Beat the cold to the punch

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Take advantage of mild weather to cut energy costs

By Greg Summers

Winter weather is always a “scratch-your-head-to-figure-it-out” riddle. After last year’s colder than normal temperatures, many expected more of the same in early 2012.

But right now, warmer-than-normal temperatures have some plants and trees already budding, which has area fruit growers on edge.

Most homeowners contemplate the “woulda-coulda-shoulda” philosophy of home improvement when snow is on the sidewalk and dripping icicles are glistening in the sun. However, saving energy and money while improving the comfort level of your home is always in season.

The average family spends $1,400 a year on energy, with nearly half of that on heating and cooling. A few simple steps can save as much as 20 percent on annual energy costs.

Here are a few tried and true, inexpensive home improvement tips to take advantage of during this week’s mild days:

– Clean leaves and debris out of gutters. While up on the roof, make sure the vent cap is in place.

– Drain water hoses and put them away.

– Conducting a “heat loss audit.” Use an incense stick to create a small smoke stream and go through your home, checking for air leaks. Pick a fairly windy day so even small leaks will be obvious. Check entry door trim edges, window trim edges, outlet and switch plates, attic access panels, fireplace dampers and baseboards. One of the most effective ways to cut energy costs is to weather strip doors and windows. Addressing leaks can save homeowners as much as 10 percent on their annual home energy costs.

– If your home has oil heat, change fuel filters and service burners, if needed. Check fuel tank for water content.

– Clean and vacuum heating and air conditioning registers and returns. If your home has an older forced-air system, have an HVAC professional clean the entire duct work and inspect the flue pipe for blockages, leaks and holes. 

– Have the furnace fan belts, pilot light, humidifier and media pad checked. On older furnaces, the pilot light may stay on all the time and you can see it; newer models are usually self-igniting and light only when the furnace is running.

– Change or clean humidifier and dehumidifier filters. Check water media pads to see if they need to be replaced. Also check water and waste lines for leaks.

– Don’t forget the hot water heater. Drain about 10 to 15 gallons from the service valve, located at bottom of the water tank to remove sediment. If water has slight rust color at first, this is OK; if after draining more than 10 gallons, the water still has a rust color, it’s a sign the tank is rusting and that you should consider replacement. On natural gas heaters, inspect the flue pipe to ensure it is secure and has no leaks. Lowering the water heater temperature to 115 degrees can also reduce energy consumption.

– In cold weather months, set the HVAC thermostat at 68 degrees during the day and 65 degrees at night.  Setting back the thermostat can save about 3 percent of your energy cost per degree.

– Shop around. If HVAC equipment needs to be replaced, get at least two quotes from local professionals. Local, state and federal tax credits and rebates for energy-saving appliances can help defray costs.

For more energy-saving tips and ideas, visit www.energystar.gov.