Brrr, it’s cold out there.
Inside your home though, it’s quite warm and cozy. Or is it?
When the icy winds of winter descend upon the Pittsburgh area, cranking up your furnace is only half the battle when it comes to keeping up comfy lodgings. You also need to keep that heating system running as efficiently as possible and track down any concealed vulnerable points in your home that let the cold sneak in.
Let’s take a brief look at some tips to help keep your home as comfortable as possible. You’ll likely save a few bucks on your heating bill, too.
Ten-hut! Time for inspection
Whether your home is heated by a gas furnace or electric heat pump, make sure the system is working at its peak efficiency before the full brunt of winter hits. While a complete hardware check is best left to the pros (at least once a year), you can perform a bit of basic maintenance on your own.
First, turn off the power to your furnace completely. Next, remove the service panel from the side of the unit and gently vacuum any visible dust or debris out of the blower and burner cavities. Do likewise for any grime outside and around the furnace itself.
Next, set your thermostat to Heat mode and bump the indoor target temperature a few degrees above its current reading. After a few moments, you should hear the furnace kick on.
If you don’t feel warm air flowing out of your vents shortly, call for professional help. Of course, you’ll pay for the service, but a check now will save you from an icebox home if your heater goes out when the temps dip into the teens.
Freshen up that air filter
Most HVAC systems use a single, disposable, nonrecyclable filter constructed of paper or fiberglass. At a minimum, HVAC air filters should be replaced every six months (at the beginning of winter and summer is best). However, every home is different. Pet owners might have to change filters more often, for example.
Permanent filters made from metal and synthetic fibers last about ten years. What’s the catch? You’ll need to wash them monthly and make sure they dry thoroughly to prevent mold.
Create a tight envelope. Seal those cracks and gaps
“Drafts and heat loss are common problems in the winter, and they affect homes of every age, size, and construction,” says Gary Parsons, the Lead Building Scientist in Dow Building Solutions Research and Development. “Those factors can seriously affect your home’s energy efficiency and how comfortable it feels. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to deal with issues like air leaks and insulation and doing so can significantly improve your home’s function and livability.”
Prevent warm air from slipping outside and cold air coming in by creating a tight envelope. Shockingly, Energy Star estimates that homes can have a half mile or more of cracks around doors, windows and sill plates alone! And those aren’t the only points in a house where gaps can exist. This is particularly true in an older home.
Air duct joints, points where piping comes into a home and most anywhere wood meets concrete are perfect sites where cracks and gaps can and will occur.
Sealing these cracks can help stop air leakage, upgrade a home’s overall energy efficiency and, as a bonus, block out pest and insects.
Hint: Use a lit candle to detect drafts around windows and doors.
A reminder: While some gaps are easy to spot, don’t forget the less visible areas, e.g., where pipes or cables go into walls, behind the washing machine, under the kitchen cupboard, keyholes and around sinks and toilets. You can also lose quite a bit of warm air through mail slots and doggy doors. When possible, keep these areas covered. You might use a wool blanket to plug an animal door or even an old towel to close up a mail slot when the temperature really drops.
Windows and doors that don’t seal properly let in a lot of cold air. Older, single-pane windows can allow cold air to penetrate into your home and let the heated air escape. If upgrading to a more energy-efficient double- or triple-pane windows doesn’t fit your budget, try a low-cost approach to block the chill.
- Weather stripping: A little bit of weather stripping can help your windows and doors seal more tightly, preventing cold outside air from slowly leaking into your home. Inexpensive yet effective, seal-adhesive foam weather stripping tape should be available at any local hardware store.
- Clear plastic film: Attach this to a window frame. Heat the film with a hair dryer to tighten the plastic for a good seal.
- A draft snake: This is one snake you’ll want inside your house. This fabric tube, typically filled with uncooked rice or dried beans, lies peacefully at the bottom of a window or door to block cold air. Actually, a simple towel or blanket laid at the foot of a door or at the window bottom can prevent a draft from coming through.
Even do-it-yourself neophytes can quickly seal cracks and gaps in their homes without difficulty. There is a variety of products available at most hardware stores that are specifically formulated to seal gaps and cracks, blocking out air, moisture, even pests. A prime example: Ready-to-use insulating foam sealants can fill gaps up to one inch.
Don’t be concerned about a fashion statement. Layer those curtains
True, you’ll probably add an extra layer or two to your clothing before leaving the house, but you might also think about adding an extra layer to your curtains, too. Either sew or clip a thicker fabric to the back of your curtains or hang it straight from the rod. This adds another layer of insulation which won’t change the look of your curtains from the inside and shouldn’t be too obvious from the outside if you only close them immediately after dusk.
Cover your walls
Believe it or not, you can reduce heat losses by covering your walls with pictures or mirrors. Framed pictures or mirrors are better, if a bit more expensive. Even a simple poster adds an extra layer of insulation. You might not be a Russian oligarch and don’t own any carpets or tapestries to hang on your walls but, if you did, these would be even more effective!
Do you have a fireplace not in use?
If you have a fireplace and are not using it, make sure its flue and draft are closed. Open chimneys can literally suck the heat right out of your home. Consider blocking the chimney with a fireplace insert insulation to reduce heat loss if it will be left unused indefinitely. Just don’t forget to take it our if you decide to use it again!
Install heating controls
To help keep your house warm, it’s a good idea to install heating controls. These will not only allow you to manage the temperature in your house, but heating controls typically come with a timer that, among other features, allows you to enjoy a warm house as soon as you get home from work.
Insulation, insulation, insulation
At some point, you’ve probably heard your mom or dad yell, “Close the front door! We can’t afford to heat the neighborhood.”
In these circumstances, the door symbolizes the basic principle of how insulation works, acting as a barrier that helps seal warm air inside where it belongs.
If you think back to your high school days, you probably learned that warm air rises. So, if you don’t have the budget for the entire house, at a minimum, beefing up your attic insulation will keep heated air inside your home when it reaches the roof. Also, make sure your attic access or attic doors are well insulated. They can be the source of a large amount of heat loss.
Don’t forget the little things
While much of what we’ve discussed so far might involve spending some of your hard-earned dollars, there are other ways that can help keep the heat in (and the cold air out) without a lot of spending.
- Spin it backward. Whether you know it or not, your ceiling fan needs to be changed seasonally. By setting them clockwise in the winter at a lower speed, you can drive warm air down towards you and your family members.
- Reflect on this. If your home has radiators, putting tin foil behind them reflects heat back into the room rather than allowing it to escape through the walls. Though they do make foil specifically designed for this, the quality stuff in your kitchen cupboard will also do the trick.
- Let it in. Use natural solar heat to warm up a chilly room. Once the sun is up (We know, that isn’t an every-day occurrence in the ‘burgh), part the curtains, raise the blinds and open the shutters to let those rays in.
- Let it out. While the kitchen may be too hot for preparing meals during the summer, you can use it to help keep your home warm during the colder months. After cooking dinner, prop open the oven to release its heat to the kitchen; do the same with the clothes dryer and dishwasher, too. (Unless you have small children or curious pets.)
- Cover it. Doors can let in draughts. Covering your door and the surrounding wall with a thick lined door curtain can pretty much eliminate all the heat loss.
- Put a rug down. Tiled floors and uninsulated floorboards dan make a room freezing, but they can also directly make you cold when you walk on them. To solve this problem, lay a rug over the offending area. Rugs are a great source of insulation. They can act as a heat trap and who knows, it could be a style feature that outlasts the winter. By the way, did you know that the bearskin and sheepskin rugs were historical solutions for floor insulation?
- Pile it on. Add extra blankets to your bed and consider an electric one, too. It costs pennies to run an electric blanket all night. It takes a LOT of pennies to run a heater for even one hour.
- Use it wisely. If you do choose to use a space heater, invest in a small, clean-burning portable propane heater. Use it only in the room you’re in, so you don’t have to heat the whole house. Select one with an auto-off timing feature and a sensor that shuts the unit off if it tips over. Take it with you if you change rooms and never leave it running unattended.
- Close it off. Keep closet and cupboards shut, so you aren’t paying to heat them.
- Close this, too. Leave your exterior garage door closed to keep heat-stealing drafts from reaching the inner walls of your home.
- Use shower steam. If possible, leave the door open when you shower. This allows all that hot steam to travel through the house. It can also help cut down on dry winter air that can wreak havoc on your skin.
- Save it for summer. You don’t need an A/C window unit in winter and leaving it in place means more gaps in your windows for cold wind to blow through.
- Don’t block it. Make sure you aren’t blocking airflow from forced air vents and that the vents are open where you need the heat. Don’t block your vents with furniture, piles of dirty clothes or other debris.
- Throw them. Keep blankets and lap rugs handy and use them. When we sit, our circulation slows. Keeping a throw blanket over your lap while you’re knitting or watching TV can appreciably improve your comfort levels.
- Hang them. In extreme cold, hang blankets along the wall, even where there are no windows. A wall can radiate cold through it if the insulation isn’t good enough. If this happens regularly, you need to check your wall insulation.