Warm air can leak out of a home from places small (electrical outlets) and large (picture windows). But there are steps you can take to close those gaps, beyond taping plastic to the windows (although that old standby certainly helps).
Here are 10 ways to help keep the cold air out and the warm air in this winter. These tips are mostly on the cheap. But those who can afford the expense might want to also consider major improvements.
The federal tax credit for home-energy improvements expires Dec. 31. The program provides as much as $1,500 back at tax time for adding insulation or replacing windows, doors, a furnace, a water heater or a roof. And keep in mind: Your utility bill isn't the only reason to tighten up your home.
"When people are thinking of making these improvements, saving money is a huge issue," said Andrew Frowine, owner of the energy-auditing firm SaveGreenUSA in Peebles, Ohio. "But it's not the only one.
For many people, the compelling thing is to make the home comfortable.
1. Seal or weather-strip doors and windows ($5 to $40)
There's a reason this is the fall-back winterizing technique: Bad windows and door seams can pull warm air out of your home like a vacuum. Several manufacturers offer caulk or foam weather strips for doors and windows.
2. Insulate pipes ($2 to $5)
Heat can leak out of hot-water pipes just as it can leak out of drafty homes. Reduce water-heating bills by wrapping hot-water pipes in foam pipe wrap.
3. Insulate outlet covers ($1 or less per outlet)
Outlets and switch boxes on exterior walls aren't huge sources of heat loss from a home, but they are easily overlooked and easily remedied. Most hardware stores offer inexpensive foam insulating plates that slip discreetly under the existing plate to reduce the loss.
4. Replace the furnace filter ($8 to $12)
A clean furnace filter might not make your home warmer, but a dirty one will make your furnace work harder, jacking up your utility bill. (The price is for conventional filters. Electrostatic filters, which can last years, cost more.)
5. Block the "chimney effect" ($50 to $2,000)
Even with the flue closed, a chimney can continue to suck air out of the house. There are two quick ways to seal the leak: Properly installed glass doors — ideally with airtight doors — can stop much of the loss, although they can be expensive. A far cheaper alternative is a chimney balloon or plug, which inflates to block the air loss — although it must be removed when the fireplace is in use.
6. Install programmable thermostat ($25 to $100)
No need to leave the heat at 70 degrees when you're gone all day or sleeping all night. A programmable thermostat allows you to control the temperature and save money (the EPA estimates $180 a year) without feeling the chill.
7. Install thermal window coverings ($10 to $500)
Thermal-backed drapes or quilted drapes might not be the most stylish feature of your room, but they don't have to look hideous, either — and they can reduce dramatically the amount of heat lost through your windows.
8. Install a ceiling fan ($100 to $300)
A ceiling fan can help warm a room as well as cool it, and that can be especially valuable if the home has high ceilings, where heat gathers. Most ceiling fans have switches that reverse the direction of the blades, so the fan can gently pull cool air up and push warm air down. Look for Energy Star-rated fans, which will use less juice.
9. Add attic insulation ($50 to $100)
Experts recommend at least 12 inches of insulation, so if you can see your ceiling joists, you don't have enough. Blown insulation is best over existing insulation but requires a blower. (Some retailers will provide a blower free if you buy enough insulation.)
10. Wear a sweater (free)
This standby requires no professional installation, is portable and can fit perfectly. Best of all, it can be found in your closet.
Sources: SaveGreenUSA, Conservation Services Group, Lowe's, Family Handyman, Energy Star program