The pursuit of lower heating bills is almost a competitive sport here in Maine, with bragging rights granted to the homeowner who holds out the longest before turning up the thermostat in the fall. It is an even bigger deal on the islands, where heating oil is roughly one dollar more per gallon than it is on the mainland and electricity rates are as much as seven times the national average. We asked Brooks Winner, who educates islanders about energy efficiency for the Island Institute, to share some easy and inexpensive ways to reduce home heating costs.
1. Cover the Windows
A house loses 10 to 25 percent of its heat through its windows. “Covering them is one of the easiest things you can do to make your house warmer and reduce energy costs,” Winner says. Insulated curtains or blinds are effective at both stopping drafts from entering a room and reducing the conduction of heat to the outdoors, the main drawback being that they also block the sun and the free heat it provides. Alternatively, placing sheets of plastic film over windows achieves similar results while taking advantage of that solar heat, but it means a lot of work at the beginning and end of every winter. Winner’s favorite window covers: the do-it-yourself interior storm windows that he teaches islanders to make. Consisting of a simple wood frame covered on both sides with heat-shrink fabric, each storm window costs $10 to $20 in materials, which is paid back in energy savings within one to two years for single-pane windows (longer for double pane windows). Each insert takes about an hour to make. The life span is about ten years. Step-by-step instructions are available at islandinstitute.org/documents/Insert Storm Windows Directions_51612.pdf.
2. Seal Gaps and Holes
Outside air enters homes through gaps around windows and doorframes, between walls and baseboards, and where the pipes and electrical fixtures come through floors and ceilings. Silicone caulk is best for weatherizing windows from the outside, but read the instructions carefully: most exterior window and door caulks should be applied when it is forty-five degrees or warmer to ensure they dry correctly. Use spray foam insulation to seal up the holes where pipes enter from the floor or wall. “It’s pretty easy,” Winner says. “You can do it yourself or hire a contractor to do it.” Save money by taking advantage of Efficiency Maine’s rebate of up to $400 for air sealing (details at efficiencymaine.com). “One of the greatest things about the Efficiency Maine program is that it combines air sealing work with an assessment of your home’s energy efficiency,” Winner says. “It’s not as comprehensive as a full energy audit, but you see the savings almost immediately.”
Insulating the “boots and caps” — basement and attic — requires more of an investment, but it can substantially improve a house’s energy efficiency and save money on heating costs, Winner says. Attic insulation also makes the house cooler in summer. Caulk or weatherstrip the frame of the attic hatch. If the hatch door is not used, you can seal it with caulk, too. Otherwise, install rigid foam insulation on the back of the door. Bulkheads are notoriously leaky. There are various ways to seal bulkheads, including installing foam board on the basement door and insulating the walls of the bulkhead itself.
4. Install an Air Source Heat Pump
Winner is enthusiastic about this relatively new technology that extracts heat from outside air — even when it is very cold — and releases it indoors. Installed on an exterior wall, a unit typically costs between $1,500 and $4,000 and delivers one-and-a-half to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (energy.gov). Efficiency Maine offers a $500 rebate through its home energy savings program on the installation of ductless heat pumps, and you can find a list of registered contractors who install the units on its website.