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Insulation and a Refrigerator

I think I’ve found a healthy alternative to checking my retirement savings plans. I’m investing in energy efficiency. I benefit right off the bat by not spending energy worrying about the plummeting value of my holdings.

The truth is that I can’t do anything to make the markets go up or down. All I can do is wait, since I don’t want to lock in those losses by cashing out.

So, I’m going for Zen and focusing on what I can control, which includes the cost of keeping my house warm. It’s an investment that’s guaranteed to pay off, both immediately and into the future.

Keeping the house warm has taken on increased importance for me in the past six months since I’ve been working from my home office. Last winter, when I left the house to go downtown to work, the programmable thermostat dropped the temperature to 52 degrees during the day while I was gone and kicked it back up about an hour before I usually came home.

That’s not an option anymore since I hate to be cold. I grew up in Houston, where we sometimes played outside barefoot on Christmas Day. I’m willing to wear multiple layers of clothing but not to shiver.

Another incentive for making my home more energy efficient is that for the past two years, with heating costs sky-high, my heating bills sometimes have topped $300 a month. The good news, based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Dec. 9 short-term forecast, is that home heating costs may be lower this year. According to the EIA, compared to last season, home heating oil prices are expected to be down 24 percent, and natural gas prices are expected to be down 1.3 percent.

Even so, I’m continuing what has been a more than 30-year struggle to keep out the cold. I should explain that I live in an old farmhouse in Northwest D.C. that dates back to well before the Civil War. It doesn’t have a basement—it sits on brick pillars and tree trunks with the wind blowing under it as well as all around it. And it sits on a hill near the highest point in D.C. That makes it lovely and cool in the summer. But in the winter, when the temperature drops below freezing, the house feels like a refrigerator, despite years of installing dampers in my two chimneys, replacing windows and installing more insulation every time I redid a room.

That’s why, when I learned that the District of Columbia was providing free energy audits, I signed up right away.

The team that audited my house came in late September when it was still warm. We started in the small, dirt floor cellar under my kitchen where the furnace and hot water heater are located. Both of them were Energy Star rated, a joint program between the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy that identifies those products and practices that are energy efficient.

That was good, but my cellar was not. It was full of places where wires and pipes went into the house through gaps that needed sealing. And, when I turned to look at the doorway leading to the cellar, there was a four-inch gap where cold air could whoosh into the cellar and then up to my kitchen. Okay, that was helpful since it had never occurred to me that my cellar might need more insulating.

The audit team wandered around and took pictures of what they thought might be problem spots. Next they put a blue tarp over my front door around a high-powered fan that would suck the air out of the house and then allow it to roar back in to help pinpoint the worst leaks.

They found that my house had a whopping 24.8 air changes per hour, a measure of airtightness for a home; they recommend levels no higher than 7 per hour. That is why my next investment was in caulking, weather stripping and a piece of rigid plastic to close off that gaping hole under the door to my cellar. And that has paid off already in a warmer house.

You can get a substantial return on investment from energy efficiency. For instance, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that a six-pack of compact fluorescent lights will save $200 over their estimated five-year lifetime. A discount department store is advertising a six-pack of CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) online for $15.16, so if you save $40 the first year, your return on investment is more than 100 percent.

The U.S. Department of Energy has lots of information on its website about how to do an energy audit of your home and tips about the most cost-effective ways to save energy. One that’s especially timely is a recommendation to use light-emitting diode (or LED) lights for your holiday displays.

“DOE estimates that if every household switched to using LED holiday lights, the country would save approximately $410 million in electricity costs. If both residential households and the commercial sector switched to LED holiday lights today, the savings would be equivalent to the output of almost one large (1000 MW) electric power plant or the annual electricity consumption of almost 500,000 households,” according to the website.

The DOE website also points out that the lights will last approximately 40 holiday seasons and reduce the risk of fires because they are less hot than traditional holiday lighting. And you can get that appropriate-to-the-season feeling about making the world a better place by reducing carbon emissions.

After the holidays, I know what I’ll be saving for: a new Energy Star-rated refrigerator. Mine dates back to the early 1970s, and while it’s still working, today’s average refrigerator would use 75 percent less energy. It seems like a good investment.

Martha M. Hamilton was a reporter and editor at the Washington Post for 30 years. Her column, Your Financial Future, appears regularly on AARP Bulletin Today.