Managing Home Heating Costs Before Winter’s Chill Sets In

WINTER is coming, and it is time to make sure your home — and especially the heating system — is ready for the cold, if you haven’t done so already.

Home heating costs are expected to be easier on the wallet than they have been in recent years, according to the United States Energy Information Administration’s latest forecast. Average household spending on natural gas is expected to be about 13 percent lower for the coming winter, while spending on heating oil is expected to be about 27 percent lower.

Still, no one wants to spend more on energy costs than necessary — or wake up to a cold house on a frigid morning because the furnace failed. Now is the time for homeowners to schedule a heating system tune-up.

Tune-ups generally cost $50 to $100, said Angie Hicks, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Angie’s List, the home services referral website. (The cost can be higher, depending on location and whether the tune-up leads to any repairs.) That’s far less expensive, she said, than paying for an emergency repair visit if the system breaks down over the weekend. “The most common reason for an emergency repair,” she said, “is that you didn’t do your tuneup.”

Depending on the type of system your home has, a tune-up can involve inspecting and cleaning the pilot light or ignition system, checking and tightening electrical connections, testing the blower motor and checking the thermostat. Some contractors will also change the furnace filter, although that is something you should be doing regularly yourself.

Furnaces can last two decades or longer, and homeowners tend to ignore them — until they fail — because they’re hidden away in the basement, said Richard Trethewey, a heating and plumbing contractor who appears on “This Old House,” the home renovation television series. “It’s the ugly thing in a box in the basement,” he said, “and it gets left out of the discussion.”

If the furnace is functioning properly, there’s not necessarily a pressing reason to replace it. But there are signs to suggest that you may want to consider a new one, Ms. Hicks said, like repeated, expensive repairs or an unexplained increase in your heating bills.

You may save money on heating bills by upgrading to a newer, more efficient model. Heating systems installed before 1975 are typically 60 percent efficient, while newer systems may range from 85 to 95 percent efficiency, Mr. Trethewey said. (A higher efficiency rating means that more of the energy used to power the system actually creates heat. If a furnace is 85 percent efficient, that means 85 percent of the energy produces heat, while 15 percent is lost.)

His rule of thumb for considering an upgrade? “If your kids have gone off to college or have gotten married,” he said, and you’re still living in the same house, “it’s probably time.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, which certifies products energy-efficient, says depending on location, homeowners can save more than $115 on their annual energy bills by upgrading to high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment.

The Energy Department has a chart to estimate the savings you would realize by upgrading to a more efficient furnace. The savings on heating bills, of course, must be weighed against the cost of a new system, which varies depending on location and the size and type of furnace. Ms. Hicks said the average cost was $2,300 for a natural gas system and $5,800 for one using heating oil, based on Angie’s List contractors. (Those figures include installation but not related duct work, if necessary.) Since costs are so variable, it’s best to get estimates from local contractors.

Whatever option you choose, be sure you have the proper size furnace installed, Mr. Trethewey said. The most common mistake he sees is homeowners’ having too large a unit installed, he said, but a good heating contractor will be able to calculate the proper size.

Before thinking about replacing a furnace, however, homeowners should make sure their home is properly insulated — particularly the roof, which Mr. Trethewey likens to the “hat” of a house. “Get in your attic and take a look,” he said. If you can see gaps in the insulation or holes in the drywall, fixing them should be a priority. Not only will you spend less on heating costs, but you’ll reduce the risk of ice dams, or repeated freezing and melting of snow and ice that can cause costly damage to roofs and drywall.

The Energy Star website has advice for checking your insulation.

Here are some questions and answers about home heating systems:

Do I really need to change my furnace’s filter?

Yes. While the specifics depend on the type of unit and filter you use (check with the unit’s manufacturer), chances are you should change it more often than you think. The filter traps dust and animal hair, and if it gets clogged, the furnace will have to work harder to circulate air through the house. Generally, every two to three months is recommended. “If you do it every month, your furnace will run a lot longer,” Ms. Hicks said.

How can I assess my home’s heating efficiency?

You might consider a home energy audit, said Steve Baden, executive director of Resnet, a nonprofit group that promotes home energy efficiency. An auditor will examine the house, make recommendations for improvements, and estimate how much each step will cost as well as how much you can expect in savings. An audit can cost $300 to $800, depending on whether it’s primarily a visual inspection or the auditor uses diagnostic tools. You can search on Resnet’s website for an energy auditor in your area. But first, check with your local utility to see if it offers free or discounted audits for customers. You can also do a quick assessment yourself using the Energy Star’s “home energy yardstick tool.”

How do I prepare my water heater for winter?

Mr. Baden recommends flushing your water heater to remove accumulated sediment that can make it run less efficiently. You can do it yourself with a hose and bucket if you’re handy and are comfortable shutting off the electricity and the water supply to the tank. Otherwise, leave it to a contractor.

Via:  Extra Mile