(TNS)—Advice about saving money on home heating costs abounds this time of year, but some of it is oversimplified, marketing hype or just plain wrong, while some long-standing myths persist about keeping warm on the cheap.
For example, programmable thermostats are not the holy grail of home heating, cranking up the furnace does nothing to heat a chilly house faster and fireplaces used as heating sources suck paid-for warm air up the chimney.
Duct tape? Not good for sealing ducts.
To truth-test heating advice and unveil some myths, we sought help from Max Sherman, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory overseeing research for residential energy efficiency. Besides being a serious scientist, he gained notoriety in the late 1990s as Dr. Duct Tape for discovering that the gray-backed sticky tape “failed reliably and often catastrophically” when used for sealing ducts. “It will get old and fall off after a year or so of heating cycles,” Sherman said. “Plenty of tapes are good for sealing, but standard duct tape isn’t one of them.”
Here are a few other home-heating myths.
Fireplace fallacy. If you enjoy the sound, smell and ambience of a wood fireplace, go for it. Just don’t think you’re helping your wallet. “A fireplace is a particularly bad way of heating your home,” Sherman said.
First, there’s paying for firewood, as many urban and suburban dwellers do. Then you feed the fire’s appetite for oxygen with your paid-for heated indoor air and shoot it up the chimney.
Not a recipe for financial savings.
A possible exception is if you want to turn down the heat in the rest of the house and close off and heat only one room — the one that includes the fireplace. Or, as Sherman notes, it might be a net benefit if the fireplace has sealed glass doors and “you’ve gone through the trouble of essentially turning it into a sealed wood stove … then you no longer have the nice, cheery fire you probably had in mind when you said, ‘Let’s use the fireplace.’”
Programmable thermostat problem. These highly touted devices simply do automatically what you could do yourself, namely walk over to the thermostat and adjust it.
Many programmable thermostats require, as the name implies, programming. The simple or “dumb” ones are clocks that adjust the temperature at prescribed times—although some might come with a built-in program. “It’s definitely going to save you money in the default mode because it will turn it down at night and save energy,” Sherman said.
However, like the fireplace, a programmable thermostat might enhance your life but could end up costing you money, at least compared with diligently setting the temperature manually every day.
Sherman said his heating bill went up when he installed one. Why? Like most people he used to turn the heat up when he got up in the morning. With a programmable, he could warm the house in advance of his feet hitting the floor. “I liked it, but it did not save energy,” he said.
And if you have a heat pump, which don’t work as well with widely varying temperatures, the value of a programmable thermostat can be diminished, he said. “Because of the way heat pumps work, set-back can be a difficult thing for them and may not save nearly as much.”
If you want the convenience of a programmable thermostat, remember to actually program it, or use pricier “smart” thermostats that can learn how your house works and make adjustments. The point is not to avoid programmable thermostats. They can be convenient. It’s to use them wisely to use less energy. Consumer Reports in its October issue rated models ranging in price from $50 to more than $500.