As we enter the winter heating season many of us think about our heating costs. Some of us struggle to pay the large heating and electric bills each month while others are motivated by reducing their energy consumption.

Regardless of the motivation, there are things we all can do to reduce both our energy bills and our energy consumption.

Reducing heating costs is not a simple process. The best way to begin is by having an energy audit performed by a qualified professional. Such tests will include evaluations of previous energy bills, a blower test to determine air leakage rates, infrared camera scans to locate air leaks, inspection of furnaces and water heaters as well as visual inspections of the building.

Your gas or electric company (including Minnesota Power and Crow Wing Power) may provide some of these services free of charge, otherwise be prepared to pay $100 to several hundred dollars for this evaluation.

With a thorough energy audit in hand we are ready to begin making changes that will save us money and energy. The good news is that we can make many of these improvements ourselves and it will cost just a few dollars. For larger cost items, like window or furnace replacement or adding additional insulation, there are a variety of low interest loans (see dsireuse.org) as well as incentive programs from many utility companies and some folks may be eligible for the state Weatherization Assistance Program or Energy Assistance Program (see mn.gov/commerce).

Newsletter signup for email alerts

A variety of federal and state tax incentives, rebates and grant programs are also available (see mn.gov/commerce).

So where do we begin? Sealing air leaks is the single biggest money/energy saving technique that we can undertake. Fortunately, it is also the most inexpensive. A bit of weather stripping, a few tubes of high quality caulk and a few cans of spray foam properly applied to most houses can markedly reduce air leaks.

Where are these air leaks? Most frequently they are found around doors and windows, around electrical outlets and light fixtures, around pipes and wires penetrating through floors, walls and ceilings and where the foundation joins the house (rim joist).

Focus particular effort on areas that you (or the energy audit) have identified as problems. As examples, drafts or cold spots on walls or floors indicate air infiltration in those areas. Ice dams indicate leakage of warm air into the attic.

Windows and doors are a major source of heat loss. As doors age the weather stripping and threshold wear become less pliable allowing more air leakage. Replacing these can greatly reduce air infiltration. Adding a tight fitting insulated storm door also reduces heat loss.

It has been estimated that 20% of heat loss from homes occurs through windows. As windows age they develop air leaks and waste even more heat. Replacing broken window panes, reglazing and caulking around combination storm windows help reduce air infiltration.

Another way to reduce drafty windows is covering them with inexpensive transparent film (shrink wrap). This is easy to do and is available at any hardware store. Additionally, windows should be covered at night to reduce heat loss. Although any curtain helps, insulated shades or drapes are far superior to other window treatments. You can even use a blanket or quilt.

Any energy assessment should include as evaluation of insulation. Insulation is evaluated based on its thermal resistance (i.e. R-value). The best place to start is in the attic because it is easy to evaluate and adding additional insulation is most effective in reducing heating bills.

An R-value of 50 is recommended in Minnesota. The R-value of attic insulation is generally 2.5 to 4.0/inch of insulation. So we need about 12 to 20 inches of insulation to provide an R-value of 50. Air leaks in attics should be sealed before new insulation is applied. Walls, floors and even basements are more difficult to insulate in existing houses and frequently require a professional.

Our heat source is also an important consideration. Whether we have a central furnace or a space heater, they should be cleaned and maintained to permit them to function at maximum efficiency. Regular replacement of furnace filters reduces the amount of work required by the fan to force air through the ductwork and thus saves energy. Investing in a programmable thermostat allows us to remain comfortable yet automatically reduce the temperature when we are away from home or sleeping.

This column provides only a brief introduction to a few of the things that can save us money and energy on heating bills. For more detailed information see the "Home Energy Guide" at mn.gov/commerce.

(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: weiss005@umn.edu)

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.