TIP 1: Upgrade or tune-up your heating system
The first plan of action is to actually have a plan. 30% of a average home’s energy cost is for heating and sometimes a lot more if you heat with electricity, gas, or oil. A furnace or boiler tune-up is a good place to start. Changing the air filter and diagnosing for problems that lead to inefficiencies or even carbon-monoxide poisoning is a top priority.
TIP 2: Get an energy audit
Don’t think that getting a new heating plant will solve your comfort and efficiency problems. Heat can escape a home in hundreds of different ways, so it’s worth investigating how your home’s shell is performing, as well as the condition of your ductwork. A BPI certified home energy audit (or assessment) provides the critical information needed to get the biggest bang for your buck, and usually finds important things you may never even have noticed. Contact your utility company to see if they offer a discounted audit and weatherization. After, follow up those recommendations with a quality, professional energy retrofit.
TIP 3: Button up your windows
If you don’t have the money, or are a renter, don’t despair. While new windows and a furnace would be great, what you have now may need only just a little help to save cash and improve comfort. Even new windows are often just marginally more efficient than old ones (compared to your wall’s r-value for instance), but a good set of insulating blinds can double or triple a window’s efficiency.
Reflective bubble wrap foil also works well for a window cover and dramatically reduces radiant energy losses that can make even a warm room feel cold to bare skin. And don’t neglect caulking around the frame if you feel a draft coming through. In a pinch plastic film will get you through the season, and storm windows are often a good compromise.
TIP 4: Get a programmable thermostat
A fifteen year old 80% AFUE furnace is still reasonably efficient, but with a programmable thermostat that furnace can run a whole lot more intelligently. These thermostats are inexpensive but notorisously difficult to operate. Luckily some have a nifty energy star button that is a set-and-forget energy saver, and the new Nest Thermostat can learn how you heat your house and automatically adjust itself.
TIP 5: Close up air leaks
Air infiltration is a major reason many rooms feel cold, but you can check for air leakage with a smoke stick. A typical culprit is electrical boxes on the outside walls. Cheap plug and light switch gaskets are easy to install, and all of that reduced air infiltration can make a noticeable difference. Same goes for outside doors — replace those worn gaskets and seal the attic hatch.
TIP 6: Check out all the web’s free green building resources
Some great websites to dig into are Energy Star to get started, and for the deep energy retrofit information buildingscience.com offers many papers on the subject. Green Building Adviser is the go-to building science blog, and the Building Performance Institute is the leading certifier for building retrofit professionals.