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Just because we’ve had record high temperatures in the past several years and general worrisome warming trend doesn’t mean that winters are going to get any easier in the Northeast. Now that cold weather is upon us, get your home buttoned up and ready for it with our expert hands-on game plan, which will not only make your home more comfortable and energy efficient, butsave you some money while you’re at it. From big changes that will knock hundreds of dollars off your energy bill to smaller ones that need just a bit of elbow grease and a few materials from your local hardware store, we’ll show you what you need to get the job done! So no matter if you rent or own your house, check out these 7 handy tips that we promise will make a real difference in keeping you warm and your energy bill manageable this winter.

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TIP 1: Get an Energy Audit

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we should mention that the best way to get your home operating at its maximum efficiency is to hire a professional BPI certified energy rater to evaluate your spaces. This person will conduct what’s called an “energy audit” and he or she will test your home for energy losses and safety issues, and generate a detailed report highlighting what your home’s issues are. With a report in hand you can easily target and prioritize exactly what you need to do, and what you can afford to do.

If you can’t afford an energy audit, you can start to identify and remedy some problem areas on your own with the help of an infrared thermometer, like the Ryobi Non-Contact Infrared Thermometer. This handy gun allows you to safely measure surface temperatures and pinpoint spots where your home is experiencing air leaks or missing insulation. As energy efficiency expert David Johnson says, “Air leaks account for 25-30% of an average energy bill, and this is one of the most profound steps that you can make for the betterment of your home’s comfort and reducing the amount of your monthly bill.”

Our tips ahead will address common problem areas seen in all types of homes, and they will offer solutions to problems that can be easily fixed, often without calling on help from a professional.

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TIP 2: Seal Your Walls

The mantra in green construction is: “seal it tight, ventilate right”. The sealing part is about getting a handle on all the places where air penetrates through the wall and causes drafts and fluctuations to the temperature inside your home. A simple tube of high quality caulkand a plan to tackle all those problem areas can go a long way if you know where to look (hint: grab your infrared thermometer).

What keeps the outside air out of your home is typically the interior walls (or drywall), but you’ll find many holes that have been cut out of these walls to install your plugs and switches. If you have ever removed the face-plates of  these plugs and switches during cold weather, you’ll have probably noticed some cold air pouring out. Reduce this leakage by using caulk to seal around the the area where the electric box meets the drywall. If you’re comfortable working around electricity, head to the breaker, turn it off, then test the outlets to make sure they are really off. Once off, you can then pull them out of the box and begin to seal up all the little holes in the back of the box, including where the wires come through.

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TIP 3: Seal Your Home’s Can Lights

Other notorious culprits that contribute to air leaks are recessed lights found in the ceiling. Many old can lights are actually vented on purpose to keep from being overheated by the lightbulb (they are called non-IC or non-insulation contact rated cans). Because warm air rises, an unsealed can light below a roof is a big problem. It’s a good idea is to remove the existing ring of this can and seal the can’s perimeter with caulk. The inside of the can should be sealed with eithercaulk or aluminum tape to keep your home’s warm air from escaping into the attic.

It’s very important that you not put an incandescent bulb in the can. Instead, opt for something like a Cree LED recessed light — this light is dimmable, super-efficient and does not build up heat. Moreover, if you have a non-IC rated can, it’s a really good idea to put a note inside to not use incandescent lights in the future. An overheated fixture has the potential to cause serious problems. If you can’t give up your incandescent, another approach is to go into the attic, install and seal a box made from drywall around the light, and then insulate from above. This has the added benefit of improving your-value, or insulating effectiveness.

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TIP 4: Look For Insulation Gaps

Anywhere you have something that penetrates the wall, there is bound to be an air leak. Check out the outside faucets, air vents and plumbing for large gaps where air can escape. Seal the penetrations with expanding foam so that every nook and cranny is filled. Be careful to never seal next to a gas flue or you will have a fire hazard on your hands.

Once that is done, if you are ready to get dirty, check out where the foundation meets the house and crawlspace and fill those little forgotten cracks — note areas where you see even the slightest bit of daylight passing through. There is even an expanding foam for the big holes and a fire block version for holes between floors or for sealing electrical boxes. We also recommend practicing on a scrap surface to see how the foam works. Remember to wear gloves when using thefoam — this stuff is really sticky before it sets!

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While expanding foam is ideal when dealing with air leaks, spray-and-go won’t always work with those extra big gaps. In spots that need an extra bit of air-stopping artillery, we recommend rolling out some insulation. But before grab for that pink stuff on the shelf — a.k.a.fiberglass insulation — we recommend that you consider using Ultratouch denim insulation instead. Unlike its counterpart, Ultratouch is made from high-quality natural fibers (80% of which are post-consumer recycled) that provide for extremely effective sound absorption and good thermal performance. You also won’t have to worry about getting the “fiberglass itch” with the denim insulation; it is easy to handle and work with — but we still recommend using a mask. The perforated batts make off-size cavity installation easy. Simply measure, tear, carefully fit and cover with an air tight barrier and you are good to go.

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TIP 5: Check and Tune-up Your Heating System

Before the start of the cold season, it’s not a bad idea to tune up your furnace. 30% of an average home’s energy costs are related to heating, and this number can spike further if you have inefficiencies with your furnace or boiler system. The first place to start is by replacing the filter at the beginning of the season and every couple of months while you run the furnace. When purchasing a new filter, note that the cheap ones are made just to protect the furnace fan motor, so make sure to get a more efficient and healthy pleated filter for improved air quality.

A tune-up is a good way to cut down on energy, prevent carbon monoxide leaks, and keep the air inside your home safe and healthy for you and your family. A tune-up should be a top priority, especially given that your furnace or boiler system will be running at full blast for months to come — you don’t want it to give out right when you need it the most! While the cost of a tune-up may at first glance seem like an unnecessary expenditure, keep in mind that small problems can easily turn into much larger, expensive replacements down the road. A new furnace is a substantial financial investment — regular maintenance postpones its replacement.

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Image: Early morning frosty winter view through a window via Shutterstock

TIP 6: Check Your Windows

Windows that are unsuited for a home’s local climate can be a big contributor to inefficiency. If you live in an area that gets especially cold in the winter, investing in windows with insulated glass that’s double-paned or even triple-paned has the potential to transform the comfort of your home and your energy bill.

There are three main types of windows that are available on the market today and they include single-pane, double-pane, and super-triple-pane windows. Single- and double- pane windows are common in older houses, but windows in newer homes are commonly treated with Low-emittance (low-E) coatings (this can include both super windows and double pane windows). Low-E coatings are microscopically thin, virtually invisible, metal or metallic oxide layers deposited on a window to suppress radiative heat flow. The coating keeps radiant heat on the same side of the glass from which it originated, all while letting visible light pass — which means in the winter heat is reflected in, and in the summer heat is reflected out. Different types of Low-E coatings have been designed to allow for high solar gain, moderate solar gain, or low solar gain, and their application will depend on what region your home is located.

Super windows are a more recent development that feature a third pane of treated glass, and in some cases boast a krypton/argon/air gas mix in between the panes. When it comes to thermal performance, these windows are second to none and they can reduce your energy bill by hundreds of dollars. The choices can be daunting when selecting new windows and payback long, so make sure to do diligent research and ‘tune’ your windows to take advantage of solar heat.

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While new windows would be great for everyone, we understand that they are a hefty investment that require a lot of technical analysis from a skilled professional. Moreover, new windows can often be just marginally more efficient than old ones (compared to your wall’s r-value for instance). Energy efficiency is about looking at the home as a system, and this is a long-term investment you shouldn’t be hasty or thrifty about. Get an energy audit before you make the plunge into making any window replacement.

With that said, there are many improvements that you can make to what you already have. They require just a little effort, but can pay out big in cash savings and improved comfort. More simple remedies can easily be found on the shelves of your local hardware store. Purchase some caulk and cellular shades (insulating blinds) to really increase efficiency. Use caulk to seal the window frame, and then setup your cellular shades. These shades are easy to install and work by creating pockets of air to insulate windows from the cold. A good set of shades can double or triple a window’s performance making these a no brainier for winter comfort and energy savings.

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TIP 7: Install a Smart Thermostat

Ok, so you got through the grunt work, now its time to put in some sexy technology to really save some energy. Programmable thermostats (or t-stats) have gotten a bad rap for being difficult to use, and theEPA has yanked their Energy Star designation as a result. However, there are new, much more intuitive designs out there, like the Wi-Fi enabled Honeywell t-stat. Honeywell’s model not only lets you control the device from your iPhone or computer, but it tells you when there are significant temperature swings coming and even when the filter needs to be changed.

Programmable thermostats come in many varieties and price ranges, and getting one can save the average household about $180 a year if it’s used right. The idea is simple: these smart devices allow you to optimize your home’s energy-efficiency by setting pre-programmed temperatures for different situations, seasons and times. For example, you probably don’t want to be paying for heat during the day when you’re not even there, right? You can set your programmable thermostat to automatically turn down the heat during those hours and turn it up when you and your family come home to save money and energy.

For even more energy-saving products, visit Home Depot’s EcoOptions website.

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At The Home Depot, we pride ourselves on being sustainability minded. To make saving energy and money even easier, we’ve launched our EcoOptions website dedicated to green products such as WaterSense® and ENERGY STAR® labeled products and wood harvested from sustainable forests. EcoOptions also offers helpful tips for homeowners trying to go green to help you every step of the way. Whatever your home improvement project, we’ve got the organic solutions that can help make your home healthier and air cleaner; and products that can help you conserve water, be more energy efficient and save money.