3 tips for warming your home that can save energy and help the planet

Heating uses more energy and costs more money than any other system in the average home. (baza178 via Getty Images)

As temperatures dip, staying warm could mean running up your utility bills and generating greenhouse gases and other emissions that damage the planet and human health.

Heating uses more energy and costs more money than any other system in the average home, typically accounting for about 30 percent of utility bills, according to the Energy Department. A drafty building can be one of the main reasons it costs more to keep your home comfortable during the winter.

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But while major energy savings will come from plugging air leaks, improving insulation and upgrading outdated HVAC systems, there are additional steps you can take to ward off the chill.

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Don’t crank up your thermostat

Having your thermostat consistently set to a high temperature wastes energy, especially when there isn’t a need to keep your home warm. During cold months, turning the temperature back by 7 to 10 degrees for eight hours a day from your normal setting could save as much as 10 percent a year on energy use, the Energy Department estimates.

Consider setting the thermostat to around 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit while you’re awake. When you’re not at home for long periods or you’re asleep, consider lowering the temperature the recommended 7 to 10 degrees. Smart thermostats, which can be programmed to suit your schedule, can help.

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Other things to keep in mind about your thermostat:

- The exact temperature setting depends on individual comfort. For instance, if you’re in an indoor space where you’re doing a lot of activity or you’re wearing warmer clothing, you may be able to feel comfortable at a lower temperature. But if you’re going to be spending most of your time not moving much, you may need it to be warmer.

- Understand your heating system before setting your thermostat back. If you have a ductless system, for example, setting the temperature back might not be as effective for energy savings.

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Don’t rely on traditional wood-burning fireplaces

If you’re looking for some extra heat this winter, you might turn to your fireplace if you have one. But experts say you probably want to avoid regularly lighting a wood fire on cold days.

A traditional open wood-burning fireplace “emits the greatest amount of pollution and is typically the least efficient,” according to a spokesperson with the Environmental Protection Agency. Most of the heat goes out through the chimney, making it a poor way to warm a home.

Burning logs of wood in an open fireplace can also cause air-quality problems. Experts say smoke from residential wood burning is a major cause of poor outdoor and indoor air quality in many areas across the country, particularly during winter months. Wood-burning by households can produce more than 300,000 tons per year of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, which is a hazardous air pollutant, according to the EPA’s 2017 National Emissions Inventory. In comparison, residential use of natural gas generates just over 4,000 tons per year of PM 2.5.

Wood smoke also contains carbon monoxide and other toxins, which can trigger or worsen certain health conditions.

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If you’re going to light a wood fire, here are some tips for how to burn a cleaner one:

- The hotter a fire burns, the cleaner it is. Use dry wood that has been seasoned and split well. The EPA provides online resources and guidance about burning wood through its “Burn Wise” program.

- If you’re lighting only an occasional fire, consider using a “wood/wax fire log,” which tends to be more environmentally friendly than regular wood. These logs are typically a mix of sawdust and some candle wax intended for use in fireplaces. They should not be used in wood stoves.

- Don’t burn garbage, plastic, glossy paper or wood that has been treated.

- Keep an eye on the smoke coming from your fire. A lot of smoke billowing out of your chimney is a bad sign, experts say. A properly burning fire should only be producing a thin wisp of white steam after about a half-hour.

Experts say no matter the type of fireplace, whether it’s wood-burning, pellet-burning, natural gas or electric, using one typically generates some amount of greenhouse gases and other emissions, in addition to having other environmental impacts.

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Use an electric blanket instead of a space heater

Portable electric space heaters are a popular source of warmth, particularly for those who might be dealing with inadequate heating, but the devices typically guzzle energy and can pose fire risks if they aren’t used properly.

Space heaters generally use 750 to 1,500 watts, which translates to six to 12 kilowatt hours of electricity for eight hours of use, according to experts with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit. In comparison, electric blankets generally use 50 to 200 watts, or 0.4 to 1.6 kilowatt hours of electricity.

So instead of reaching for a space heater this winter, try an electric blanket or heated foot warmer, said Stefano Schiavon, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. These warming devices are generally more energy efficient and likely to be safer than space heaters.

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But if you’re going use a space heater, consider these tips from experts:

- Avoid buying secondhand heaters.

- Make sure the unit is sized correctly for the space you’re trying to heat. An oversize unit will drive up the cost of using it.

- Check that the outlet you’re plugging your heater into has the capacity for it, and avoid using extension cords or power strips.

- Don’t place a heater on carpet or any other potentially flammable surface. Always place the unit on a hard, level nonflammable floor.

- Maintain clearance around a heater so adults, children and pets won’t bump into it. Keep it at least three feet away from anything that could burn.

- Don’t leave your heater on in rooms that aren’t occupied by an adult or run the device while you’re sleeping. Consider models that have timers.

- Unplug a heater that isn’t in use.

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