Tips and Ideas:

Save Money By Reducing Home Heat Loss


In This Article:

Discussion of energy prices and some ideas on saving a few bucks on winter heating costs.

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By , Editor

Energy Troubles Just Won't Go Away

December 2007 Six years ago I wrote this article in response to rising energy prices. The price of crude oil was heading up and utilities were warning their customers of impending increases in natural gas rates. The cost of energy keeps going up

Given the level of hostilities in the middle-east, and the strong demand for energy seen in growing Asian countries, it would be wise to prepare for possible energy price hikes, and the simplest way is to reduce energy consumption now.

In the 1970's North America got whacked by rapidly rising energy costs. People responded by making improvements to their homes to reduce heat loss. Manufacturers responded by making critical products, like windows and doors, more energy-efficient. New insulation materials were introduced.  Building codes were smartened-up to require new home builders to meet certain minimum insulation standards.

But over the past 25 years we have grown complacent about energy issues. In the early 1980's the price of crude oil fell and stayed low.  There were ample supplies of natural gas which kept prices low.

Gas guzzling cars and trucks certainly regained their pre-oil-crisis popularity.  Luckily, the building material industry did not return to their previous ways, but I suppose there was less urgency to develop new products, as home buyers were not overly concerned about heating and cooling costs.

But that has changed in recent years. Anybody who believes we will ever return to $10 per barrel oil is dreaming. Even the $20-$30 per barrel price range more common through the 1980's and 90's is unrealistic. A prudent person would take some action to reduce their home-related energy consumption.  An investment in time and money can pay for itself quickly.

There are many minor improvements a homeowner can make that can add up to a significant savings.

Where Does The Warmth Go?

It's not a question you'll hear very often, but it is a question worth asking.

Heat is essentially motion of atoms and molecules.  Cold is the absence of heat. Heat flows from warm things to cooler things.  And the flow of heat is proportional to the difference in temperature between those two things. Some materials are better than others at resisting the transfer of heat. If you can help it, use those materials to surround your home.

There are two primary ways that heat escapes buildings. Heat transfer directly through building materials is one way. The other is heat loss from air infiltration. Some people claim that the typical American home loses half of it's heat from cold air infiltration. Older houses are clearly worse than newer houses.

Cold air is more dense than warm air. Cold air infiltration is evident when the wind is blowing hard, but it can also be felt on a calm night when the air is very cold. Just hold your hand in front of an electrical outlet. You may feel a small cold blast, depending on the weather conditions. This cold blast is happening all over the typical American house. Old, leaky windows are a major culprit.


Reducing Air Infiltration At Windows:

This "Interior Storm Window", or interior window cover, greatly reduces draftiness and heat loss from old leaky windows. Read all about it.

The window cover is barely noticeable when in place.


Another Solution For Drafty Windows:

Seal and peel caulk used to prevent drafts from entering around old windows.

DAP Seal'N'Peel® caulk is made to be easily removed at the end of the heating season.

I used it to seal all the way around the sashes of these drafty old windows. It made a big difference.

Sealing around window sashes with removable caulk.

Lately, I have been using Seal'N'Peel on windows in addition to the window cover.


A Couple Of Easy Changes:

With old double-hung windows, there is a gap between the upper and lower sashes. This gap can let a lot of cold air in.

In a room that is being remodeled, I simply placed some rags (pieces of old blue jeans) on the gap between the two sections of the double-hung window. While hardly elegant, it is quick and cheap and makes a small difference.


Everyone knows this trick: at night, roll up a rug and place it at the bottom of the back door. It takes a bit of work, but also makes a small difference.


More Easy Changes:

The easiest and one of the most effective solutions is simply turning back the thermostat at night and when nobody is home. Admittedly, this takes discipline, especially when you are in a hurry to get going in the morning. Installing a setback thermostat removes the burden of remembering to change the temperature setting.


  • Shut off the heat registers to unused rooms, and close the doors. But... don't do this to a bathroom, the risk of freezing pipes is too great to justify the savings.
  • Use a kerosene heater to heat main living areas and drastically turn down the heat to the remainder of house. While kerosene is more expensive to heat with than oil or gas, the heaters are nearly 100% efficient, and by spot heating certain areas you may save money overall, especially if a fuel oil furnace is your normal heat source. I like having a kerosene heater as a backup heat source for when the power goes out, but operating a kerosene heater is a hassle, with the need to refuel, ignite and extinguish the heater outdoors. Just follow the safety guidelines, please!
  • Use an electric heater to spot-heat some rooms. In the past the rule-of-thumb was that heating with electricity typically costs about 3 times as much as heating with natural gas. Consequently savings will only be realized if the area being electrically heated is less than one-third of the area that's heated by gas. I'm not sure if this 3-to-1 ratio still applies today. The ratio is probably closer to 2-to-1 when propane or fuel oil is the furnace fuel.

Some of the easy things that reduce heat loss are inconvenient or just a downright hassle. It's easy to forget to stuff the rug against the back door before going to bed at night, and this practice is impossible when you leave the house. The long-term solution is to make improvements (like replacing that old drafty door) that don't require extra effort or special attention. Imagine having three young children in your house and having to constantly remind them to place the rug against the back door. Reducing heat loss should be automatic... it should be built into the house and not built into your behaviors.

Reducing Heat Loss With
Light-Duty Home Improvements:

  • Seal up unused entry doors with Seal’N’Peel caulk. The old house I lived in recently had four entry doors, so we could safely block two of them. BUT... sealing up an entry door will make it very difficult to use in an emergency, so I can't recommend this practice unless there are at least two remaining doors that function properly.
  • Replace or install better weatherstrip material around the door jamb and sill.
  • Install a "door sweep" at the bottom of entry doors to reduce air infiltration across the threshold..

Moderately Complex Changes:

  • Add insulation to the attic.
  • Add insulation to sill area (between floor joists at perimeter of house) in basement or crawl space.
  • Remove casing (trim) around drafty windows/doors and fill gaps with expanding foam insulation. Caulk gaps too.
  • Install a dryer duct diverter to keep dryer exhaust indoors. This has potential problems, such as excess humidity buildup in a small room. Air circulation must be maintained. This can be accomplished with an ordinary fan. With an electric dryer there is no risk of fumes or carbon monoxide poisoning. But with a gas dryer, there will be some pollutants in the air. If the gas dryer is properly tuned (the flame burns at the ideal air/fuel ratio) then the pollutants are alleged to be trivial. But I wouldn't do this unless I had a carbon monoxide detector in the house.

Major Changes:

  • Replace old drafty windows.
  • Replace the siding and add a layer of foam insulation in the process. Read our article...
  • Install a gas fireplace. By spot heating only certain living areas for part of the day, the furnace should run less frequently. Many new gas fireplaces can operate during a power failure, so having this additional source of heat can be very handy.
  • Remodel a room and apply foam insulation to the inside face of exterior walls before installing drywall.
  • Replace an old, inefficient furnace with a new high-efficiency furnace. I have known people to cut their gas bills nearly in half by upgrading to a high-efficiency furnace. The house still loses as much heat, but the furnace captures more of the potential heating value of the fuel. In fact the exhaust is so cool it needs a special collector for the condensed water vapor (which is a by-product of combustion), and the exhaust pipe can be made from PVC plastic drain pipe.

Suggested Reading:

Editorial: Opportunities Lost During Remodeling 

Home & Science: Heat Transfer

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Copyright © 2001 - 2007

Written October 26, 2001
Revised January 8, 2005
Revised Again December 5, 2007