When winter weather arrives, there is always one thing in the forefront of your mind—the impending heating bills. Keeping precious heat in your home is a constant concern, or perhaps it seems like a far-off dream, like the oasis mirage of a frozen desert. While you have likely taken steps to winterize your home, let's dig into options to help you keep things comfortable and cost-conscious.
Get an energy audit
The best way to see where your energy dollars are going—besides out of your pocket and into the atmosphere—is to conduct an energy audit. An energy audit determines the energy efficiency of your home and identifies areas where heat is escaping. Using the findings to make home improvements can result in precious savings.
We reached out to Tim Vander Meer, a Certified Energy Advisor from Ontario for some insight. According to Tim, the average cost of an audit runs about $400 for most homes, except for exceptionally large homes, which are more complex and require additional time to audit. Add-on services like thermal camera scans can also be conducted.
Tim identifies two common problems when auditing homes:
- “Out of sight, out of mind—rooms you close the door to or whole floors like the basement, still cost you energy and therefore money. Just closing the door does not stop this from happening. Heat will simply move down through your floor and out the basement walls”;
- “The second problem is under-insulated attics. Many people are unaware of the insulation level and that's an area that causes your air conditioner to run more in the summer and of course your furnace to work harder in the winter.”
When an auditor inspects your home, they'll do a walk-through and identify where air leaks occur and discuss different ways to fix them.
Can I DIY my improvements?
While it's recommended that you have a professional perform home improvements, if you're skilled enough or willing to learn, some tasks can be managed without help.
Insulation: An energy audit will determine if there's enough insulation in your attic and basement. On this, Tim advises, “If you have less than nine inches of insulation, it's worthwhile to add more. Basement walls are responsible for a large amount of heat loss, so if they are completely uninsulated, consider adding some. If they're already insulated, but using older white foam board (widely used in the ‘70s), consider building a wall in front of this to increase the insulation.”
Windows and doors: Tim suggests adding weather stripping to window and door frames to prevent gaps. Always cut stripping to the correct length and place it between the door and the frame for a proper seal. Install a door sweep and check periodically for wear to ensure optimal performance. Weather stripping and door sweeps can be found at most hardware retailers.
For windows, Tim recommends caulking the trim at the wall and window frame. If a properly secured window still leaks air, then a correctly applied window film kit will greatly improve energy efficiency. Remove outside screens to allow adequate air flow across the exterior panes, reducing moisture deposits. Excessive moisture deposits on the inside of windows may mean interior humidity levels are too high.
If affordability is a concern, simply following the DIY recommendations above will help improve your home's energy efficiency. Also ensure you replace your furnace filter each month to optimize its performance.
The costs associated with improvements can add up quickly, often putting them out of reach for some. Fortunately, there are organizations and energy service providers who offer programs to help offset the costs of improving energy efficiency—programs may vary by province.
Although windows have come a long way when it comes to efficiency, they're still notorious when it comes to heat loss. Like a cozy sweater can help keep you warm when the temperature drops, one of the easiest ways to help prevent unnecessary heat loss through your windows is by covering them. Thermal window coverings—particularly in rooms with large windows—can add an additional layer of insulation. They typically contain a central layer of acrylic foam which acts as a barrier to stop drafts and heat transfer through your windows. Cellular shades can also further insulate windows as they create a honeycomb pattern of air pockets along the length of the window when extended. A third option is to install interior shutters which secure snugly into the window frame and can be opened during the day to allow direct sunlight into the room.
A ceiling fan on low setting will help distribute heat evenly throughout a room during winter. Be sure to reverse the direction of the fan so it spins clockwise. This will create an updraft to pull the warm air (which rises naturally) back down into the room. While this is useful when using the room in question, Tim recommends turning the ceiling fan off when you leave to avoid wasting energy.
Ice dams form at the edge of your roof when water freezes in the eavestroughs and up your roof. They are also the most telling sign of heat loss through your attic and can put undue pressure on the eaves and cause water backups under the shingles into the underlying wood.
Addressing insulation deficiencies in your attic is a good preventive measure. Additionally, ensure gaps in walls, ceilings, closets or vents between your living space and the attic are sealed.
If you need to remove the ice dam, avoid using hammers, axes or picks as it's easy to damage your shingles, which become brittle in cold weather. Some ways to remove an ice dam without harming your roof include:
- use a snow rake if you live in a bungalow or split-level home to remove snow and ice from the top edge of the ice dam;
- apply a chemical de-icer to melt the dam and to help clear your eavestroughing and gutters; or
- apply a hot water spray (this is only a stop-gap solution).
Remember that any work requiring a ladder during the winter is extremely dangerous. Aways take appropriate safety precautions.
Whether you choose to protect the heat in your home with an energy audit and professional home improvement or DIY your way to a warmer interior, following these considerations may help you improve your home's energy efficiency and save money on energy bills.