Stay Warm, Save Energy and Lower Your Utility Bill This Winter

10/19/2016 02:33 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2017

Do you turn the thermostat a notch higher or put on an extra sweater when it gets cold? It's a common household debate as family members try to maintain a balance between comfort and savings during the winter. It's also a debate you may be able to put to rest by investing in energy-saving maintenance and upgrades. Here are a few tips:

Identify ways to save energy -- and money. An energy audit is a home inspection that focuses on finding where and how your home could be wasting energy. For example, a leaky air duct or window can let in a cold draft during the winter. As a result, your heating system may need to work extra hard to keep your home warm. Fix the leaks and you can stay just as comfortable while using less energy, and spending less money.

According to the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), hiring a certified energy auditor can cost $300 to $800, depending on the type of audit. Making the recommended changes can save money over the long run but might cost thousands up front. If you don't have the money to spend on a professional right now, you could consider tackling an audit and some of the changes yourself. Doing so could make your home more comfortable, lower your ecological footprint and save energy and money.

See if you qualify for state-funded weatherization assistance. Before you make the decision to go it alone, there are state-based financial assistance programs that can help families, including renters, who cannot afford an audit or energy-saving renovations.

Each state has its own criteria for eligibility, and your income, age, family size and whether or not someone in your family has a disability could be factors. States often give preference to the elderly, families with children and people with a disability. Some states guarantee eligibility for those on Supplemental Security Income or Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Contact your state's weatherization agency to find a local service and start an application. If approved, you'll likely be put on a need-based wait list. Once it's your turn, you'll receive an energy audit and in-person inspection, followed by recommendations for changes. On average, about $4,000 worth of energy saving-related work, like sealing air leaks, was completed over one or two days for the 2015 program year.

If you can't or don't want to pay for a professional audit and don't qualify for assistance, consider conducting a do-it-yourself (DIY) audit.

A DIY energy audit can help you identify ways to save money and stay warm.
A thorough inspection of your home can uncover opportunities for improvement, such as a draft from your baseboard or windows. You may be able to rent an infrared camera from a home improvement store to help you spot trouble areas. Also look over the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's guide to conducting a DIY home energy audit, which can help you organize your inspection.

Where you live can impact what fixes you want to focus on. A drafty window in southern California or even South Carolina won't be as big an issue as one in New England. Similarly, the type of insulation you want to use, how much you need and even your type of heating system can depend on where you live. With this in mind, create a log during your DIY energy audit and you'll have a checklist of money-saving tasks by the end.

Typical trouble spots and simple solutions. The following are common trouble spots you may want to inspect during your audit and subsequent winterization of your home.

Keep the cold outside air out. The DOE estimates that you can save 5 to as much as 30 percent on your energy bill by just reducing drafts. Check for leaks around your doors, windows, lighting, plumbing, cabinets, baseboards, electrical outlets, switch plates and vents. Also look for dirty spots on your wall, ceiling and floors as that could indicate air or moisture is getting in. Use foam sealant to fill in large gaps you find and caulking or weather stripping for smaller leaks. Covering or closing kitchen exhaust fans and fireplace flues when they're not in use can help keep cold air out, and covering drafty windows and doorways with storm windows or doors could be a worthwhile investment.

Consider adding more insulation. The insulation in your walls and ceiling may not meet today's recommendations. Reinsulating or supplementing what you currently have with more insulation could help your home stay warm, or cool, and might not be as difficult as you imagine in easy-to-access attics or basements. However, be sure to do your research. You may want to check with a professional who can recommend what type of insulation to use and warn you of potential ventilation, fire or moisture hazards during and after installation.

Double-check air ducts for leakage. If there are abnormally warm or cold rooms in your home, checking the airflow from the ducts is a great place to start. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Energy Star program estimates that holes, leaks and poor connections lead to the loss of 20 to 30 percent of the air moving through forced-air heating and cooling systems. Although you might not be able to reach all of it, you can use mastic sealant, metal tape or insulate to improve the ductwork you can access. Be sure to double check the seals where the ducts meet the ceiling, walls or floor, as those are prone to leaks. You might also take this opportunity to consider balancing your heating system or having a professional do so. By opening or closing a duct's damper, you can control how much conditioned air flows into different rooms and fine tune the system to your preferences.

Change your ceiling fan's direction. Many ceiling fans have two settings, one for the warmer months and one for the cooler months. During the cold months, you want the fan to pull air up and circulate warm air throughout the room. The blades will generally spin clockwise, but you can double check by making sure the fan isn't blowing air toward the floor.

Regularly inspect your heating systems. Heating systems can cost thousands of dollars to replace. While it may not be a DIY job, you may be able to prolong your system's life by hiring a professional HVAC contractor to inspect and tune up your system before each winter. Some utilities also offer free in-home inspections of gas appliances. A job you can take on is checking the filter at least once a month during regular usage and replacing the filter when it looks dirty or to the manufacturer's specifications. If you know your system is getting close to the end of its life, now may be the time to start doing your research and checking prices. It is better to take your time to find the system that fits your needs and where you will get the best price now. You don't want to have to scramble to get something as quickly as possible during the coldest week of the year after your system fails.

Weigh the costs and benefits before investing your time or money in a winterization project. Some of the items on your checklist could be no-brainers, but others might require more thought. For example, new energy-efficient windows might not pay for themselves through lower energy bills, but they could increase your family's comfort as well as the resale value of your home.

Bottom line: A home energy audit can help you identify ways to improve your energy efficiency and make your home more comfortable. Whether you hire professionals, apply for government assistance or do it yourself, preparing before winter hits means you can enjoy a warm home without stressing over the energy bill.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.