The do-it-yourself home energy audit for fall

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | September 29, 2014

It seems to happen every year -- that energy bill arrives in the depths of a harsh winter and it's almost impossible to believe the total. You've been careful to conserve heat and power, so why in the world is that bill so high?

Even with all your preparations and care, you might be surprised by exactly where all that heat is going. A good home energy audit before the winter wind begins to blow can help you figure out where you need to tighten things up around the house. This do-it-yourself audit isn't as thorough as an energy audit by a contractor, but it can definitely provide you with some energy savings through the winter.

Start with a serious cleaning

Spring cleaning is important, but so is the autumn cleaning, when you dive into changing filters, cleaning out ducts, and replacing those old, worn-out seals around the doors and windows.

Start with a thorough filter cleaning; if your furnace filters are disposable, make sure you have enough new ones on hand to get through the winter. Use your vacuum to suck up any debris or accumulated dust around the furnace filter, and then tackle the vents throughout the house for good measure. A very clean furnace runs much more efficiently.

Then look at the weather-stripping around the doors and windows. Over time, these seals begin to crack and compress, and that can invite drafts. Remember this rule of thumb: close the window or door on a one-dollar bill. If you can pull the bill out of the closed door or window, it's time for new weather-stripping. Most weather-stripping is very affordable and takes only minutes to replace, so make a point of doing it now, before the weather gets too cold.

Check for drafts

Speaking of cold, nothing is worse than feeling an unwelcome breeze around your ankles during the depths of winter. Eliminate as many drafts as you can by using the incense test. Here's how you do it: Turn off the furnace, all fans, and any other air that is flowing through your home. Close all the windows and doors. Then light a stick of incense (choose one that smells great to you -- why not?). Move the stick of incense slowly around your doors and windows, and watch the smoke. When it is blown away or sucked in, there's a draft. Mark that spot and come back to it with more weather-stripping.

There are other areas of your house that are prone to drafts -- places like the outlets, light switches, areas where the baseboard meets the floor, and areas cut for pipes, dryer vents, cable and telephone lines, and the like. Remedy the problem by placing small insulation panels behind the outlet and light switch covers, then using wrap insulation to fill up any spaces around pipes, vents and the like. Use that incense stick around the baseboards, and use small slips of insulation underneath to block out that air.

Inspect the insulation

That brings us to insulation, which is the gold standard of energy-efficiency for any home. To check on how much insulation you have, start with the attic. Make note of what kind of insulation you have, how thick it is, and the R-value, if possible. Then move to the exterior walls. You can do this by opening up the electrical outlets and shining a flashlight behind the box -- you should see insulation there, and you might be able to tell how thick it is.

This Insulation Fact Sheet from the U.S. Department of Energy can help you understand how to find the R-value, and determine if your home has enough insulation for the coming winter. If it doesn't, it's time to get in touch with a professional contractor who can help you keep things cozy.

Tighten things up

Once you have attended to the things discussed above, it's time to take additional steps that can keep your home cozier in the winter -- and save on those heating bills.

If you have ceiling fans in the house, now is the time to reverse them. Turning your blades to the clockwise direction can help circulate warm air down into the room. Most fans have a switch on them that moves the blades from one direction to another.

If your windows are still drafty despite new weather-stripping or caulking, turn to window plastic for a quick fix. This thin layer of protection can keep things surprisingly warm, and if the plastic is applied correctly, it can be barely visible.

Wrap up any pipes that might freeze during a cold snap, and remember to wrap up your hot water heater, too. This is especially helpful if the water heater is in an unheated area, such as a garage. If it is well-insulated, it has less work to do to heat your water, which means more energy-efficiency.

Finally, remember your thermostat. Turn it down as low as you can and still be comfortable -- and don't forget that wrapping up with warm sweaters and blankets can allow you to turn it down even lower. Lower the heat even more when you leave the house, but don't let it drop below 55 degrees unless you want to come home to frozen pipes!

Now that you know how to conduct a do-it-yourself home energy audit, it's time to get moving! The key to a cozy winter is getting all of this done long before the snow flies.

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she’s not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.