Want a warmer home for less money? Weatherize it!

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weatherizing

Weatherizing your home is the fastest and best way to save money on your home heating bill. That’s the word from representatives of two gas and electric utilities who spoke at the Nov. 5 Sustainable Edmonds meeting, part two in the group’s series on Home & Business Energy Efficiency.

Ben Pelkey of Puget Sound Energy and Laura McCrae of the Snohomish County Public Utility District discussed the various options available for homeowners who want to save energy, reduce their heating bills and make their homes more comfortable during the winter chill and summer heat.

Weatherizing is simply the process of improving the enclosure, or shell, around your home so that you retain more heat in the winter and shield yourself from too much solar heat in the summer. Weatherization involves three main tasks:

  • Adding insulation in your attic, floors and walls.
  • Sealing links by caulking cracks and crevices around door jambs, windows and other openings.
  • Replacing your windows.

It’s also the first step you should take, before replacing appliances or lighting fixtures or installing power strips to reduce your electrical load. “Weatherization is number one. It provides more bang for your buck to improve energy efficiency in your home,” Pelkey said.

How do you know if your home needs weatherizing? The first priority should be to check whether you have proper insulation, especially in your ceiling. Both Puget Sound Energy and Snohomish County PUD will come to your home and examine the current state of your insulation, and provide free estimates on what it would take to upgrade it.

Both utilities also offer cash incentives and rebates for insulation upgrades and duct ceiling. PSE will provide 50 percent rebates for customers who heat their homes with natural gas or electricity, while PUD provides 50 percent rebates for their electric heat customers. PUD also offers very low interest (2.9 percent) loans for up to 10 years on insulation work as well as a variety of other energy-saving improvements, including new windows, heat pumps and programmable thermostats. Both PSE and PUD provide rebates for replacing your windows, although that should be a lower priority than insulating your home and sealing leaks, Pelkey and McCrae agreed.

McCrae stressed the many weatherization options don’t have to be complicated or expensive. “The easiest thing you can possibly do is roll up a towel and put it under your front door, or buy weather stripping,” she said. Videos are also available on the PUD website that show people how to do their own energy-saving projects, step by step. Free home insulation and weatherization is available to both homeowners and renters who meet low-income requirements. Contact the Snohomish County Human Services Department at 425-388-7205 or visit the website for more information.

While you can hire someone to perform an overall energy audit on your home, at a cost of several hundred dollars, most homeowners can feel drafts around doors or windows. If you are having trouble locating leaks, you can conduct a basic building pressurization test, as recommended on the U.S. Department of Energy website:

1. Close all exterior doors, windows, and fireplace flues.

2. Turn off all combustion appliances such as gas burning furnaces and water heaters.

3. Then turn on all exhaust fans (generally located in the kitchen and bathrooms) or use a large window fan to suck the air out of the rooms

According to the Department of Energy, this test increases infiltration through cracks and leaks, making them easier to detect. You can use incense sticks or your damp hand to locate these leaks. If you use incense sticks, moving air will cause the smoke to waver, and if you use your damp hand, any drafts will feel cool to your hand.

If you are a PSE customer, you can receive a federal tax credit for upgrading to a higher-efficiency furnace, and rebates for energy-saving tank or tankless water heaters. While tankless water heaters are 25 percent more efficient, it does take longer for the hot water to arrive at the faucet, Pelkey noted.

Customers with electric heat are encouraged to convert to ductless heat pump system, which heat and cool homes at a fraction of the cost of baseboards and wall heaters. The ductless heat pump requires just a three-inch opening in the wall or ceiling, and a fan circulates the air throughout the home. For those interested, a PUD pilot program running through Dec. 31, 2009, offers a combination of cash incentives and a low-interest loan that covers nearly all of the system costs, McCrae said. PUD also offers incentives for installing solar photovoltaic or solar hot-water systems.

For those with baseboard heat who are looking to reduce their heating bills in multi-family units that are very common in Edmonds, such as condos or apartments, both Pelkey and McCrae recommend that people turn the temperature as low as possible, then use an electric blanket or plug-in heater to add extra warmth, and a ceiling fan to circulate the warm air.

“There’s not a good solution for retrofitting existing multi-family units with baseboard heaters,” Pelkey said. “Make sure it’s weatherized appropriately and that you are operating the existing heating unit as efficiently as possible.”

How do people know if their energy bills are high? Puget Sound Energy has a program that compares how much energy you use to homes of similar size in your neighborhood. Snohomish County PUD, meanwhile, is launching an online tool in mid-November where customers can enter information about their home energy use and receive tips on how to reduce it.

“Every degree you decrease your thermostat represents a 2-percent savings on your heating costs,” Pelkey said.

Coming soon: Recommendations for saving energy on appliances and lighting.

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