Sustainable Living: Make Your Home Comfortable this Winter

Hearth room
Photograph provided by MGE

Wisconsin winters mean snow, ice, and cold temperatures. While we enjoy the season's picturesque landscapes and outdoor activities, we also need to shift gears and adjust the way we keep our home comfortable. Implementing some easy strategies will help combat the winter chill and save energy.

Keep Filters Clean
The furnace filter is a small but important part of your heating system. A clogged filter can inhibit airflow, causing your furnace to work harder and use more energy. During the heating season, check your filter monthly, and clean or replace it when it’s dirty.

When purchasing new filters, pay attention to the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating. The higher the rating, the finer the filtration it provides. According to recent testing by Consumer Reports, top-performing filters have a MERV higher than 10. Filters with a lower MERV allow hair and other large particles to get through.

Open or Close Vents
Properly opening and closing high and low vent returns will help your furnace to operate efficiently. If your home has high and low vents, you’ll see low vents on the wall near the floor, while high vents will be straight up from the low vents toward the ceiling.

Hot air rises and cold air falls, so in the winter you’ll want the cold air to be drawn through the return registers for the furnace to heat it. You can achieve this by opening lower vents and closing top vents.

Cover Windows at Night
About 30 percent of a home's heating energy is lost through windows, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Insulated blinds, shades, and curtains are an effective way to keep your home warm in the winter months, and they have a vapor barrier on the warm side to prevent moisture from passing through the window treatment and condensing on the cold window.

Insulated window treatments come in a variety of styles. Cellular shades contain one or more air layers in a honeycomb cross section. The air layers act as insulators, reducing heat loss through the window.

The next level would be window warmers. They feature a layer of bonded fiber that’s covered with a vapor barrier and enclosed in fabric. When the window warmer is lowered, the edges seal with clamps that match your window trim.

No matter which you choose, be smart with your window coverings—open them during the day to take advantage of natural light and the sun’s heat, and close them at night to keep the warm air inside.

Seal Air Leaks
Heat can escape through your home’s gaps, cracks, and holes. Air sealing around windows and doors is an effective way to keep the heat inside your home this winter. Helpful strategies include:

• Window film. An inexpensive way to help reduce winter drafts and condensation. It’s easy to apply and can even be used over mini blinds.

• Caulk to seal window air leaks. Caulking compounds come in a variety of strengths and prices. Most are available in disposable cartridges that fit in a caulking gun, while some come in squeeze tubes, ropes, or aerosol cans. Caulk should be applied during dry weather when the temperature is at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Weatherstripping. It works well to seal air leaks around movable components, such as doors. Weatherstripping is available in many different materials, so it's important to read the packaging and choose the right type of weatherstripping for your project. Proper application is key. Be sure your weatherstripping meets tightly in corners—apply one continuous strip along each side and be sure to weatherstrip the entire door jamb.

To take air sealing a step further, a good place to start in our climate is the attic. Warm air rises, so make sure warm air doesn’t escape through attic leaks. Air sealing and insulation go hand in hand, with air sealing done first to stop warm air from rising into the attic. Consider hiring a professional to complete a full air-sealing package.

Reduce Heat Loss from Fireplaces
If you’re improperly using your fireplace, it can take warm air away from your home. Follow these tips for maximum operating efficiency.

• When not using the fireplace, close the damper. An open damper acts like a large hole, pulling hot air out through the chimney.

• When using the fireplace, open dampers in the bottom of the firebox or open the nearest window slightly. Then close doors leading into the room and set the thermostat to between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Ensure these temperatures will keep water pipes in other areas of the home from freezing.

• Consider grates made of C-shaped metal tubes to draw cool air from the room into the fireplace and then circulate the warm air back into the room.

If you’re installing a fireplace or upgrading an existing one, opt for a model with an airtight door and a blower. The more airtight the door, the more heat you’ll get from the fireplace. The blower is important because it moves hot air across the top of the fireplace into your room.

Think Twice About Space Heaters
Some people believe turning down the thermostat and using an electric space heater will save money. A space heater can be one of the most expensive ways to heat your home. At today's prices, electric heat costs at least eight times as much per BTU as natural gas. Running a typical 1,500 watt electric space heater four hours each day for a month would cost $25.

Ask the Experts
MGE is available to answer your questions and provide tips on staying comfortable and saving energy in the winter and throughout the year. Energy experts are available on the MGE Home Energy Line from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 608.252.7117, or you may email . Other resources for saving energy include and .