Five Fall Fix-Ups for Under $50

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For the first time in recent memory, energy costs are predicted to go down this winter. For home improvers, it has never been a better time to go with the flow and save serious cash on heating your home. Here are five easy ways to begin:
DON’T WAIT TO INSULATE -- Most homes in America, even those that are just a couple of years old, simply don’t have enough insulation. The good news

For the first time in recent memory, energy costs are predicted to go down this winter. For home improvers, it has never been a better time to go with the flow and save serious cash on heating your home. Here are five easy ways to begin:

DON’T WAIT TO INSULATE -- Most homes in America, even those that are just a couple of years old, simply don’t have enough insulation. The good news is that it is cheap and easy to do yourself. For around $30 a roll, you can add six inches to your attic insulation and see savings from the moment you complete the job. Since most heat loss is through the ceiling, this is a fast way to get a quick return on investment.

GAPS, CRACKS AND HOLES -- In many ways, homes have been built pretty much the same inefficient way for the past 200 years. Hollow wood frames are constructed and plugged up by building materials designed to fill those spaces and make the structure energy efficient. In the process, lots of holes are left behind. According to insulation manufacturer Great Stuff, adding up all those tiny spaces results in a 16 square foot hole that needs to be filled in, one small gap at a time.

Foam sealants ($5), caulk ($2), weather-stripping ($1 and up) are great ways to get control of the drafts that let your heat leak out. For example, run your hand over any electrical outlet or light switch on an exterior wall and you’ll feel the breath of old man soaring right through. The solution is outlet gaskets, small precut pieces of foam insulation that cost pennies and can be placed behind the switch plate to form a draft-proof seal.

LOW COST LIGHTING -- Compact florescent lamps (CFLs) use 25 percent of the energy of an incandescent light bulb and can cut lighting costs by a whopping 75 percent. New advances in CFLs, like the n:vision bulbs sold at The Home Depot, have made them more effective than ever. nvision CFLs come in a variety of effects including soft white, bright white and day light. CFLs can last 10,000 hours and nvision CFLs come with a 9-year warranty. CFL’s are more expensive than incandescent bulbs. However, the energy savings and convenience of not having to replace them makes this a very good deal.

SMART THERMOSTATS -- According to the U.S. Department of Energy, replacing a standard thermostat with a clock setback model can cut heating costs by 10 percent. Clock setback thermostats ($50 +/-) turn your heat down automatically when it is not needed. For example, in the average home, heat needs to be set at a comfortable level for only a small part of the work week. Clock setback thermostats can turn the heat down at night when you go to bed, up an hour before you awake, down again when you leave for work and up again when you come home. Smarter models even know when it’s a weekend and can be set to leave the heat up all day.

HOT WATER WASTE -- Most water heaters are pretty “dumb” appliances. They heat water to the same temperature 24 hours a day, 7 days a week -- whether you need it or not! While on-demand tankless water heaters are a better option, they also require a large investment. To cut water heating costs without breaking the bank, install a water heater blanket ($10) to lower heat loss and turn the heat down from 120 degrees to 110 degrees, plenty hot for creature comforts without any waste.

For electric water heaters, it is also smart to install a timer that turns the electricity off when hot water is not needed. Just like the clock setback thermostats above, water only needs to be fully heated for 8-10 hours of a typical day. Good insulation will keep the tank warm for any uses that occur in between peak hours. Also, draining a few gallons out of the water heater every 3 months will reduce sediment on the bottom of the tank and increase efficiency.

Bigger Projects: Avoid the Hype

When considering energy saving home improvement, it important to avoid the hype. Some years back, an advertiser for my national radio show "The Money Pit" asked us to record a window commercial that claimed you could “save 50 percent on your energy bills” buy installing their windows. I told the advertiser the only way this might be true is if you had no windows to start with!

Consumers are wise to be wary of bold claims for expensive improvements. Sure, installing modern windows is a smart move, but it’s a big move and one that will deliver payback over a longer period of time than one heating season.

Less costly and complicated home improvements can truly deliver a return on your investment that far exceeds the time and expense needed.

For more information, including dozens of ways to cut energy costs this winter, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new ENERGY STAR @ home Interactive Tool for energy-efficient home improvement ideas and advice.

Note: Tom Kraeutler is the Home Improvement Editor for AOL and host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. To find a local radio station, download the show’s podcast or sign-up for Tom’s free weekly e-newsletter, visit the program’s website at http://www.moneypit.com.

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