Did you get sticker-shock opening your first home-heating bill this year? Those initial late fall/early winter utility bills are an unfortunate reminder that the tiny gaps in your house or apartment are really little heat-sucking vampires costing you money.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the average household spends more than $2,200 per year on energy bills, with nearly half of this going to heating and cooling costs. Furthermore, the amount of energy used in the average house is responsible for twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as the average car, the EPA says. That means taking steps to reduce heat loss adds up to real money savings and helps the environment.

The good news is you can take a few steps to vanquish those energy vampires, and most of these fixes can be done in an afternoon.

Get a better thermostat. Ariel Darmoni, managing partner at 123 Remodeling, a general contractor firm featured on HGTV, said the quickest way to cut down on home-heating bills, with long-term results, is to install a smart thermostat. Although they can be pricey, some utility companies offer rebates on these appliances, reducing your total cost.

Darmoni says to look for a smart thermostat that has sensors homeowners can put in other places in the house to detect cold spots. One example of this type of smart thermostat is ecobee4 ($249), the newest version in the ecobee line. It comes with a sensor, and more can be purchased.

“Older thermostats would just take temperatures where the thermostat was located. If it was in the hallway, it would measure the temperature there, but it may still be chilly in the living room,” he said.

Smart thermostats will measure your energy usage and show you the results via apps, which can be opportunities to save more money on energy usage.

Whether you purchase a smart thermostat or still use a manual programmable one, the EPA says, to see cost savings, lower the thermostat’s temperature when you’re away or at night by 8 degrees from normal comfort levels.

By lowering the thermostat by 8 degrees, homeowners can save about $180 a year, said Dina Dwyer-Owens, co-chairwoman of Dwyer Group, parent company of the Neighborly community of home service brands.

To keep from heating rooms that are used less, such as a guest bedroom, shut the heat register to that room and close the door, Darmoni added.

Targeted insulation. Caulking and applying weather stripping around leaky windows and door frames will seal out the tiny drafts that suck out warmer air, Darmoni and Dwyer-Owens said. As unattractive as it may look, plastic sheeting on rattling windows will help cut down on heat loss.

Especially in older homes, but even in newer homes, cold air can seep through wall outlets. One telltale sign is if the wall outlet is particularly cool to the touch or drafty when plugging in a device. Dwyer-Owens says hardware and big-box retailers sell pre-cut foam insulation that fits around switch plates and can be tucked behind the wall plate.

“It’s a leak that’s happening, and you probably don’t think about,” she said.

Water heaters can benefit from a blanket, Dwyer-Owens said. Newer units may have sufficient insulation, which should be at least R-24, the EPA said. If the heater is warm to the touch, give the unit its own winter jacket. Pre-cut hot-water heater blankets cost about $30, and some utilities offer rebates to purchase them, she said.

The EPA said that by insulating the water tank, homeowners can cut standby heat losses by 25 to 45 percent and save about 7 to 16 percent in water-heating cost.

“Depending on how inefficient your water heater is, you can save about $50 annually,” she says, which offsets the cost of the blanket in less than a year.

Give your furnace some TLC. Change air filters regularly as a clean filter prevents dust and dirt buildup and is less taxing on the system. While you’re at it, make an appointment with a technician to tune up your furnace, she said. Do it now, since this time of year, technicians get busy. Not only does tuning up the furnace keep it running well, a technician can spot any problems and prevent a breakdown on the coldest day of the year.

Does the house still feel drafty even after addressing common overlooked areas? It might be time to get an energy audit done, Dwyer-Owens said. The companies use infrared sensors to see where heat is being lost, so homeowners know whether they should have windows replaced or insulation added.

“They can find the home leaks for you. People can sometimes save as much as 20 percent on their bills” after addressing the biggest heat-loss problems, she said.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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