Many of us get excited when we feel a chill in the air and see specks of snow covering the mountaintops. But with winter often comes higher heat and energy costs. Finding creative ways to keep warm indoors can be a challenge, such as donning two sweaters at once and telling your roommates or children that wearing a wool hat inside is what all the cool kids are doing. But sweaters and hats aren't the only ways to cut back on your utility bills this upcoming season. Eileen Wysocki, residential energy auditor for Holy Cross Energy, said many people forget about the energy they're using until it's too late.
"People don't think about electricity usage until they get their bill," Wysocki said. "It's not like filling your gas tank and you can see the cost (up front). Electricity (bills) aren't until the end of the month, and you've already used that energy."
Wysocki performs free energy audits for Holy Cross Energy customers who want to find out exactly how much energy they're using each month.
"A lot of the energy use in your home comes from heating and cooling systems," Wysocki said. "Even if you have gas heat, you're still going to have some electric usages."
When it comes to overall heat use, Wysocki said there are a few things homeowners should be aware of. If you have electric heat, make sure your thermostat is calibrated to the correct temperature.
"Thermostats for electric heat can be way off calibration," Wysocki said. "When I look at gas heat, they're not off as much. With electric heat, it could be (off) as much as 15 to 20 degrees."
Wysocki suggests installing programmable thermostats, which can switch off automatically when you're not home and save energy. You also should check the temperature of your water heater and make sure that both thermostats (there are two) are set at 120 degrees and not higher. Wrapping the first three feet of pipes going back from the water heater, both hot and cold lines, also can help keep it running at the right temperature.
As for the exterior, Wysocki said heat tape is one of the highest energy usages of homes in the area. Many homeowners keep their heat tape running around the clock, which is unnecessary. It's best to put it on a timer to run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"When you have melting occurring during the day, that's when you have the (heat tape) channel free and clear and running from the house," Wysocki said. "Overnight, the heat tape freezes anyway, so it doesn't do a lot of good."
After a long day on the slopes, many homeowners want to cozy up in front of the fireplace or soothe their sore muscles with the steam from the hot tub. But both can suck up energy before you've even had the chance to sip your second hot toddy.
"With fireplaces, the net result will be heat loss rather than heat gained," Wysocki said. "By lighting a fire in the fireplace, you're pulling air in from the room for combustion. You're (also) having cold air pulled into every crack and crevice you have in the house. You may feel some radiant heat around the fireplace, but you're actually making the whole house colder."
Wysocki suggested using fireplaces for atmosphere, not as a way to heat your whole home.
"Don't think about it as a heat source," Wysocki said. "Use it for ambiance only. When it's not in use, make sure you close the flu. If you have glass doors, close them to minimize the air flow."
Hot tubs, which some keep running the entire winter, also use quite a bit of energy.
"I see a lot of second homes that are only used one month out of the year," Wysocki said. "A property manager can have it drained and re-winterized when the homeowners are away."
If one does soak in his or her hot tub frequently, turning it down to 85 degrees (but not lower) when not in use and investing in a good cover can help cut down on energy use.
When it comes to humidifiers, tabletop ones use much less energy than whole house humidification systems.
"(Table-top humidifiers) are actually pretty good on energy usage," Wysocki said. "I prefer to see people use them room by room. ... Whole-house humidifiers cause the blower motor (in the furnace) to run. If you have to use whole-house humidification, try to dial it down as much as you can. From a building standpoint, moisture is the enemy. You don't want to overmoisturize the house."
Although winter is well on its way, there's still time for construction projects that can help prevent heat from escaping your home. John-Ryan Lockman is a home energy adviser at Energy Smart, a program designed to help businesses and homes save energy and reduce waste. The program is offering comprehensive energy audits for $50 to homeowners in Eagle County. Typically, the audits cost between $300 and $500, he said.
Compared with the free audits Holy Cross provides, the Energy Smart audits are more "building science-oriented and look at the whole home as a system," Lockman said.
"We can use infrared imaging to look inside your walls and see where there's gaps in insulation," Lockman said.
During the audit, Energy Smart can install (free of charge) as much as $100 worth of "quick fix" measures, such as efficient lighting, weather stripping, hot water pipe insulation and low-flow showerheads. Lockman sees energy audits as the first step in educating homeowners about ways they can save energy.
"The most important thing to make improvements is to know where the problems are," Lockman said. "A lot of times, just having the audit (done) makes homeowners think about their energy more and monitor it more."
When it comes to sealing in heat, there are a few places homeowners should look for leaks. Attic hatches often are not insulated like the rest of the attic, causing warm air to escape through the top. Lockman said insulating your attic hatch is one easy improvement project you can do in less than two days. Crawl spaces are another place homes lose heat.
"People think about their crawl space as a storage area and don't think about the effect they have on the energy in their home," Lockman said. "We've seen some great projects where people insulate their crawl spaces."
In addition to adding insulation, using spray foam to seal up cracks and leaks also can help prevent heat from escaping.
"We like to talk about the home as an analogy to a winter coat," Lockman said. "You wouldn't put your winter coat on and leave it unzipped as you go up the lift. With your home, you wouldn't leave all these gaps and holes where heat can escape."
The Energy Smart program also offers rebates to those who make energy-efficient improvements and helps homeowners with acquiring loans.
"Sometimes, people look at the energy info for their home and don't know what to do," Lockman said. "It's good for people to know that they have a local resource in Eagle County to help them through the process."
When it comes to becoming more energy efficient, no effort is too small. Whether it's monitoring your heat sources, switching out some light bulbs or adding padding to your attic, little changes could result in significant savings on your utility bills. Then you can spend that extra money on more important things this winter, such as apres appetizers and cool-sounding cocktails.