(02/18/21) BATON ROUGE, La. — Record-cold weather across Louisiana is likely to result in high utility bills for many. While it may be too late to affect your current heating costs, LSU AgCenter housing specialist Claudette Reichel said temperatures will still be low over the next few days, and offered six strategies likely to provide you the fastest return on investment:
— Assess your home. Start with a do-it-yourself home energy checkup. Visit http://www.energystar.gov/ and use the Energy Star Home Advisor tool in the Save at Home tab to get a prioritized list of energy-saving recommendations customized for your location and home. If you want to make major improvements in home performance, hire a Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) or Building Performance Institute (BPI) certified home energy rater or analyst for more precise recommendations with a cost-benefit analysis.
— Vary the setting. Fully heating an empty house is like burning cash. A free way to save big is to set a programmable thermostat or manually reduce your normal setting by 8 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit whenever the house is unoccupied and when sleeping. A bonus benefit is studies show that people tend to sleep better in temperatures between 60 to 65 degrees.
— Optimize your heating system and ductwork. First, change the air filters in forced air systems because dirty filters reduce efficiency. It’s also good to annually get the heating system professionally inspected, adjusted and cleaned — for both efficiency and safety.
If ductwork is in an unconditioned space, like a vented attic, duct leaks and losses can cause a large waste of the heat (and cooling in summer) that you are paying for. It’s a winning investment to have your duct system thoroughly sealed with either a specialized aerosol sealant system for ducts or with mastic on all joints and connections and to caulk the gaps between the duct boots and drywall behind the air register grilles. Don’t use duct tape, which doesn’t hold up well over time.
It’s important to have the ductwork professionally leak tested and measured with specialized equipment after sealing to verify effectiveness and find remaining leaks. When replacing or installing new ductwork, upgrade to R-8 insulated ducts and insist on “best practice” layout and installation.
— Find and seal building air leaks. On a cold day, temporarily turn on exhaust fans to cause a suction, and feel around to find all the cold air leaks throughout your home. There are consumer-priced leak detectors on the market that signal temperature differences to make it easier and faster to find the leaks.
Electric outlet and light switch gaskets are very inexpensive and easy to install behind the faceplates. Choose and install durable weather-stripping around doors, windows and attic access stairs or panels. Use expanding foam sealant around pipe penetrations in walls. If you can remove trim around doors and windows to seal gaps, use low expansion foam.
The ceiling (attic floor) is often the largest source of air leakage, especially if your home has recessed can lights that are not ICAT-rated (insulation contact, air-tight). Specialized, fire code-compliant covers are available to reduce the leakage, or they can be replaced with ICAT housings. Visit www.energystar.gov to see do-it-yourself methods to plug and seal other penetrations and air bypasses in the attic floor.
A typical fireplace is designed to pull air up and out the chimney, including air you’ve paid to heat, increasing cold air leaks and drafts. Using an open-hearth fireplace with your central heating system on can increase your heating bill. When using a fireplace for heat, turn off your central heater. When not using the fireplace, make sure the damper is fully closed. If it doesn’t seal tightly, install a chimney balloon.
— Insulate the water heater tank and pipes. Water heating is typically the second largest part of a home utility bill after cooling and heating. Inexpensive kits and pipe insulation tubes are a simple way to reduce heat loss as well as prevent frozen pipes.
— Top off attic insulation to R-38. After sealing the attic floor and access panel or pull-down stair, consider adding more insulation if you have less than R-30, and especially if you have only R-19 or less as is typical in older homes such as 6-inch-thick batts or loose fill. There are kits designed to add insulation to the cover of attic pull-down stairs or you can make a boxed cover with rigid foam board.
Reichel also said the bigger jobs may be worthwhile investments in the long run when remodeling and when replacements are needed.
She recommends replacing an aged, inefficient heating system and electric strip (resistance) heaters with an Energy Star-labeled gas furnace or electric heat pump.
“The Energy Star label means the equipment is more efficient than the minimum and will ultimately save you far more than the price difference,” she said. “Make sure it is right-sized for your home’s heating load. Bigger is not better.”
Also, consider insulation, she said.
“Insulate single-pane windows and wood doors with storm windows and doors, or replace them with new Energy Star label windows and doors for your climate zone on the Energy Star label map.”
Insulated window treatments can increase winter comfort, she said.
Insulate raised floors with air-tight, moisture impermeable insulation systems — rigid foam board under the joists, or closed cell spray foam under the subfloor — that both insulate and prevent summer moisture problems. Visit lsuagcenter.com/LaHouse publications page to read “Insulating Raised Floors in a Hot, Humid Climate.”
She said if your home site has zero risk of flooding, another option is a sealed, semi-conditioned crawl space detailed like a small basement. Guidance is available at the Department of Energy Building America Solution Center website, https://basc.pnnl.gov/.
Visit LaHouse Resource Center on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge to see and learn more ways to save energy in comfort. LaHouse is an educational high-performance housing exhibit and program of the LSU AgCenter. During the pandemic, it is open to the public by appointment only for self-guided tours. Visit www.lsuagcenter.com/LaHouse for directions, helpful articles, videos and more.
Icicles hang from the roof of a carport following a winter storm that affected much of Louisiana. Photo by Craig Gautreaux/LSUAgCenter