1. Invest in one big upgrade
The prime suspects in heat loss (and higher heating bills) are air leaks and bad insulation. Ray Barrick, director of energy audits at Greensaver, a leading Ontario non-profit auditor, says that a leaky foundation can account for 20 to 35 percent of a home’s heat loss. The attic is another spot that warmth often escapes from, particularly in older houses. Upgrading common culprits like windows can be pricey, especially if you’re opting for Energy Star–rated products; manufacturers pay extra to get their products certified, and that cost is passed on to the consumer. But, thankfully, making those big changes could qualify you for incentive grants worth thousands of dollars — between those and energy savings, it can be a break-even proposition. Learn more by checking out the grants program run by Natural Resources Canada at EcoAction.gc.ca. Follow the links to the EcoEnergy Retrofit Grants for Homeowners web page, or dial 1-800-622-6232.
2. … Or patch up the leaks
Not ready to subject your house to an energy auditor’s scrutiny? Do your own scrutinizing. Check common areas for air leaks: electrical outlets, ceiling fixtures, mouldings, and window and door frames. (An easy test: Light a stick of incense and watch for horizontal smoke.) Installing good-quality weatherstripping or caulking can be an economical way to halt heat loss. So can hanging foam-backed curtains, which block out cold drafts in winter and hot air in summer. (Before you buy, make sure your home’s humidity is under control — otherwise, you might run into problems with condensation, which can lead to mould.) These ain’t your granny’s insulating drapes; they are newly popular with young homeowners, says Laurie Parson, a buyer at Sears, where the latest incarnations come in a range of colours and are as sleek as anything you’ll find at Pottery Barn. Try Baxter Blackout Grommet Panel draperies by Whole Home ($80 at Sears).
3. Swap an appliance
If you’re in the market to replace a few appliances, you’ll be happy to hear that the numbers add up in your favour: Upgrading to an Energy Star–qualified refrigerator, dishwasher or washing machine might be expensive, but you’ll earn money back in provincial or municipal rebates. Energy Star–rated machines are extremely efficient; certified washing machines, for example, use up to 50 percent less water per wash than standard models, and less electricity, so you save on both bills.
An Energy Star–rated water heater — also often eligible for federal, provincial or municipal rebates — takes up less space, lasts longer and uses up to 50 percent less energy. Tankless models don’t constantly expend energy on storing and heating a reserve of hot water. Instead, they function on demand, so the supply of hot water isn’t limited to what a standard tank can hold; it’s endless. (That’s right: no more cold showers.)
4. Refurbish your furnace
The price of upgrading to an Energy Star–qualified gas furnace can vary widely, so it’s important to get a few estimates before making the switch, advises Barrick. Again, you’ll qualify for grants — up to $790 from Natural Resources Canada, which your province might match, depending on where you live.
Another, cheaper fix is installing a programmable furnace thermostat. By setting the temperature five degrees lower while you sleep, you’ll save on heating costs overnight and probably get a better night’s rest — studies show a cooler room is more conducive to zees.
5. Embrace the cold
Another way to chill your heating bill out: Switch the temperature dial on your washing machine to cold, no matter what you’re washing. Hot water is expensive, especially in light of the fact that the average Canadian does three loads of laundry a week (and those with young kids probably do many more). Cold-water washing is catching on: Many brands now offer cold-water formulas that also create fewer suds and need less water to work.
Energy Star doesn’t rate dryers — there’s very little difference between models — but they account for almost 20 percent of the average household energy bill. Even moderate use can add up. Give the dryer a break by setting up a drying rack. Winter bonus: You won’t need a humidifier. Come summer, use an outdoor line or compact telescoping clothesline. And if you’re feeling really thrifty, you can always suffer through that cold shower — or, at least, take shorter ones. Train hot-water-guzzling kids to do the same by setting an egg timer. When it rings, time’s up.