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We need to prepare not only ourselves, but also our homes for cold weather

By Meagan Vitek

Dust off the skis, dig out the coats, layer on clothing and stock up on tea. When brisk winds blow, we need to prepare not only ourselves, but also our homes for cold weather. Jack Frost is here!

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating and cooling accounts for more than half (54 percent) of a home’s utility costs. Before heading to the store to buy winter-proofing supplies, though, you need to determine your home’s specific needs.

Nate Burger, owner of Eco Handyman in Boulder, recommends starting with an energy audit. During an audit, a professionally trained energy auditor “tests the entire house for areas of missing insulation and interleakage points,” he explains. This gives you a road map on how to improve those areas.

Winterize    While an energy audit isn’t mandatory, it eliminates the possibility of addressing the wrong problem. Burger compares an audit to an X-ray. “If you think you broke your arm, you just don’t go to a doctor to get your arm set, you get an X-ray first. You want to know what the exact problem is, and then solve it.” An audit can make the money you spend on energy improvements stretch further, says Burger, who so strongly believes in energy audits that his company credits the price of one to future work.

Whether you get an audit or not, if you’re a Boulder County resident you can call EnergySmart at 303-544-1000 for free advice and resources to make your home more energy efficient. The free phone consultations can help you determine the best first steps for your home.

If you do get an audit, an Energy­Smart advisor will help you locate a qualified auditor, present and explain the audit report on your home’s energy use, determine the most cost-effective improvements, help you acquire and evaluate bids from EnergySmart–approved contractors, and help you find and apply for rebates you may be eligible for.

Whole-House Approach

While small improvements, like weather­stripping and caulking, will raise energy efficiency, the Department of Energy recommends a whole-house approach, which can reduce a home’s greenhouse emissions and energy consumption by 20 to 50 percent. This approach is costlier, but saves money and increases comfort in the long term.

In homes lacking proper insulation, a substantial amount of heat escapes through the attic. According to Matt Wilmoth of EnergySmart, “attics tend to be the leakiest part of any home,” and most homes 15 years and older don’t have appropriate insulation.

Adding attic insulation and sealing the attic can increase a home’s comfort level by tenfold. “If there is less than a foot of insulation in your attic, you could really benefit from insulation and air sealing,” Burger says. Adding attic insulation is comparable to “putting on a fleece jacket when it’s cold outside.” If you combine insulation with air sealing, your fleece jacket now has a Gore-Tex windbreaker on top of it. On cold, windy days the combination “gives you a bang for your buck,” Burger says.

Replacing old appliances with energy-efficient models also improves efficiency. When selecting new products, check the appliance’s Energy Guide label to see how much energy it consumes, and how it compares to other models. ENERGY STAR–approved appliances meet stringent energy-efficiency criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy.

If replacing an older furnace is within your budget, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends choosing a furnace with a high annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) rating, which measures how much fuel a particular model converts into heat. While the national minimum AFUE is 78 percent, some ENERGY STAR products exceed 90 percent. Keep in mind that this rating determines only the efficiency of the furnace itself. You’ll need to factor in whether or not your home has proper insulation, double-pane windows and other energy upgrades. Be sure to maintain and clean the furnace annually.

To add extra warmth, replace window screens with storm windows, which are available for most window types and help reduce air leakage into and out of the home. Although costly, swapping out single-pane aluminum windows for energy-efficient double-pane windows saves money in the long run, and the windows will pay for themselves within years.

So bundle up your home for winter, and you may not have to bundle up yourself while you’re inside it!