There's nothing like those first cool fall evenings and a little military buildup in the Middle East to turn the thoughts of an old-house owner to energy conservation.

To paraphrase George Harrison, in the end, the energy you save is equal to the energy you don't take. That is, it's much cheaper to stop using so much energy than it is to rush out and spend a lot of up-front cash for new storm windows, insulation and weatherstripping.

You may need those things, but there are other measures you can put into effect first that cost next to nothing. Spending needs to be balanced with saving.

"Whenever you talk about spending money to save energy, think about the payback," says Gustin Kiffney of Energyworks, a private energy conservation consulting firm.

Before you buy an "energy-saving" product or device, ask yourself how long it will take to pay for the item with the savings that result.

Before you do anything else, Mr. Kiffney says, "Live with lower temperatures."

If you normally heat your house to 75 degrees, Mr. Kiffney says, setting the thermostat 5 degrees lower will lower your bill 15 percent over the heating season.

The savings is about 3 percent for every degree you knock off the top setting. To realize the savings, you have to set the heat back and leave it there forever. Don't treat the thermostat like an accelerator. If you're cold, cranking it up will only spend energy dollars, it won't make you warmer quicker.

You can turn the heat up a little bit, say in increments of 2 degrees -- and give it time to warm you up. But it's better to leave the setting alone and put on a sweater. Wearing a sweater will allow most people to feel warm at a temperature setting 3 degrees lower than sweater non-wearers.

Mr. Kiffney gives the following approximate example of savings: If your normal setting is 75 degrees and your normal heating bill for the season is $1,000, turning back the thermostat 5 degrees (to 70 degrees) will lower your bill 15 percent, to $850. Setting it back 10 degrees at night (to 60 degrees, for about 8 hours) will reduce the bill another 10 percent, to $765. If you also set the heat back 10 degrees during the day while you're at work (again, to 60 degrees for about 8 hours), you save another 7 percent, to 10 percent, cutting the bill to about $700.

When it comes to spending money, the first thing you buy should be a clock thermostat. They cost as little as $45, which you can probably recoup in a heating season.

Even some of the relatively inexpensive models can keep track of how long your furnace or boiler runs each day, so you can adjust the settings seasonally as temperatures rise or fall, and get a comparative idea of how much your heating bill will be. Not only is it easier to micromanage your energy consumption with the clock thermostat, using it efficiently will mean that you are comfortable all the time.

Look for a unit that allows you to make at least four setting changes over 24 hours: ON in the morning before you get up, OFF as you're going to work, ON in the evening before you get home, OFF at night as you're going to bed.

If you have a heat pump, Mr. Kiffney says, you need a "ramp" clock thermostat that brings the heat setting up no more than 2 degrees at a time. (Ramp refers to the gradual increase or decrease.) The point is to get the heat up without kicking the heat pump into the expensive "auxiliary" mode. A more sophisticated ramp unit called "intelligent recovery" also takes into account outdoor temperatures and helps the heat pump adjust accordingly. (Warning: Heat-pump clock thermostats may be twice as expensive as other varieties, but they should save an equivalent amount of energy.)

Whatever kind of heating equipment you have, it's important to maintain it. Mr. Kiffney cited the example of an old oil burner: "If it's clunking along at 60 percent efficiency, tuning it up to 75 percent efficiency should save 13 percent of your annual oil bill."

If you have a service contract that includes routine annual maintenance of an oil-fired unit, make sure it's being cleaned and its efficiency tested every year.

If your furnace has a filter, check it every month to make sure it's in place and not clogged. Filters should be changed every three months -- and if you're in the middle of a dusty rehab, they should be checked constantly and changed every time they're dirty. (One weekend of drywall sanding will clog a filter.)

Filter maintenance is especially important with heat pumps, Mr. Kiffney says. If dirt gets past the filter, the coils will get gummed up and the unit's efficiency will be reduced. (Furnace filters generally cost less than a dollar, so we're talking almost instant payback here.)

Mr. Kiffney recommends a number of other energy-saving measures that cost little or nothing:

*Turn down the temperature on the water heater from "medium" (140 degrees) to "warm" (110 degrees) -- "an easy $40 a year." If you are constantly running out of hot water, don't turn the temperature up, use flow restrictors on faucets and shower heads.

*Use rope caulk, which comes on a roll and looks a little like modeling clay, to seal up drafty windows. It's not very attractive, but it's cheap and it can save as much as $10 per window per winter, according to Mr. Kiffney.

*Seal up any attic access hatch with duct tape or weatherstripping.

*Seal any obvious gaps around joists, or around windows and other openings -- don't forget basement windows, especially if they're old.

*If you're working on the house and aren't ready to replace windows, cover them with tightly sealed plastic. As long as there's some kind of window also in the opening, the plastic can save as much money and have the same insulating effect as outside storm windows.

Next: Exterior painting.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad