Develop strategy to keep winter heating bills low

Inspector's Eye

October 27, 2002|By Dean Uhler

When heating systems started firing up the first cold nights of the season, a lot of people began to think about the expense of heating their houses.

There were the unfortunate people who found that their heat didn't work when they turned it on. They had to open their wallets before the first fuel bill arrived for a service call to get furnace, boiler or heat pump up and running. And some had to dig much deeper, as this turned out to be the year for major repair or replacement of their heating systems.

But more fortunate people also were moved to consider the fiscal implications of the heating season. For them, it was time to fret over the coming heating bills and how to reduce them. Recent winters remind us how costly it can be if frigid weather and higher-than-usual energy prices occur simultaneously.

Many strategies exist for holding heating costs down. They range from the efficiency-oriented - installing more insulation and weatherstripping and replacing inefficient heating equipment - to the Spartan - putting on more clothes and denying oneself (and family) a completely warm house. Somewhere in between are techniques for using heating systems more efficiently.

One way to lower the heating bill for most houses is to lower the thermostat setting for part of the day. The lower the setting and the longer the time at the lower setting, the greater the savings. That approach is obvious, and many people do that by manually adjusting the temperature at different times in the day. However, that will not save money with a heat pump.

With a heat pump, it's more efficient to set the thermostat to a tolerable temperature and leave it there, as opposed to moving the setting up and down over the course of the day. This avoids unnecessarily activating the expensive resistance backup heaters in the system.

Depending on the house, the heat pump and the weather, that rule holds true until temperatures drop below the mid-30s or so (at which point activating the resistance heaters becomes unavoidable).

No matter what type of heating system you have, a programmable "setback" thermostat can conveniently and efficiently adjust the thermostat setting for you at appropriate times.

These work great to automatically lower the temperature setting for predictable periods when a comfortable temperature is not needed, such as when no one is home or when everyone is snug in bed. And by raising the setting automatically, they can have the house warm again by the time you get home from work or wake up in the morning. The number of degrees of temperature setback and the beginning and ending times of the setback are set once by the homeowner and automatically repeat in the future.

Estimates of energy savings using setback thermostats are said to be roughly 1 percent of your heating bill for each degree of setback with an eight-hour setback every day. Savings can be obtained during air-conditioning season as well by programming temperature "setups" for periods when the house doesn't have to be as cool.

Prices for setback thermostats range from more than $100 to as little as $35. Installation is within the abilities of most do-it-yourself homeowners on most heating systems, but there are some caveats. Be sure to buy a heat pump thermostat if you have a heat pump. If you determine during the installation process that you have a millivolt heating system and the thermostat you bought can't accommodate that, you'll have to return it for a more sophisticated model. If your heating system is still under warranty, installing a new thermostat yourself might void the warranty, so obtain professional installation.

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