With all the political wrangling this year around solar policy and natural gas expansion, it’s easy for Mainers to overlook the most obvious and cost-effective ways to save money and use less energy in their own homes.

Today’s high-performance houses can be warmed with the heat output of a few hair dryers, but that’s not where most of us live. Maine has the fifth oldest housing stock in the country, according to the U.S. Census, with more than a quarter of all homes built before 1940. So for most of us, the challenge is to integrate modern efficiency measures into our vintage structures.

As a longtime energy writer, I’ve used what I’ve learned to upgrade the efficiency of my family’s 38-year-old cape-style home. Here are my five favorite steps.

Each step can be done by a handy do-it-yourselfer. Each will help reduce energy use in your home, which saves money and lowers carbon emissions. In most cases, your investment will pay for itself within a year or so.

As a bonus, your home will feel more comfortable.

LED LIGHT BULBS

Last week marked the autumn equinox, with the sun setting around 6:30 p.m. That means turning on lights earlier and earlier.

 

A shopper examines a display of LED offerings. The savings from switching to LED bulbs can be big, especially if you still have incandescents. They use 83 percent more electricity than  LEDs.

A shopper examines a display of LED offerings. The savings from switching to LED bulbs can be big, especially if you still have incandescents. They use 83 percent more electricity than LEDs. Olga Rosi/Shutterstock.com

Only a few years back, LED bulbs were expensive and didn’t fit all home fixtures. Those days are over. Rebate programs operated by Efficiency Maine and market response have made switching out all frequently used light fixtures from incandescent to LED a no-brainer.

I long ago got rid of incandescents in my house, so I’ve been trading the squiggly CFL bulbs in reading lamps and places where light quality matters. I’m also focusing on fixtures we use the most, such as in the living room and kitchen.

The savings can be big, especially if you still have incandescents. They use 83 percent more electricity than an LED. One 60-watt incandescent burning for six hours a day costs $19.71 a year, according to Efficiency Maine’s online calculator. A CFL of similar light output costs $4.93 a year; an LED, $3.35 a year.

Maybe your kitchen ceiling is speckled with recessed, incandescent floodlights. That’s like running a small electric heater.

To really save money, look for the best deal on bulbs. Efficiency Maine has a web page with best LED bulb prices. As an example, The Home Depot was selling an eight-pack of soft-white EcoSmart bulbs with a 60-watt equivalent output for $11.75. That’s $1.47 per bulb.

Also consider making your old home “smart,” with digital timers, motion and photo sensors, and even wi-fi enabled lighting controls.

DETAILS: The best deals on LEDs are for the standard, medium base design used in most lamps and overhead fixtures. Floodlights, spotlights and other specialty bulbs cost more, but the savings are comparable.

LEDs also come in different “color” choices on the light spectrum, such as warm white and daylight. Check the package information, as well as Efficiency Maine’s primer on LEDs.

AIR SEALING

The typical Maine home has hundreds of cracks, gaps and holes. Add them up, and it’s like leaving a window open year round. Besides wasting precious fuel, a leaky house is a drafty house. You can feel more comfortable and cut your heating bill by 15 percent, according to Efficiency Maine, with a minimal amount of air sealing.

unknownI’ve spent years air sealing my house. I’m the guy on a step stool, feeling around door frames and windows, or on my knees, moving my hand along foundation sills and electric outlets in winter. It’s a process, because wood expands and contracts and I discover new problems.

But some air leaks are obvious. Every exterior and basement door needs good weatherstripping and a door-bottom seal. If you can feel cold air in the winter, it needs more work. Same with the windows. Same with any access door to the attic.

Some problems are harder to spot.

Electric outlets on outside walls: Put foam gaskets behind the face plates and plug in outlet covers, the kind used to protect toddlers.

Baseboards on outside walls: Seal drafty spots with clear caulk.

Water and sewer pipes from the basement: Seal around them with rope caulk or expanding foam.

Don’t expect to do everything in a day. This winter, examine every pipe, wire or duct run. Don’t neglect the basement and the foundation. A house is like a chimney. Warm air exits at the top and is replaced by cold air from the bottom. You want to slow the process as much as you can.

If you have a fireplace, check the damper. Chances are it’s warped and sending heated air up the flue, even when the damper is shut.

And don’t leave the clothes dryer door open. Warm air is streaming out the vent, like a chimney.

DETAILS: Caulk and weatherstripping come in many varieties. Each has a specific use, price and longevity. Spend time online, watch a video and get educated. Take a smartphone photo of your problem area and visit a hardware store for help picking the right product. Efficiency Maine also offers financial incentives for approved air-sealing projects and tips on the most-common trouble spots.

WATERSENSE PLUMBING FIXTURES

Many people are familiar with the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar program, which identifies products that are more efficient than standard offerings. Fewer people know about WaterSense, which is like EnergyStar for plumbing products.

1071620_491155 ws.jpgEven during a drought, saving water isn’t top of mind for most Mainers. But how about saving hot water?

A nice, hot shower can warm cold bones after a day outdoors this winter, but heating all that water is expensive. I’ve replaced all the showerheads and sink aerators in my house with WaterSense-labeled products. Here’s some math to show why you should do that, too.

A standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. A WaterSense showerhead uses no more than 2 gallons.

Assume a 10-minute shower. The WaterSense showerhead uses 20 gallons instead of 25, a savings of five gallons a day or 1,825 gallons a year. Multiply by the number of people taking showers in your house.

Then add bathroom and kitchen sinks. A standard sink faucet uses 2.2 gallons a minute. A WaterSense aerator uses no more than 1.5 gallons.

DETAILS: Look for the WaterSense label. Big-box stores such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot, some hardware chains and online retailers carry good selections.

These showerheads aren’t like old-school water-saving models that dribbled a feeble spray. Still, it’s smart to check out the ones you’re thinking about and read online reviews.

WATER HEATER WRAP

If you have a standard electric water heater, as I do, you’re keeping at least 40 gallons of water hot 24/7, until you’re ready to shower or do the dishes. So you want the tank to be well insulated, to reduce heat loss and the amount of time the electric elements turn on. Especially if your tank is in an unheated basement, as mine is.

1071620_491155 waterheaterwrap.jpgWater heater tanks already are insulated, of course. Newer ones have foam instead of fiberglass, and models made after 2015 have thicker foam. But these are just minimum standards. It’s like going out in the winter wearing a fleece. You’ll be OK, but a down jacket would be warmer.

I want my water heater to wear a down jacket. So I’ve swaddled it in a thick coat of fiberglass and a wrap of reflective insulation that someone left at the recycling center. I’ve roughly doubled the insulating value of the tank, bringing it above R-30.

I’ve also insulated the hot water pipes with foam sleeves. This reduces the amount of heat that copper pipes give off while moving hot water, especially through my chilly basement.

And I’ve made sure the thermostat is set at 120 degrees.

DETAILS: Fiberglass water heater blankets are available in different sizes, online and at hardware and big-box stores. If you have room, you can fashion a thicker one from a roll of fiberglass insulation and high-temperature HVAC tape.

Some cautionary notes: You must leave an opening for the pressure relief valve and a flap to get at temperature controls. My tank also is set in a drip tray with a battery-powered water-leak sensor.

Also, some manufacturers have disclaimers for repairs or problems following after-market insulation.

Lastly, this project isn’t recommended for gas units. Improper installation can block air flow or present a fire danger.

WINDOW COVERINGS

Windows represent one of the largest areas of heat loss in a house, even with proper weatherstripping and air sealing. You can improve the situation by covering them, especially at night.

1071620_491155 shutters.jpgMy house has 10-year old replacement windows. They’re not bad. But I’ve made them better with cellular or honeycomb shades, which have layered cells that trap air.

I’ve read studies that show various designs cut heat loss by certain percentages. But everyone’s windows are different. I can make my own assessment, with these two tests.

On a winter night, I can feel a draft while standing by an uncovered window, as warm air is pulled toward the cooler glass. Closing the shade reduces that sensation.

Following a bitter cold night, I can see frost on the edges of the inside glass. That’s because the shade has blocked some heat loss, making the glass temperature low enough to freeze condensation.

Insulated window coverings do double duty in our warming world. In the summer, covering south and west-facing glass reduces heat gain, keeping your home cooler.

You have so many choices for window coverings. Thermal-lined drapery. Wooden shutters. Roman shades. There are also designs for DIY rigid insulating panels and interior storm windows. The top performer, in my opinion, is Window Quilt, a five-layer shade that runs on sealed tracks. But style, privacy and price may trump energy performance.

DETAILS: It’s hard to calculate payback on window treatments, due to the range of options and prices. But keep these guidelines in mind.

None of these coverings work if you don’t use them. Thicker fabrics or multiple cells have greater insulating value and slow conductive heat loss. Tight-fitting shades and floor-to-ceiling patio door drapes, for instance, reduce moving air or convective heat loss.

If you have south-facing windows, remember to keep them uncovered on winter days. The sun streaming through your windows is free heat.