit by adding blown-in cellulose insulation over the top.

Studies have shown the R-value of blown-in fiberglass insulation actually degrades as the temperatures approach zero — just when you need it most. Cellulose insulation, made from recycled newspapers, is much more dense than fiberglass. Adding three inches of blown-in cellulose, with an R-value of 10, over fiberglass to bring up the total insulation R-value to 40 will allow the fiberglass to maintain its original R-value as well.

To make the most of attic insulation:

  • Make sure all blown-in insulation is spread evenly and covering the ceiling joists.
  • Check out foam insulation, too, while you’re out shopping for new insulation. It’s even more dense than cellulose, but does cost more.
  • Don’t forget the attic access door. It is a major source of heat loss. You won’t feel cold air coming down from the attic because the hot air will rise up through it. But if you get into the attic, close the door or hatch. If you feel warm air coming up through it, it’s not sealing well. Use a felt or rubber seal around the attic hatchway door and a latch to tighten the seal.


Changing your furnace filter regularly is one of the key maintenance tasks you can do to keep any type of furnace running efficiently. Also be sure to have your heating/cooling system tuned up periodically by a professional to keep it running efficiently.

Air filter tips:

  • Make sure you know where your furnace’s filter is located and what size it is.
  • Monitor your filter monthly, especially if you have kids and pets.
  • Replace it at the first sign of any dirt. (High quality filters that trap more pollen and dust become more restrictive even faster as dirt builds up. They need to be replaced sooner.)
  • Make sure you position the filter correctly with the airflow arrow pointing in the right direction.


Ducts are the highways of your home’s total comfort system. Don’t neglect them just because they’re out of sight. Remember, they’re delivering that precious heated air you’ve already paid for.

Leaky ducts are one of the largest energy wasters. Heating contractors can check them for leaks and seal the biggest ones. They can also clean them out. Make sure duct mastic is used to seal leaky ducts. Do not use duct tape.


Canned or recessed lights that have no IC-rating are like little chimneys in the ceiling. And they waste a lot of heat.

Heat rises and will go through the holes in standard recess light fixtures right into the attic. Geswein says just one of these models will leak enough heated air to fill a Goodyear blimp each month. Canned lights that are IC-rated cost only about $5 more than standard ones. Geswein suggests replacing standard models with the IC-rated ones and then sealing those against leaks as the manufacturer recommends.


Registers covered by a chair, couch, bed, or even a set of long drapes can make a real difference in how warm the room feels. Make sure your vents and cold-air returns are not covered. Covering registers and cold-air returns can create an imbalance in the heating/cooling system.

In older homes with a central air return, such as a grill in the main hallway floor and no individual returns in each room, doors should be kept open. Closing off these rooms can create an imbalance in the heating system.

In homes heated with gas that are naturally vented, such an imbalance can cause back drafts. Instead of combustion fumes going up the flue, that air can be brought back down into the house and cause carbon monoxide poisoning.


Here are some other simple things you can do to cut energy costs:

  • Switch to compact fluorescent lights. These bulbs cost a little more initially, but they’ll save $25 in energy costs per bulb, provide the same amount of light for two-thirds less energy, and last six times longer, meaning you won’t have to replace them nearly as often.
  • Consider installing a thermal wrap around your water heater if it’s an older model with fiberglass insulation (not a newer foam-insulated model). Install it in accordance with tank and wrap manufacturer’s instructions. A piece of solid insulation beneath the older water heater can keep heat from being lost through the floor.


Most electric cooperatives around Indiana have energy advisors to help you with questions and concerns about energy conservation.

Electric Consumer offers information on energy efficiency almost every month on your local co-op pages in the center, or elsewhere. Your local electric cooperative also has information on its local pages of Electric Consumer, newsletters and its website. We offer a handy scroll-down listing of Electric Consumer-participating co-ops. To find your electric cooperative, click here, scroll through the list of co-ops until you find yours, then hit “go” and you’ll be whisked away to that website.

If you’re about to build a home or want your existing home to meet or exceed Energy Star standards, check with your co-op. Most participate in a Touchstone Energy Home program. The program outlines various techniques to ensure your home’s heating/cooling system and thermal shell work together to save money on energy and keep you comfortable — no matter how cold it gets when wintertime comes.