How to lower your heating cost: 5 DIY tips

Would you rather: a.) Shovel out your driveway after a big snowstorm or b.) Pay your utility bills in January? Unfortunately, most of us don’t actually get to choose whether or not to pay our utility bills – that is, if we want to keep coming home to a warm house this winter. However, you can choose to perform some DIY upgrades in your home that will at least help you lower the amount of money you’re spending to heat your home this winter.

Here are five energy efficiency improvements you can make to save money on your utilities and lower your heating bill:

1. Seal your ducts

The Problem: Many older duct systems were originally sealed with duct tape, which can break down overtime, creating air leaks in your ductwork. This causes two problems. First, it significantly decreases the overall efficiency of your HVAC equipment, especially if your ducts are located outside of your living space (i.e. in a crawlspace or attic). The second problem is that dust and other pollutants can get into leaky ducts and irritate existing health problems such as asthma and allergies.

The Fix: Sealing leaky ductwork isn’t a DIY project for everyone because it can involve bending into uncomfortable positions in small, dirty spaces. That said, for those who are ready to take it on, you’ll need to purchase a bucket of duct mastic and fiberglass tape. Apply a thin layer of mastic at the duct joints and then wrap the tape around the ducts. Once the tape is in place, apply another layer of mastic to seal around the joint completely.

2. Change your furnace filters

The Problem: Air filters, as their name suggests, filter air as it is being pulled in through your return vents to keep any dirt out of your furnace. However, if these filters are dirty, it restricts airflow and the furnace has to work harder, which reduces the overall efficiency.

The Fix: Change your furnace’s air filters once a month during the months you’re using your furnace. This will help reduce the energy your furnace consumes to heat your home. If you feel like your air filter doesn’t get dirty, you may want to have it looked at by a qualified technician because the return air may be bypassing your filter, which means all of the dirt and grime is reaching the interior of your furnace.

3. Seal up air leakage in your “exterior shell”

The Problem: When you’re paying to heat the air in your home, you don’t want it to be seeping out through the gaps in your home’s exterior shell (i.e. exterior walls, windows, doors, attic, basement), only to be displaced with cold, and sometimes wet, air.

The Fix: Some of the simplest areas to seal up are the leaks found around windows and doors, and doing so doesn’t cost a lot of money. You can use caulk around trim and other areas without movable parts. For areas of windows and doors that do need to open and close, you can use weatherstripping or door sweeps. Another problem area that is easy to fix is exterior wall outlets. You can purchase and install outlet insulators, which are installed behind the outlet plate so you don’t even notice them.

4. Cover your windows

The problem: Old or single-pane windows can be a real problem in cold climates. While poor quality windows can cause major comfort issues, they’re also really expensive to replace and usually have a slow return on investment. However, there are ways to improve your current windows without replacing them.

The Fix: One of the easiest and most affordable ways to make your windows more efficient and make your home more comfortable (besides caulking and weatherstripping) is to install a temporary clear plastic film over the windows. You can purchase a kit that includes plastic and double-sided tape, and then all you’ll need is a hair dryer and a pair of scissors. After putting the tape around your window, cut the plastic to the right size. Finally, gently blow hot air over the plastic until it is tight around your window. Be careful not to get the blow dryer too close to the plastic because you might create a hole, and then you’d have to start all over, which is never any fun. Adding this layer of plastic is like adding a storm window, and it can help stop air leaks in the window frame.

5. Install a programmable thermostat

The Problem: When you’re in a rush to leave the house in the morning, it’s easy to forget to turn down your heat. And when you do remember, coming home to a cold house can be really uncomfortable, which may cause you to overcompensate by turning the furnace way up.

The Fix: By installing a programmable thermostat, you can program a temperature schedule for the weekdays and weekends with your thermostat lowering just after you leave the house and heating up just before you get home. Before installing your programmable thermostat, make sure to turn off your electricity. As for the installation, make sure to read the instructions carefully and to install it on an interior wall away from any heater vents.

Where to start?

A great way to figure out what areas to target in your home is have your house checked out by a professional energy auditor who can test your home and give you recommendations on energy efficiency upgrades. If you’d like an idea of what an auditor might be looking at and recommending for you home, check out EnergySavvy.com’s free online energy analysis. Not only will you get a list of energy saving recommendations, but the analysis will also tell you how much money you may save on your utility bills by making the upgrades.

You may also be eligible for energy rebates from your local utilities and a tax credit from the federal government for the improvements you make on your home. To find out what incentives are available in your area, check out EnergySavvy’s list of energy rebates. These rebates may also help you prioritize your DIY project checklist.

Anne Maertens is the marketing manager at EnergySavvy.com. She enjoys blogging to help further EnergySavvy’s mission of making energy efficiency easier for homeowners.

Save the planet with motor oil

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Photo courtesy of kendrak at Flickr.com

Eco-conscious drivers pay a lot of attention to how much gasoline their cars use, but what about the motor oil? When cars are properly maintained, they use far more gasoline than they do oil, and driving a car requires more trips to the gas station than the service station. An unfortunate side effect is that our attention is focused on gasoline and oil isn’t something that the average driver thinks about unless there’s a problem.

Let’s say that you’ve got your ducks in a row. You’re driving a fuel efficient car and getting the best mileage possible. Even if you’re a fuel frugal hypermiler, there are still a few things you can do with your oil to reduce your car’s impact on the planet.

Oil is not a generic product – there are oils with different viscosity, oils made from different sources, and oils with more endurance than others. Here’s a good primer on the different types of oil out there. Of note:

Group IV oils… flow more freely at extreme low temperatures and don’t break down at very high temperatures. As a side benefit, they generally can be specified one or two grades lighter than a mineral oil, which consumes less energy as friction inside the engine and saves fuel.

When was the last time you changed the oil in your car? 6 months ago? 5,000 miles ago? The frequency of oil changes can have a huge impact on the environment.

On the one hand, excessive oil changes are wasteful and use up a limited natural resource. On the other hand, changing oil infrequently can cause damage to a cars engine, increasing pollution from your engine and causing additional pollution from the factory that makes replacement parts. Finding that sweet spot is important.

The majority of drivers play it safe and change their oil more than necessary. Roughly 70% of drivers surveyed changed their oil too often. This results in excessive consumption of oil, magnifies disposal problems, and hurts the pocketbooks of drivers nationwide.

A major cause of this overconsumption is the idea that cars should have their oil changed every 3,000 miles. At the service station, mechanics often put a sticker on the windshield reminding drivers to return for their next oil change in 3,000 miles. When you see that sticker, bear in mind that it was put there by someone who will make money every time you buy more oil. Consumer Reports studied taxi cabs in New York City and found that extending the interval did not affect performance or wear on the engines. They also found that oil additives had no noticeable effect on engine wear or oil endurance.

There is no catch-all rule for drivers to follow – every car has different needs and requires oil changes at different intervals. Read the owners manual for the best information about your specific car, and follow its guidelines. If the manual suggests changing the oil every 7,500 miles, changing the oil every 3,000 miles will only drain your pocket book. Many cars now have an oil change sensor that will notify you when the oil needs to be swapped out.

About half of the oil changes in America are performed by do-it-yourself mechanics. Many drivers change their own oil, or rely on a friend who knows how to change oil. There’s a problem though – few people know about the harms caused by dumping their oil down the drain or bagging it up in the garbage.

Every year, more than 300 million gallons of used motor oil are disposed of improperly. Oil that ends up in the sewer or landfill often seeps out into the water table. Just one gallon of oil can contaminate 600,000 to one million gallons of fresh water. That’s enough drinking water to supply 50 people for a year! The amount of oil in an average car can contaminate 4 acres of farmland and make it useless for a century.

This is a big problem. Less than 5% of used oil is currently recycled. The majority of used oil is burned for fuel or dumped. That’s an easily preventable waste, because there are more than 30,000 oil recycling centers nationwide!

The best way to dispose of used motor oil is to take it to a chemical disposal facility. It’s easy to find a disposal location – find an oil recycling site near you at Earth911.com. By recycling the oil, you’ll reduce the need for drilling for oil and help protect local waterways from pollution.

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Photo courtesy of Spiritwood images at Flickr.com

Green ways to travel

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Photo courtesy of Saw You On The Flipside

For some people, travel is an unpleasant necessity. They travel to meet clients or commute. For other people, travel is a joy and the reason that they work. They save up money for vacations and sight seeing. Whether you’re in a hurry to get home or if you’re taking the chance to satisfy your wanderlust, there are plenty of opportunities to add some green to your itinerary.

From hiking boots to luxury jets, we have more transportation options today than ever before. Most travelers weigh these options based on comfort, price, and time. Yet an increasing number of adventurers and businesswomen are factoring in the environmental impact before they buy tickets.

When choosing transportation with a small carbon footprint, it’s important to compare apples to apples. One way to compare the environmental impact is using passenger miles. Passenger miles are calculated by taking the total fuel consumed and dividing by the number of passengers. For example, consider a car that gets 40 miles per gallon. If the driver is the only person in the car, then the driver is responsible for 19.4 pounds of CO2 for every 40 miles driven or 0.485 pounds per mile (19.4 / 40).

If we add a passenger with heavy bags, the car’s MPG will decrease slightly to about 39 MPG, but the amount of carbon dioxide generated will stay roughly the same. That footprint is spread out over 2 people instead of one. (19.4 / 2) / 39 = 0.249 pounds per mile. This is because so much of the energy used in moving a car is used to move the car itself.

In short, vehicles that travel full are more fuel efficient than empty vehicles, and passenger load can greatly affect the pollution produced per person. While trains are often more carbon efficient than buses, a fully loaded passenger bus may even be more efficient than a train. Then again, rail systems in some countries have the edge.

The most common way to compare different fuel sources is to use Miles Per Gallon equivalence (MPGe), but some fuel sources are dirtier than others. For example, generating 100,000 British Thermal Units (BTU) from coal will produce about 42 lbs of CO2, while natural gas will produce the same amount of energy while emitting about 14 lbs of CO2. So, a coal powered train may be more energy efficient than a natural gas powered bus, but it would produce more pollution to travel the same distance. Hard numbers for this “pollution efficiency” are difficult to pin down.

And that’s not all… some situations can magnify the effect of emissions. For example, pollution from airplanes is released in the upper atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, water vapor and other byproducts behave differently in the upper atmosphere than they do at ground level, multiplying their effects. For more information on this subject, look at how various scientists calculate the radiative forcing factor. As a rule of thumb, each pound of airplane emissions is about 2.8 times worse than emissions from other forms of transportation.

From lowest impact to highest impact, here is a rough guide to transportation options (including some data from the US Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book and manufacturer’s sites):

On foot / Walking
Bicycle
Horseback Riding
Rickshaw
Electric Motorcycle / Scooter
Vanpool or Shuttle (1,322 BTU per passenger mile)
Motorcycle (1,855 BTU per passenger mile)
Train (2,816 BTU per passenger mile)
Ultra Efficient Passenger Car (ie; a Prius)
Average Passenger Car (3,512 BTU per passenger mile)
Passenger Trucks/SUVs (3,944 BTU per passenger mile)
Bus (4,235 BTU per passenger mile)
Turboprop Passenger Plane (for short distances)
Fuel Efficient Passenger Jet (for long distances)
Piston Engine Passenger Plane
Older Passenger Jets
Small Prop Plane (ie; Van’s Aircraft’s RV-7: ~36 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Ferryboat
Helicopter (~20 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Cruise Ship (~17 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Motorboat (~15 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Jet Ski (~10 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Executive Jet (~0.8-5 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)

Are there any transportation methods that I’m missing? It’s hard to quantify the MPGe for a hang glider, sailboat, submarine, electric pogo stick, or jet pack, but if you have the scoop on how to rank an unusual form of locomotion, please drop a note in the comments at the bottom of this page.

So, how can you use this list? Before you book a trip or reserve a hotel room, make sure to check out all of the options that are available. Instead of flying cross country, do you have time to take the train? Instead of staying at a hotel across town from a conference, can you find a hotel within walking distance and skip the rental car?

A few more tips for carbon efficient travel…

  • Maximize the capacity of your vehicle: carpool, combine taxis, choose a party boat instead of a dozen jetskis
  • Travel light: ditch 2 suitcases and you may be able to fit another passenger in your car or cut your weight in half on an airplane
  • Choose direct flights: up to 80% of a plane’s fuel consumption happens during take-off and landing, flying direct also cuts out unnecessary miles in the air and, as a bonus, can reduce the amount of tax and airport fees charged
  • Pick fuel efficient cars, planes, and motorcycles: newer vehicles are often much more fuel efficient (ie: the 737-800 airplane gets about 35 percent better mileage per seat than the MD-80 it is replacing).
  • Make the captain a passenger: get certified to operate your own riverboat, learn to fly your own plane, or (if you have one) ditch the chauffeur back at the mansion
  • Often, the green choice will yield a more pleasant trip and save money at the same time!

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    Photo courtesy of svanes

    Cut back on fertilizer and help save the Gulf of Mexico

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    Photo courtesy of Ken-ichi at Flickr.com.
    Fertilizer doesn’t belong in the ocean.

    Every time it rains, excess fertilizer washes off into rivers that eventually feed into the sea. Unnatural levels of phosphorous encourage algae to grow, and algal blooms suffocate fish or poison them with neurotoxins. The effect happens so fast that animals don’t have time to run away – they die in huge piles just like the people caught in Pompeii.

    Many people who overuse fertilizer don’t realize that they’re causing an environmental disaster. Also, fertilizer abuse runs up huge, unnecessary bills. Money spent on excess fertilizer is literally poured down the drain. Homeowners and amateur gardeners are the worst when it comes to overusing fertilizer. According to the National Academy of Sciences, homeowners use 10 times more fertilizer than farmers do per acre.

    The Gulf of Mexico is one area where runoff is particularly bad (since the Mississippi river manages to catch a lot of fertilizer). This year, research suggests that the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be larger than it has ever been before:

    The zone off Louisiana reached a record 7,900 square miles in 2002. A recent estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Louisiana State University shows the zone, which has been monitored for about 25 years, could exceed 8,800 square miles this year, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.

    And excess fertilizer isn’t the only problem facing the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf has a large oil drilling and refining infrastructure, and accidents happen far too often. For example, the Mississippi was closed today due to a messy collision between an oil tanker and a barge. That’ll leave a mark.

    Unless people raise awareness about water pollution and fertilizer abuse, 2010 will see an even larger dead zone. Now is a good time to start reversing the trend – 8,800 square miles of dead water is already far too much. Be part of the solution – talk with your neighbors about how much fertilizer you use, and suggest natural alternatives that are low in phosphorous and nitrogen. Instead of high NPK values, try using compost tea and promoting helpful lawn bacteria. With the help of microbes, plants are able to get more benefits from the soil in a process called nutrient cycling.


    Photo courtesy of
    mrjoro at Flickr.com.