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By now, homeowners around the country have begrudgingly made that often pricey decision to turn on the furnace and crank up the dial. Winter is here and for some territories that means brisk to freezing temperatures, frost on the ground and windows, and the looming threat of higher-than-normal utility bills. What homeowners should be aware of is that there are plenty of ways to control how much energy their homes consume, and that can directly affect their monthly bills and budgets. Don’t throw your money out the window; rather, ensure that your home is energy-efficient and ready to brave the winter’s cold.

For perceptive homeowners, there are many telling signs that one’s home may not be utilizing energy as efficiently as it should. According to Jay Gregg, director of marketing for Pillar To Post, a leading provider of home inspection services to homebuyers and real estate professionals in the U.S. and Canada, there are a plethora of red flags besides the home’s electricity and gas bills.

“Look for signs of drafts. Feelings of drafts when you walk by a door or window, or drapes blowing are signs of not using your energy efficiently,” says Gregg.

For homeowners concerned about their home’s energy consumption, especially in the winter time, proper upkeep can help you stay in the loop. A great place to start is the furnace. Keeping it cleaned and maintained can ensure that it’s running correctly, and therefore, efficiently, says Gregg. Never neglect to service it annually, as opposed to emergency-only situations. Furnace filters should be replaced every one-to-two months, a task many often forget about. In terms of controlling your home’s heat flow, it always starts with the furnace.

After the furnace is taken care of, examine your house, targeting any unfinished area, including basements and crawl spaces. These are often the draftiest locations in a home. Another big warning sign of excess drafts are spider webs. If you have a plethora of spider webs in any given location, there is probably a draft. Find it and eliminate it.

In fact, improperly installed windows are often a leading cause of energy loss and excessive heating and cooling bills. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, winterizing home windows can save up to 10 percent on energy bills right away, and replacing inefficient windows can save up to 25 percent. Gregg recommends checking the weather stripping on the exterior of all the home’s windows. If any cracks are found, replace them immediately to guarantee that no heat or AC is leaking out. Caulking is another alternative homeowners can use to plug any leaks or gaps in their windows as well. The savings will more than make up for a few hours of DIY work.

“One of the easiest ways you can tell if there is a problem with a window is to burn an incense stick and run it around the seal of the window,” says Gregg. “If you’re getting a lot of drafts and smoke starts blowing in your face, that would tell you there is an air leakage.”

Windows and drafts aside, there are also many smaller tasks you can complete in order to help out your home’s efficiency cause. According to Gregg, homeowners should:

Lower the thermostat: Installing a programmable thermostat is a very modern way to save your hard earned cash. Once installed, lower your thermostat 7-9 degrees while the family is sleeping or not at home. Homeowners can see savings up to two percent for every degree lowered.

Use cold water: When doing laundry, switch to cold water. If possible, consider purchasing an energy-efficient washing machine. The less water you use, the more you’ll save. Remember that hot water uses fuel too. Take notice of how much you use while bathing and washing dishes and make an attempt to reduce consumption.

Close those dampers: If the home contains a wood burning stove or chimney, make sure that the damper remains closed. Leaving it open can result in a lot of cold air rushing into your home and a lot of heat wasted.

Drapes and blinds: On sunny days, naturally heat your home with the power of the sun. Open the blinds and drapes of any south-facing windows in your home and let the sun shine in. Your home will benefit from natural heat rather than block it.

Cover pipes: Wrap exposed pipes with proper insulation to prevent both heat loss and freezing.

Potential buyers should also have energy conservation on their minds when shopping around for their new investment. By considering heating, cooling and energy consumption now, homeowners can maximize their savings later. Don’t be shy when asking questions regarding a home’s energy usage. The age of the home itself can lend clues as to the effectiveness of its insulation. Ask to see copies of annual heating and cooling bills as well as the home’s electrical use. Inquire about the age of the furnace and any air conditioners or cooling systems, and always have heating and cooling systems inspected by a reputable home inspector.

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