You've heard the usual energy-saving advice: Buy only Energy Star-rated appliances, replace incandescent light bulbs with those curly fluorescents, shop for cheaper electric providers. But many simpler, low-cost, energy-saving strategies escape homeowners' attention.
Energy experts say about 35 percent of heating and cooling is lost through the roof, and even more escapes through the walls, windows, and doors, along with air leaks.
"Making your home energy-efficient means starting with the basics, and the most important of these are the proper sealing of air leaks and insulating sufficiently for your climate," says Ronnie Kweller, a spokesperson for the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C.
"Those steps can cut heating and cooling bills by up to 20 percent."
Unless it's thoroughly water-damaged, fiberglass insulation rarely needs replacing -- though that doesn't stop unsavory contractors from recommending changing it out. Go ahead and fluff out those areas that have been compressed from excessive attic tromping because fiberglass insulation needs trapped air to be effective.
You can benefit by adding extra insulation. If yours is less than 9 inches thick, adding another layer could deliver significant extra savings. However, any thickness beyond 16 inches, except for those living far north in America, is typically unnecessary.
With a little how-to research, installation is relatively easy, but be sure to wear a mask and gloves, don't cover any vents -- and don't fall through the ceiling. Fiberglass insulation can range from 50 cents to $1 per square foot, but the blown-in variety can cost nearly double that.
"Air infiltration" is fancy lingo for "drafts." One time-tested way to detect air infiltration is to hold a lighted candle a few inches from doors, baseboards, window frames, pipes and vents, after turning off all fans, heating and air conditioning. If the candle flickers or is blown out, sealing is needed.
Use a caulk gun (sometimes old caulk must be removed first) to seal gaps in walls and windows, and add weatherstripping under gaps in doors. Another avoid-the-draft tip: Use heavier drapes over windows in winter.
A programmable thermostat that adjusts temperatures automatically will set you back between $60 and $120, but save you about $180 a year, according to Energy Star.
Smart thermostats are pricier, varying from $275 to $400, but they let you change settings remotely anywhere you have an Internet connection. They're handy for folks with fluctuating schedules or who tend to entertain clients, family members and other guests at home on an impromptu basis.
Some smart thermostats have monitoring systems that track energy use in various circuits around the house, so you can make adjustments where needed. Before taking that plunge, consider smartphone apps that allow you to dim lights and control thermostats, power strips and other connected devices from your phone.
Standby power, also called "vampire" or "phantom" power, is consumed when electrical devices idle in standby mode. These phantoms can suck the life out of your energy budget, accounting for as much as 10 percent of the average home's electricity use.
Most computers, video game consoles and other gizmos with standby connections have settings that you can adjust to power-saving mode. Do so. Older power strips and adapters (typically those warm to the touch) with standby current should be replaced.
Strategically planted trees can literally overshadow home energy waste. The original layouts and tree positioning of most lots were governed by builders' profit models, not energy savings, so it's up to homeowners to position clusters of trees to shade windows and rooftops in summer. These natural insulators can reduce the air temperature surrounding homes by as much as 9 degrees.
What's more, shading your outdoor air-conditioning unit can increase its efficiency by 10 percent.
The U.S. Department of Energy says that such energy-efficient landscaping provides a return on investment in about eight years.
Consider an energy audit, especially if the energy bills are still high after you have spent a bundle on windows or on a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. Some utility companies offer free audits, but they aren't as thorough as audits performed by competent private companies, which charge around $400.
Certified building analyst Richard Burbank, CEO of Evergreen Home Performance LLC in Rockland, Maine, says energy audits are particularly useful during due diligence before buying a home.
Enthusiasm over a great price on a distressed home can be quickly dampened when the buyer realizes the house is an energy hog.
"We've seen a lot of buyers who are picking from the bottom of the barrel on foreclosures who especially need to pay attention," Mr. Burbank says.