How to Tell Whether Your Home Is Energy Efficient

You’ve already made the switch to energy-efficient light bulbs. You’ve turned down the thermostat and replaced your furnace filter. And you’re budgeting for new appliances. What more can you do to make your home energy efficient? There are several simple fixes that can make a huge difference for your energy bill — if you know what to look for. Here’s how to find some common issues in your home that can diminish its energy efficiency.

Smoke out air leaks

Finding and sealing air leaks has the potential to save you about 10 percent to 20 percent on your energy bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy — not to mention your home will be a lot less drafty. Common places in homes where leaks occur are at the baseboards, electrical outlets and switch plates, vents and fans, fireplace dampers and entrances for utility lines and plumbing. Plus, there might be gaps around the foundation, at exterior corners or where building materials meet.

To locate leaks, you can try conducting your own building pressurization test (or consult a professional). The Department of Energy recommends you choose a cool, windy day for your test. Turn off any combustion appliances, such as a gas furnace or water heater. And turn on any exhaust fans that vent air outside. Then, light an incense stick, and hold it by suspected leaks. If the smoke is sucked out or blown into the room, there’s likely a leak. Likewise, you can hold a candle by suspected gaps and see whether it flickers. Seal any cracks and gaps with the appropriate materials — often just caulk — and enjoy the energy savings.

Look at the windows

old, damaged windowCredit: ideabug/Getty Images

Windows and doors also are common locations for air leaks, which can account for 10 percent to 25 percent of your heating costs, according to This Old House. And you can use the incense test again to identify a leaky window.

“On a blustery day, close all windows and exterior doors and the chimney-flue damper,” This Old House says. “Light a stick of incense, move it around the perimeter of each window, and watch for air that interrupts the delicate rise of smoke.” Invest in weatherstripping or other appropriate materials to fix any issues. And pay extra attention to windows that hold air-conditioning units, as they’re a prime spot for major leaks.

Knock around the doors

For exterior doors, a common problem is air leaking at the gap between the bottom of the door and the threshold. “Close the door on a piece of paper placed on the threshold and give it a tug,” This Old House says. “If it pulls out easily, air is passing through.”

To solve this, simply install a sweep seal. “This metal strip with a piece of vinyl attached uses spring action to close the space between the threshold and door,” according to This Old House. “There are also foam, vinyl, and felt seals that fit under the door or on the threshold to prevent air transfer.” And according to Energy Star, a door that might need your attention the most is the one that leads from the house to the garage (if you have one). These doors often don’t have as good of seals as true exterior doors.

Hunt for ‘energy vampires’

electrical cables plugged inCredit: mrcmos/Getty Images

Are “energy vampires” draining the life from your home? In other words, are there appliances and other electronics drawing power from electrical outlets, even when they’re not in use? “Some of these appliances can cause substantial increases to your energy usage, costing you and your family hundreds of dollars per year,” according to the Department of Energy.

One example of an energy vampire is your cable box, some of which use about 25 to 45 watts of energy even when they’re off, the Department of Energy says. And if you turn off your computer instead of letting it sit idle, that alone might save you $20 per year. Even chargers and small appliances — coffee makers, printers, DVD players, etc. — left plugged in when they’re not in use can add up to substantial costs that you don’t need on your energy bill. So make it a habit to unplug and switch off whenever possible. Plugging items into a power strip that you can turn on and off as needed makes it especially easy to cut energy use.

Check the fridge

Your refrigerator is an appliance that likely always stays on. But it still might be costing you more that it should. A common spot that contributes to energy loss is a fridge door gasket that doesn’t have a strong seal. “Close the refrigerator door on a piece of paper,” This Old House says. “If you don’t feel resistance when you pull it out, the gasket seal is broken and chilled air is escaping. Mold or moisture on the gasket are other telltale signs.” Moreover, dirty coils also can make your fridge work harder. So replace the gasket if necessary, and frequently clean dust and dirt off those coils.

Plus, if you have an older refrigerator (or other appliances), consider making a plan to swap them out for newer ones that are more energy efficient. “For a fridge more than 20 years old, no amount of maintenance will bring it up to today’s efficiency standards,” according to This Old House. “It’s better to retire it and invest in a new, Energy Star–qualified model.” Replacing an old refrigerator alone might be able to save you more than $100 in annual energy costs.

See what’s lurking in the attic

attic hatchCredit: ShaunWilkinso/Getty Images

Attics frequently have some cracks and gaps, causing your home to be hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. So if you’re able, head up to your attic (or hire someone) to assess the situation. For starters, simply use a sunny day to check for any cracks that are letting light (and air) in. Evaluate the insulation and ventilation. And look for leaky ductwork and gaps around the chimney or plumbing stack. Seal small holes with caulk or other appropriate materials.

Furthermore, your attic hatch or door might be a major source of air leakage. “Little more than a thin sheet of plywood (so that it can easily be pushed up and out of the way), an uninsulated hatch can suck as much treated air out of living quarters as a fireplace chimney,” according to This Old House. You can use the incense test again to see whether smoke is sucked up through gaps in the hatch. If that’s the case, This Old House recommends attaching insulation to the back of the hatch — plus adding foam tape around the edges to create a seal. A hatch that’s sealed, along with a well-insulated attic, can knock roughly 30 percent off your heating bill — making the project well worth the cost.

Main image credit: Olivier Le Moal/Getty Images

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