For those of us in many parts of the US, winter can mean cold days, colder nights, and the higher utility bills to go along with them. So how do we prepare… or deal with the fact that winter is here?
Fortunately, a few choice Game of Thrones quotes—and our book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living—can get us where we need to be.
“Nothing burns like the cold.”
As described in Cooler Smarter, for the average American, heating and cooling are second only to transportation in terms of carbon pollution. They can also represent a sizeable chunk of the household budget, accounting for half of energy use in typical U.S. homes, according to the US Department of Energy.
All that means is that anything we can do to make our houses tighter will help with comfort, carbon emissions, and money, in the cold of winter or the heat of summer. The key, says Cooler Smarter,
…is that it’s not just a furnace or an air-conditioning system that keeps you and your family at a comfortable temperature; it’s the whole house. In cold weather, a house functions as a building-sized blanket, offering insulation from the freezing temperatures outside. In hot weather, a home shields you from the worst of the heat and humidity outside.
You can look for opportunities all over, that is—not just where the furnace or boiler is located.
“Knowledge is a weapon, Jon. Arm yourself well before you ride forth to battle.” (Master Eamon)
As with so many things in life, the first step is knowing where you stand. What do you heat with? How much do you use and spend? How does that compare with others’ energy habits, so that you can get a sense for what sort of opportunities there might be, efficiency-wise?
A few weapons you might turn to for help with that:
- Your monthly bill – While you can’t necessarily do much about the costs of your energy per unit (kilowatt-hours, therms, gallons), you can see how many units you’re using. You can see how your usage compares to what you were using in previous winters, to get a sense if anything has changed (like, there’s a window open in the basement, or the dungeon…).
- Online calculators – While you’re looking at your data, you can also see how that compares with how you maybe should be using, based on rules of thumb. Tools like this one can help with that.
- Your comps – Even better, since it takes into account whether it’s been colder or warmer than usual, is if your utility shows you how you’re doing against others in your neighborhood with similar conditions (house size, heating fuel). It’s not perfect—maybe you’ve got four kids and a needy puppy dog, and they’ve got none. But it can help you orient yourself, particularly if you can look for changes in your relative standing over time; if you used to perform consistently better than neighbors, and now don’t, that might be a clue that something’s amiss.
“Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you.” (Tyrion Lannister)
You can view those opportunities in a few basic buckets: adapting, buttoning, and upgrading.
Adapting (changing how you operate). The easiest, lowest-cost (or no-cost) thing to do is likely to make better use of what you’ve already got.
Part of that is being more conscious about which parts of the house you’re heating (or cooling), and when. If you have the option of heating or cooling only the part of the house you’re using, that can be a fine way of staying comfortable and cutting utility bills.
That goes for the whole house, too, when you’re out for the day, or when you’re nestled all snug in your bed. The easiest way to do that is to not have to think about: a programmable thermostat can do it automatically, dialing the heat back during the day, and after bedtime, and bringing the heat back up in time for dinner or breakfast. (Just be sure to program it!)
Buttoning up your home. Another level of winterizing is helping your house keep you as warm and comfortable as possible with your existing heating system. Per Cooler Smarter:
Depending on how your home is constructed, you may be able to quickly reduce your carbon emissions and save money simply by caulking, sealing, and weatherstripping all seams, cracks, and openings to the outside. In fact, dollar for dollar, plugging these leaks is likely to be one of the most cost-effective energy-saving measures you can take.
Every house is different (and castles are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish), but here’s what leaks look like for the average house:
Replacing windows is a bigger commitment, but what these data suggest is that some caulk, some more insulation, and a few hours some weekend might do you a world of good.
And one thing I’ve learned in my own personal efficiency journey is that the most cost-effective amount of insulation might be much more than you’d think. In northern climes, you might do well to have something like 24 inches of insulation in your attic, if you can swing it.
Upgrading your heating system. The next level. Given that new HVAC equipment can run into the thousands of dollars, this isn’t necessarily something you do lightly. And it’s probably not something you can do unless you own the place.
But if you’re trying to ward off winter’s chill with something that was new when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House—or even Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan—it might be well worth your while to at least look into options. Furnaces have gotten a whole lot better in recent decades, efficiency-wise.
You’ll want to weigh what a new system will cost vs. what it’ll save you in lower utility bills (not to mention added comfort). That involves making some assumptions about where fuel costs are headed, but so does sticking with your old clunker.
“There’s no shame in fear, my father told me; what matters is how we face it.” (Jon Snow)
These ideas won’t make polar vortexes go away, and they won’t drop utility bills to nothing. But they can help you seize your utility-bill destiny, to save money, increase your comfort, and cut your carbon pollution.
As for games of thrones: I’ve got to admit that I read the first book a while back, but found its don’t-put-me-down-or-else insistence more of a drag on my brain than I could handle. So that’s as far as I’ve gotten (for now).
Besides, I really need to spend less time fighting White Walkers (even vicariously) and more time protecting my family from the weather (or getting outside to enjoy it).
Let winter do what it will. There are heating bills to cut, and snowforts to build.
= = = = =
Some handy resources—because, of course, “One voice may speak you false, but in many there is always truth to be found” (Daenerys Targaryen):
- Consumers Guide to Home Energy Savings – My go-to book when I was a new homeowner, for help with efficiency in all its forms
- Energy Star and Department of Energy – Good general resources from our federal government
- DOE’s downloadable Energy Saver guide and insulation guide
- Energy Saver 101 Home Heating infographic
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.