3 Approaches to Heating Your Home More Efficiently This Winter

Stay warm, save money and reduce your carbon footprint. All sounds good and cozy, right?

For many homeowners, improving home heating efficiency requires little more than thoughtful thermostat settings, carefully sealed windows and doors and regular maintenance.

Before we dig into that, let’s look at how the City of Austin’s energy policies are set up to encourage conservation — and how keeping those kilowatt hours low can save you a lot.

Austin has a 5-tier electrical rate structure that discourages excessive energy use by charging more for higher usage. Rates occasionally change But Austin currently charges customers 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour on their first 500 kilowatt hours used during winter months (rates increase to compensate for high demand from June through September).

Now here’s where it gets expensive fast. The rate more than triples to 5.6 cents per kilowatt hour in the second tier, which covers 500 to 1,000 kilowatt hours.

The next tier covers the 1,000 to 1,500 kilowatt hour increment, which is priced at 9.1 cent per kilowatt hour. It grows to 11 cents for up to 2,500 kilowatt hours before hitting the top rate of 11.4 cents for everything beyond 2,500 kilowatt hours, which accounts for about 9 percent of Austin bills. (Learn more about the rates here.)

So, while the numbers are a little mind-numbing, it’s easy to see how costs compound quickly when your household energy use increases.

So how can you keep your bill as low as possible without wearing a parka around the house?

Let’s dig in. 

The Thermostat

The thermostat is easy to forget about, and it’s right there on the wall.

Sure, we all bump it up or down a few degrees for comfort. But energy studies show that most homeowners don’t operate their thermostats efficiently. A recent Washington Post blog pointed to a Department of Energy analysis that shows homeowners who reduce their home temperature during the sleeping and/or work hours can save big.

“You can save 5 percent to 15 percent a year on your heating bill — a savings of as much as 1 percent for each degree if the setback period is 8 hours long,” the Department of Energy said.

So, if you settle on 66 instead of 68 degrees while you sleep or are away at work, that could save you $3 on a $150 monthly bill. Or if you aren’t too chilly at 62 degrees, you would be charged about $9 less in a month than if you left it at 68 degrees.

Of course, that could calculate out much differently depending on how well your home retains heat and how efficiently your heating system runs.

Most modern thermostats are programmable. So you can simply schedule your temperature changes — and adjust anytime you happen to feel particularly cold or hot.

Or you could consider a system that learns your home heating and cooling habits over time, eliminating your need to adjust the schedule. And, it can be adjusted by smartphone. So, if you take off on a business trip and realize you forgot to lower the thermostat, just open the application, check the current temperature in your home and adjust accordingly.

Consumer Reports, an independent nonprofit, says that the optimal temperatures are 68 during the day and 60 at night. Maintaining such temperatures can save homeowners about $100 a year.

And, if you’ve ever notice you feel tired more quickly when you’re cold, that’s because lower temperatures force your body to burn calories more quickly. So, as Consumer Reports notes, a lower temperature could help you shave a pound or two along with the financial savings.

Whatever comfort zone temperatures you can program into your thermostat, a degree or two could make a noticeable difference in your energy use and on your electric bill. 

Keeping the Cold Out

Keeping doors and windows sealed probably sounds like common sense, which it is. But it’s often those difficult-to-notice leaks that go ignored for years that can really add up on bills.

You can identify many of those possible leaks by yourself, and then make necessary repairs. Or you could hire an energy efficiency specialist to conduct a building pressurization test to reveal leaky areas.

To do your own inspection, the Department of Energy recommends starting with a walk around the exterior of your home, looking at locations where two different building materials meet, such as water faucets, joints between the chimney and siding and the foundation where the brick or siding meet.

Look for significant gaps between building materials.

Then, on a particularly cool or windy day, feel for cooler air near electrical outlets, windows and doors, fireplaces, attic hatches and anywhere else cables, pipes or vents lead to the outdoors.

Generally, some extra insulation, weather stripping and caulking can have a big impact. Other jobs may require a professional’s touch. 

Using Rebates to Reduce the Cost of Upgrades

Whatever your home heating efficiency inspection reveals, you may have some options to help pay for the cost of repairs or upgrading appliances through local, state or federal government rebate programs.

Home Performance with ENERGY STAR rebates provide up to $200 in rebates on heat pumps and air conditioning units. And loan programs can help fund home efficiency improvements, such as attic insulation and sealing procedures. Learn more about them here.

Under Austin’s program, if you complete work recommended by certified inspectors, you will get an ENERGY STAR certificate. That means you would be exempt from disclosure and reporting requirements under the city’s Environmental Conservation Audit and Disclosure ordinance.

Austin also offers an $85 rebate on approved Internet-connected thermostats. Many of the approved thermostats are available for about $250.

Under that program the city can change your home’s temperature by up to 4 degrees or cycle your heating and cooling systems off for up to 20 minutes per hour about 15 days a year when the city is close to maxing out its energy grid.

You can opt out at anytime.