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Home inspector offers a few simple tips to lower energy bills

Chances are very good that the energy bills for your house are too high. There are many low-cost projects you can have done to reduce your bills, and even more for the do-it-yourselfer. As a professional home inspector for the past 25 years, I have a few tips to help lower them this winter.

First, the obvious: Lower your thermostat. For every degree you lower your thermostat, you save 3 percent on your fuel bill. Most people are very comfortable with the thermostat set at 68 degrees. At night, you should turn it down even more.

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If your home has a warm air furnace, you should check the filter every six weeks or so during the heating season. Clogged filters waste a lot of energy, and they wear your furnace out prematurely. They also allow dirt to build up in the interior of the system. Pleated media filters are a little more expensive, but they are more efficient than the cheap ones.

When was the last time you vacuumed out your radiators, baseboards, or registers? You’d be surprised what can collect in and on them. Keeping them clean will improve their efficiency.

Insulate as many exposed heating pipes and ducts as you can to make sure none of that heat is lost to unconditioned spaces like basements and attics.

The better your system is maintained, the more efficient it will be. Most people are good about having their oil-fired equipment tuned up each year, but how about those gas burners? All mechanical and combustion equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and serviced annually. This will improve efficiency and safety.

When the time comes to replace your heating system, don’t hire a contractor until they’ve performed a heat loss analysis on your home to determine the size of the system you need. The vast majority of heating systems are overdesigned by a wide margin. This translates to higher installation costs, higher operating costs, and premature failures.

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Ask your heating contractor about having an automatic vent damper installed on your heating system’s smoke pipe. It may cost $500 or so, but it can save you up to 15 percent on your heating bill.  

Replacing an old standing pilot light with an electronic ignition might also cost about $500, but it can reduce heating costs on gas-fired systems by 5 percent to 10 percent.  

If your home has a forced hot water boiler and you’re the ambitious type, you can save a lot of money by experimenting with the high limit on the circulator. Try setting it at 180 degrees F. Some systems can heat the house just fine at 160 degrees F.  

The thermostat on the water heaters in most homes is set too high, some dangerously so. Water heaters should be set at 120 degrees F, which is hot enough for showers, dish washing, and laundry, but won’t scald anyone.  

If you have a fireplace, check the damper. When the damper is left open, it constantly sucks heat out of your home. Fireplace dampers should be shut when the fireplace is not in use.

Is there a garage attached to your house? These are typically cold and drafty, so when it’s time to replace the doors, consider insulated doors with tight-fitting gaskets. You’ll notice a big difference in comfort and lower heating costs.

If you have storm windows, make sure the storm sashes are in. Be sure to latch the windows tightly, too. Often, if the windows aren’t latched, the top sash will slowly slide downward, leaving a gap at the top that you can’t see.

Open the blinds and shades on south-facing windows in the winter and take advantage of some free passive solar gain. This might mean it’s time to prune back some tree limbs or overgrown shrubs to allow more sunlight in.

Weather-strip your doors or, even better, replace them with insulated doors. They’ll look better and keep the draft out.

If your old windows are drafty, they may need repair instead of total replacement. A tight-fitting, double-hung window with a properly installed, well-caulked storm window is comparable in energy efficiency to new replacement sashes. Window salespeople often claim huge energy savings, but independent analyses just don’t bear them out. Fixing windows is cheaper than replacing them, and they work nearly as well.

Is your attic properly insulated and cold? It’s counterintuitive, but your attic should be cold and uncomfortable in the winter. If yours isn’t, you need more insulation. Don’t forget to insulate over the pull-down stairs.

If your walls aren’t insulated and you think you’ll be living in the house for many years, you should consider having it done. It’s expensive, but over the years, especially as fuel costs rise, it can pay for itself and then some.

Every house is different, and there may be other things you can do to reduce your energy use. Check out www.masssave.com to schedule a free audit from your utility provider.

Jim Morrison has been inspecting homes throughout Massachusetts since 1987. He can be reached at jamesandrewmorrison@gmail.com.

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