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Slash Your Energy Bills

These 6 simple home improvements could save you up to $1,000 a year

En español | The squeeze on homeowners shows no signs of easing. Heating-oil prices will rise 12 percent this winter, and your electric bill will likely jump again in 2011, state energy regulators predict. "There were a lot of rate freezes in the past 5 to 10 years, and many have now ended," says Ed Legge, spokesperson for Edison Electric Institute, which represents the nation's larger, investor-owned utilities. "Companies are playing catch-up."

house in winter wrapped by a scarf

Fight winter weather with simple home improvements. — Edward McGowan

See also: Save at the supermarket.

That leaves homeowners wondering whether to invest in energy-saving improvements, even though federal tax credits have ended for upgrading insulation, windows, and heating and cooling equipment. Just one home in five built before 1980 started out with adequate insulation, reports the U.S. Department of Energy. Adding fresh insulation to walls, ceilings, attics, and basements would bring immediate energy savings of 10 to 20 percent, says Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which works with state and federal officials on energy-saving programs for low-income families.

But your house probably doesn't need a complete overhaul. Cheap and simple tweaks can quickly pay for themselves. "The best bang for your buck is to seal up and insulate your house," says Ronnie Kweller of the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy.

Next: Consider these weekend projects >>

1. Plug wall openings

Spend: $7

Save: Up to $150 a year

About 15 percent of air leakage in the average home occurs through wall openings. Spray insulating foam sealant ($4 a can) around holes for outdoor faucets and wiring, and install foam gaskets ($3 for a package of 10) around indoor electric outlets and light switches.

2. Weatherize windows and doors

Spend: $50 to $100

Save: Up to $200 a year

A few $5 tubes of water-based acrylic caulk can seal tiny leaks around windows and doors. For another $40 to $70, apply weather stripping to door frames. And $15 will buy you enough plastic shrink film to cover 10 older, single-pane windows.

3. Update your thermostat

Spend: $80

Save: Up to $200 a year

Do you like your house to stay nippy at night but feel toasty when you wake up? A programmable thermostat — one that you set to adjust temperatures automatically — can cut 20 percent from heating and cooling bills, according to Consumer Reports.

4. Blanket your water heater

Spend: Less than $30

Save: Up to $200 a year

Your water heater eats about 20 percent of your energy. Insulating exposed hot-water pipes with foam or fiberglass sleeves can raise water temps at the tap 2 to 4 degrees, allowing you to lower your water heater's thermostat and shave roughly 1 percent off your total energy costs. An insulating blanket around the heater tank can chop another 9 percent. Pipe sleeves start at $2 for 12 feet; blankets run about $20.

5. Seal and wrap ductwork

Spend: Less than $100

Save: Up to $400 a year

As much as 30 percent of the air from the furnace or air conditioner escapes through ductwork, which expands and shrinks as temperatures change. If ducts are accessible — as in the basement, in the attic, and at the furnace connection — seal joints with brush-on mastic (a waterproof, flexible sealant) and wrap ductwork with HVAC insulation. A gallon of mastic costs about $30 and will close up to 40 joints. (Avoid duct tape; it doesn't seal.) HVAC insulation "wrap" — a self-adhesive foam with foil backing — costs about $1 per foot at home-improvement centers.

6. Dress the hearth

Spend: $50 to $200

Save: $50 to $200 a year

A roaring fireplace burns more than just wood: One fire a week can boost winter heating costs about 10 percent, because the flames suck warm air out of the house and send it up the chimney. For $200, a glass screen or a heat exchanger can keep cold air out and reduce heat loss. For summer savings, inflatable fireplace draft-stoppers (starting at $50) prevent cooled air from escaping in older homes with leaky metal dampers.

Sid Kirchheimer covers consumer issues for AARP. His latest project was installing high-efficiency 1.28-gallon-per-flush toilets in his house.

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