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Ten Free and Low-Cost Ways To Winterize Your JP Home

This month's "JP Growing Greener" column offers timely advice on buttoning up your home for winter — saving money and using less of whatever you heat your house with.

There aren’t many people sitting outside at now that it’s November. The early morning motorists at tend to hunch into their warm jackets as they pump their gas. There are still lots of people jogging and fast-walking around the Pond, but not many sitting on the benches to watch them go by. Fall has long since cooled, snow has actually fallen! and people are buttoning up against colder temperatures.

That means it’s time to get our homes ready for the winter, as well. So let me tell you the story of one building in JP, and how the residents are saving money on heating and lighting this winter without spending a penny. 

One resident phoned MassSave and asked to have an energy audit of the multi-unit building, and a representative came and looked around the common areas (stairways, storage areas, heating equipment) and a couple of the apartments where residents were interested.

The MassSave representative offered to replace all the old-style bulbs now in use with free new energy-efficient bulbs (including fancy bulbs for chandeliers and dimmer lights), offered to do detailed energy audits in individual units, offered to seal cracks in the basement (around the windows and wherever else is needed), and offered to subsidize insulation of the basement.

Residents went for the free bulbs and the free sealing of cracks, and a couple of weeks later the MassSave person was back with boxes of free bulbs (and even installed new energy-efficient sets of lights in residents’ bathrooms). A while later, arrangements were made to have two guys come and seal up the cracks in the basement. They sprayed foam (yeah, it’s ugly, but remember, it’s free) around the windows and wherever there were other cracks or holes -- where pipes or ducts go through walls, for example. All free.

Thanks to MassSave, the residents are looking forward to lower heating bills this winter, and saving money to put toward that subsidized insulation next. (Remember:  sealing the air leaks is like zipping up the windbreaker, but insulation is like wearing a down jacket. If you really want to keep warm in Boston in the winter, you need more than an airtight building.)

Who gets this free service? You do, if you are a Massachusetts resident who wants to make your home more energy efficient.

Who is paying for this? We are all already paying for it, in our gas and electricity bills here in Massachusetts; the program is funded by local utilities.

You can get your free energy audit and free or low-cost services by making that call:  If there are 1 to 4 units in the building where you live, or if you are a landlord, call 866-527-SAVE (7283). If there are more than five units in the building where you live, call 800-594-SAVE (7277).

Okay, MassSave may be able to measure heat that is being lost or pinpoint where it is leaking out, but even before they come to you, you can think about ways to winterize your home to make it more energy efficient (which translates into saving money as well as energy). Here are ten tips for winterizing your JP home:

1. Stop the drafts around your windows. if your curtains are sometimes moving as in a breeze even when the windows are closed, it's time to Stop the Draft. Stop the Draft meant something quite different during the Vetnam War; looking to stop cold air from getting into your home may not be as exciting, but it could make you more comfortable.  Your options range from simple (you can do it yourself) to complicated (take a workshop, hire somebody, or have that handy person you know over for dinner).

There’s the cute solution: the decorative snake-like draft stopper that lies along the bottom of a window (or door). Basically a tube of fabric stuffed with fill, they are easy to make. Drawback: it only works on the bottom of the window, and sometimes the gaps that let in cold air are along the sides or around the panes.

Rope caulk is a solution that ANYONE can do – you just press this putty-like material along the edges of windows. Advantage: cheap and easy. Drawbacks: Once you have applied it, you can’t open the windows until spring.  And next fall you have to do it again.  

Some folks go for the option of sealing drafty windows for the winter with clear plastic and a hairdryer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ft33T82ud8o . Our older daughter did this to good effect in a very drafty apartment. She says it’s easy and it’s fun to watch the plastic get tighter when you heat it up with the dryer. It’s more effective than rope caulk because it covers all the possible gaps, but with the same drawbacks.

You can also line your curtains, which could also help keep the sun out in summer when you are longing for relief from the sun’s heat (remember that?).  We lined some curtains in a chilly bedroom with double layers of old flannel sheet and were surprised at what a difference it made, especially when you put little magnets on the lining and on the window frame, so that you can really close up the whole opening around the window.  

2. Paul Kiefer focuses on stopping drafts from the door.  “If you have little time, or are on a very tight budget, install a door kit and door sweep on the draftiest door you have—it costs very little, takes very little skill and time, and makes a big difference.”  And Paul probably knows as well as anyone in JP. He’s one of the experts at the , and he’s the one who teaches the Boston Building Resources workshop on weatherization.

The handyman types classify this as an easy project. From my ten-thumbs point of view, it still involves following the directions on the installation kit from the hardware store, and measuring and cutting the weatherstrippng materials. Makes me nervous.  But if you feel competent measuring and cutting, you can probably do it. (Usually it’s the outside door that needs weather-stripping most, but sometimes it’s the door to an unheated part of your house, like the attic, that is letting in cold air.) 

3. Your water heater – Oh! there are so many ways to save energy and money with your water heater!! (And heating water usually makes up between 12 to 18 percent of your energy budget.)

You can lower the temperature on your water heater to 120 degrees instead of 140 (which is scalding). And if you are planning to travel anywhere, check to see if your water heater has a vacation setting.

You can also check your hot water heater to see if it insulated. If your water heater is warm to the touch, you are spending money and energy to heat the area around the heater as well as the water. So far all the water heaters I’ve felt since starting this article have been cool and well insulated, but if your heater is warm to the touch, you should get it a jacket kit to keep the heat in (around $25). With the hardware store kit for the correct size water heater, this is one Do-It-Yourself project that seems pretty simple to do.

Insulating the pipes carrying the hot water may be more complicated; there is a Boston Building Resources workshop on Dec. 3 that is scheduled to cover water and steam pipe insulation. (See #4 below)

And speaking of saving energy spent on hot water, I finally have the data to win that longstanding argument with my elderly aunt, who always claimed that she was saving hot water by washing dishes by hand rather than in the dishwasher. It turns out that washing dishes by hand several times a day can be more expensive than operating a fully loaded energy-efficient dishwasher. I was right! (Of course we all know that data doesn’t really change people’s minds about things like this; my aunt felt that “washing up as you go along” was morally superior to leaving dishes unwashed, even if the unwashed dishes were neatly arranged in the dishwasher.)

4. Go to the And/or sign up for the Boston building resources workshop on Saturday, December 3. (Here’s how the Building Resources workshop works: you meet at a real house and you watch as Paul Kiefer does actual weatherizing – installing weather-stripping on a door, caulking, gap-sealing, and so on).  

5. Dress for the season: Put on a sweater when you are at home. Long underwear is the new sexy. Consider headwear.

For the last few winters, artist/musician Alex Cook has been wearing two sweaters, a scarf and a hat when writing lyrics in his drafty vintage JP house where he didn’t want to waste money turning up the heat. Now a housemate has called for an energy audit by MassSave, so maybe this winter will be different. We can only hope that the lyrics are still as good when Alex is composing while warm.  

But seriously, should you feel right running around your house in a t-shirt and shorts for the next five months? According to the City of Boston, the reasonable level of heat required of landlords is 68 degrees during the day and 64 degrees at night.  If your house is much warmer than that and you are under 80, could you be using more than your fair share of fossil fuel?

6. The programmable thermostat: it’s is a small device that can bring big savings. It doesn’t have to be one of those fancy ones that you can communicate with from your iPhone; the important thing is that it knows what time you are usually away at work (or asleep at night) and can set the heat down during those times and set it back up before you get home from work (or wake up in the morning). This is where the big savings kicks in, because heating your home accounts for about a third of your energy budget.

Typically you can save about 2 percent on your heating bill for each degree you turn down your heat for a period of 8 hours (somehow that came out like a question on the MCAS math exam). The point is that you save money by not heating up your home when you don't need to have it heated, and a programmable thermostat allows you to do that and still come home to a warm house and get up in a warm house. 

7. Now about fireplaces. We love them! They add so much to the atmosphere of our homes – but we all know the dirty secret that even when the flu is closed, it isn’t really tight and the warm air is moving right up past the flu. Can you believe that fireplaces often account for 14 percent of the air leaks in a house?

Gwenn Miller is adamant that one of the best decisions she’s made since moving to JP was getting glass doors for the fireplaces. Without those glass doors, the expensively heated warm air goes right up the chimney. Others (including the U.S. Dept of Energy) opt for the inflatable balloon-up-the chimney method of stopping the flow of heated air; the problem with this solution is that you have to remember that your fireplace is plugged up in case you want to use it, and even if you can reinflate and reuse the balloon plug, who wants to be messing around in a dirty chimney? (You’ll notice the people in those how-to videos for the balloon plug are careful to wear safety glasses.)

8.  Landscaping for energy efficiency:Depending on the site of your home, a windbreak of dense, low-crowned evergreens to the west of your home could cut the effect of the prevailing winds on your house. Planting shrubs or vines on trellises next to your house can create dead air spaces that insulate your home. Choose shrubs with their mature size in mind and prune them away from your house to make sure that the sun can flood in through your southern windows in the winter.

9. Adding moisture to the indoor air. Musician Catherine Bent says when winter sets in, one of the first things she does is turn on the humidifier; it stays on all winter long. Lacking a humidifier, she recommends setting bowls of water in key positions: under the piano, on top of the radiator, and so on. (Of course there is the problem of the cat that regularly strolls under the piano and slurps the bowl of water dry rather than drinking from her regular water bowl on the kitchen floor…)  

While this is not specifically about saving energy, it does help maintain the health of stringed instruments and the woodwork in our old JP houses, and it’s healthier for us, helping us to breathe, providing our skin and our eyes with needed moisture, preventing hands and feet and lips from cracking and chapping.

Another way to get moisture in the air is to start some flowering bulbs in a container of water. That way you not only get moisture, but also fragrance and beauty, which may make getting through another Boston winter a little easier.

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