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Cutting the Cost of Winter

by: Paul Kando

Government reports warn, this winter will be cooler than the last two. Heating costs will be higher. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the price of natural gas is expected to rise 13% over last year's, propane's will increase 11%, and electricity will cost 2% more nationwide. This means that every $1,000 spent on heating last year will increase to $1,130 this year for natural gas users, $1,110 for propane users and $1,020 for those heating with electricity. The price of fuel oil is forecast to be 2% lower, however a cooler winter may wipe out that small price-advantage. In the meantime federal fuel assistance funds - $5.1 billion last year - are rumored to total only $3 billion for this winter.

Is there a way to put money to better use than spending it on heating fuel yet remain comfortable through the winter? Is it possible to increase comfort in a house while spending less on heating it? The answer to both questions is "yes", because a large percentage of the heating energy in the typical Maine house goes to waste. Just cut this waste once and enjoy cost and energy savings year after year thereafter. Energy audit data show that the average Maine house could reduce its heating costs by more than half, stretching each dollar spent on heating last year to cover the heating needs of two winters. The challenge is to know how to cut the energy waste and finding the money to do it while still paying for the current fuel consumption.

You could remove the bug screens from all your windows during the heating season. This will cost nothing, yet increase the solar heat gain by about a third, cutting your home's heat-load by about 1 percent. Reduce the temperature of your water heater to no higher than 120ºF for a similar no-cost saving. Attend a free Saturday morning workshop on fabricating insulating window inserts for under $2.00 per square foot of window. They double the R-value of every double-glass window in your house - or triple it for every single glass window. You will instantly feel more comfortable, no longer losing body heat to a cold window. The friction-fit, virtually invisible inserts will also air-seal any leaky window. Energy savings will depend on the window area treated, easily exceeding 3-5% of your heat load. Invest a few dollars in good quality weather-stripping for each outside door and the doors to the unheated basement and attic.

These are examples of no-brainers anyone can afford. But your house is a system in which heat, air and moisture interact. Tighten it the wrong way and you create moisture problems where there were none before. You need to know what your house is doing. Is it losing heat through the walls, floor or ceiling? Through air leaks? What is the best way to proceed, without creating more problems than you solve? The only way to find out is through an energy audit. It takes about 3 hours, during which you can have a lot of your questions answered. The report you receive a few days later will tell you where your house wastes heat, how much, and how to improve it. It will provide a list of recommended steps you can take, recovering their cost from energy savings.

An energy audit report is independent professional advice. It does not advocate hiring anyone or doing things you don't want to do. Its purpose is to inform and empower you to act sensibly, at your own pace - even over several years. The cost of an audit is modest, and is likely to be more than paid back from your first year energy savings. With the report in hand the next step is to set a performance goal for your house an plan your steps to get there. Get advice. Be critical of proposed solutions. Don't be afraid to change your mind for valid reasons. Thorough planning will save money and time, avoiding unnecessary or missteps - even if you have to pay for some professional help.

Can't afford such improvements? Friend, isn't that what you thought ten years ago when your heating bill was only $2,300? Yet you paid $3,500 to heat your house last winter and when your heating bill goes up 10% to $3,850, you will find a way to pay that as well. Suppose a decade ago you had set yourself a goal, set aside the $1,200 difference between the $2,300 you couldn't afford and last winter's $3,500, and spent it on improving the energy efficiency of your house. You could have easily cut your energy consumption by 15% the first year, saving $345. Had you then invested your savings year after year in efficiency improvements, your house could now be 70 to 80% more efficient than it had been back in 2003. Your annual heating bill today would be between $700 and $1,050, instead of $3,500 and rising. And you would have achieved this without a penny of government assistance.

Isn't hindsight great? But what will these numbers look like looking back from three, five or ten years hence? Will they be determined by you or by the vagaries of the fossil fuel market?

For more information, including an archive of these weekly energy columns, visit www.midcoastgreencollaborative.org .