Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He wrote "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.comAsk a question
Dear New Frugal You,
I'm dreading the thought of heating bills this winter. We're barely keeping our budget balanced now, and I don't know what we'll do if our utility bills skyrocket. Are there any inexpensive things we can do to reduce the cost of heating our home? -- Lance
I feel your pain: The 2012-2013 winter is shaping up as potentially the most expensive ever for those heating their homes with heating oil, according to forecasts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Fortunately for you and many others, there are things that you can do to make the most of your heating dollars, and many of them cost very little and can be done by the average homeowner. Let's see what tools we can provide for you.
We'll start by looking at windows. A single-pane window will transfer over 80 percent of infrared energy to the outside, according to The National Fenestration Rating Council, a nonprofit organization that rates the performance of windows and doors. In English, that means your heat ends up outside!
In recent years, windows have been improved to keep more heat inside our homes. All the new low-e windows (that's short for low-emissivity windows, which help prevent your house from losing heat) and double-pane windows are great -- if you can afford them. They may even pay for themselves over time. But what if you can't afford to buy and install new windows before the cold winds blow?
Don't give up. There are many steps you can take to get the benefits of new windows without the expense.
The first thing to recognize is that air can be your friend or your enemy. Pockets of still air can act as an insulator, but cold drafts, not surprisingly, work against you.
How can you create pockets of insulating air? It's easier than you might think. The glass in your window provides one barrier to the outside. You just need to create a second one. The air trapped between the window and the second barrier acts as an insulator. Experts say that can reduce the amount of heat lost through your windows by up to 25 percent.
Many homes have storm windows that act just like a second window. If you have them, you'll want to get them up now.
But what if you don't have storm windows? Or what if you have them and you still can feel the cold air anytime you're near your windows? Simply create another air barrier on the inside of the window.
Heavy drapes in the closed position are a stylish solution. The heavier the material, the better. Although they're not airtight, they do create an insulating pocket of air just inside the window. Drapes also allow you to pull them open when bright sun is shining on the window, which will tend to warm up the room.
Another less stylish option is to use sheet plastic to create that barrier. You can tape it directly to the inside of the wall around the window. Or use 1-inch-by-1-inch lumber to make a frame that fits snuggly inside the window. Attach the plastic to the frame. You can remove the barrier if you're entertaining and don't want your guests to know that you're reducing your heating bills!
If none of those ideas works for you, consider getting a roll of the large bubble wrap used for packing. Cut it to the size of your window. Moisten the wrap and it will cling to the window. Even something as simple as that will help create the needed air pocket.
Your windows are not the only place where cold air enters your home. Even a small draft of outside air can make a room feel frigid.
The best way to find drafts is to walk alongside outside walls with a lit candle. Watch the flame. Any draft will cause the flame to flicker or smoke to move away from the breeze.
You'll want to pay particular attention around windows, doors and baseboards. Don't forget to check around light switches and wall outlets.
Eliminating any drafts you find is a simple do-it-yourself project. Caulk and/or weather-strip will solve most problems. For light and wall outlets, buy and install rubber gaskets. You can find the gaskets at home improvement centers. The materials are inexpensive; the work easy. The only tools required are a knife and a screwdriver to remove the electric plates.
Next, you'll want to help make your furnace as efficient as possible. That would include cleaning or replacing furnace filters. A dirty filter can reduce your furnace's efficiency by 10 percent.
If you have forced air heating, spend time checking the ducts that deliver the warm air. Leaky ducts can leave half of your warm air in crawl spaces, basements or your attic. Most leaks can be repaired with an inexpensive roll of duct tape (yes, it was really created for that purpose!).
Check the ducts to see if they're "sweating." Condensation on the outside of the ducts means that you're losing heat before the warm air reaches your living areas. You'll want to insulate those ducts. Depending on how accessible the ducts are and how strong your DIY credentials are, you may want to do the job yourself or hire it out.
Here's one final cheap strategy for a warmer home. Furnaces tend to pull moisture out of the air, but moist air feels warmer. Allowing a container of water to evaporate will replace lost moisture. After you've finished your bath or shower, allow the extra steam to escape into your home. Finally, consider allowing some clothes to dry on inside racks or lines.
Lance, you may not be able to afford new windows or a new more efficient furnace. But there are a number of simple steps that you can take to stay warm this winter without ballooning heating bills.
See related: Warm window shades, 7 tips for paying high heating bills
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