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Fighting winter’s chills and bills

Tips for saving on energy, from simple projects to appliance overhauls

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Winter is fast approaching. Slice your energy bills without sacrificing comfort. Consumer Reports provides these tips:

Plug air leaks. Many homes have small leaks in the foundation, walls, ceilings, and roof that let out as much heated air in the winter as an open window. Some air-sealing tasks are DIY-friendly, such as plugging leaks around windows, doors, and electrical outlets with caulk, expandable sealant, and weather stripping. Insulating and sealing ductwork, found in homes with forced-air heating and cooling, is best left to the pros, but it could lower your energy bills by about $400 a year.

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Give LEDs a look. The latest thing in light bulbs, LEDs improve on compact fluorescent bulbs in many ways, including longer life, enhanced light quality, and better dimming. The down side is cost—about $18 to $35 for a 60-watt replacement LED bulb vs. $1.25 to $1.50 for a similar compact fluorescent. Even at those prices, LEDs will lower your electrical bills.

Make technology work for you. Call it the Watt Watchers Effect: Consumers who see how much energy they’re using and what it’s costing them end up consuming about 7 percent less than those who simply get a bill. Almost 40 utility companies have created or plan to create a “green button” on their website that allows customers to easily view their energy-use info. Go to greenbuttondata.org to see whether your utility participates.

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Get an energy audit. Home-performance contractors, as they’re known, will do a blower-door test and use infrared cameras to pinpoint air leaks, assess your heating and cooling equipment, and even review your utility bills. They can also detect safety hazards, such as indoor air pollutants and carbon monoxide leaks. Energy audits usually cost $250 to $800, depending on the size of your home. But state and utility rebates apply. In New York, for example, utilities offer free audits to most homeowners.

Upgrade your appliances. Swapping out a 15-year-old refrigerator for an energy-efficient model could lower your annual electric bill by $60. A high-efficiency top- or front-loading clothes washer might save you another $130. What’s more, a recent study by two leading consumer advocacy groups found that most energy-saving appliances outperform less-efficient models without costing more at the store, when adjusted for inflation.

Consider alternative energy sources. More consumers are looking beyond fossil fuels to heat and cool their home, taking advantage of the renewable-energy tax credits that extend through 2016. Geothermal heat pumps are now installed in about 50,000 US homes each year. Those systems use the earth’s relatively constant temperature to provide heating, cooling, and hot water. Costing $17,000 on average, they’re pricey to install, though the Energy Department puts the payback period at a brisk 5 to 10 years.

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Solar is another alternative. Even higher up-front costs — $20,000 or more for photovoltaic roof panels — have created a market for solar leasing. You rent the system from a provider and pay a fixed monthly fee that’s supposed to be lower than your current electric bill.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.
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