Heating & Cooling

Because you spend the largest portion of your energy dollars staying warm or cool, you’ll save the most on energy by taking steps to use your heating and cooling systems more efficiently. Follow these tips, and you can reduce your heating and cooling bills by as much as 50%.

Heating and cooling: 44%. Lighting and appliances: 33%. Water heating: 14%. Refrigerator: 9%.
Heating and Cooling: The Biggest Piece of the Energy Pie
Adapted from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers booklet, available at the Department of Energy website

Simple Steps You Can Take to Save on Heating and Cooling

There are many simple, low-cost (or no-cost) things you can do every day to reduce your use of energy for heating and cooling, such as setting your thermostat appropriately or using ceiling fans to circulate heated or cooled air more effectively.

Set Your Thermostat on “Savings”

The single best way to reduce heating and cooling costs is to set your thermostat at 78 degrees or higher in summer and 68 degrees or lower in winter. If you’re keeping your thermostat at 72 degrees in the summer, consider this: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, raising that setting to 78 degrees could save you up to 47% on cooling costs.

You’ll save additionally by greater adjustments to your thermostat (higher in summer, lower in winter) while you are away from home or asleep. When you return or wake up, don’t set it at an unnaturally lower or higher setting to try to cool or heat the house faster. That doesn’t work; it just cools or heats the house more than you need, which uses more energy.

Do keep in mind that if you have an infant or an older person living in your home, they may require cooler or warmer temperatures to stay healthy. Use your common sense.

Fact: Every degree above 78 that you set your thermostat in summer will save up to 3% on cooling costs.

thermostat illustrationProgrammable Thermostats

For maximum energy efficiency in heating or cooling, use a programmable thermostat to automatically adjust the setting when you leave the house or go to bed and then turn it back to normal when you return or wake up. Programmable thermostats range in cost from $45 to $100 plus, but can easily pay for themselves in energy savings.

Consider the Alternatives

The principle is simple: It’s a lot cheaper to move air around than it is to heat or cool it. With that in mind, consider these ways to stay cool in summer and warm in winter without depending entirely on your central system.

  • In the heat of the summer, use fans to circulate cooled air while you keep the thermostat at a higher setting.
  • If you live in a part of the state with low humidity, consider an evaporative cooler as an alternative to central air conditioning. Evaporative coolers use water evaporation to cool the air and a fan to circulate it.
  • In spring and fall, when it’s not particularly hot or cold, a whole-house fan can be an excellent alternative to your central system. Installed in the ceiling, a whole house fan draws outdoor air inside to cool the house.


  • Use pleated instead of mesh filters in your central air-and-heat system for better filtration.
  • In winter, set your ceiling fan to turn clockwise to send warm air downward into the room. In summer, set it to turn counter-clockwise to circulate cool air through the room.

Options for Heating & Cooling Your Home

  • Heating and cooling systems inside a house illustrationDuring temperate weather, consider leaving windows and doors open if you feel safe doing so.
  • Use floor and ceiling fans to circulate air.
  • For maximum cooling, use the central system supplemented by fans, and lower window shades to keep out the sun.
  • For maximum heating, use the central system supplemented by fans, and open shades to take advantage of the sun’s rays.

Get Your Ducts in a Row

Are the air ducts in your home delivering all the warmth or cooling your system is generating—or are they losing it due to poor performance? Here’s what you can do to make sure your ducts are working properly and delivering the conditioned air you’re paying for.

Be sure your ducts aren’t leaking. You or your service professional will be looking for:

  • Obvious holes in the ducts.
  • Dirty spots on the duct insulation and around air vents.
  • Areas where connections have become separated.

If you find only a few problem areas and you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can repair and seal them with duct tape. Just be sure to use tape with the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) logo on it to avoid tape degradation or cracking over time. However, if you find that your ductwork is very poorly insulated or has extensive leakage problems, call a service professional.

Home Improvements That Can Save You Plenty

Energy-related home improvements may not be as inexpensive as buying a fan or as simple as scheduling a system checkup, but they can be well worth the expense or time they require.

Save With a Heat Pump

Like standard systems, heat pumps can meet your heating and cooling needs in one unit. The difference is that a heat pump will heat for significantly less cost than a typical electric resistance-heating unit. There are two types of heat pumps available today.

  1. Air-source heat pumps draw heat from the air outside to heat your home in winter, and expel heat outside to cool your home in summer. An air-source heat pump may reduce your heating costs by up to 50 percent if you convert from an electric furnace to an all-electric air-source heat pump. Generally, the colder it gets where you are, the less the savings, since the colder the air outside, the more difficult it is to extract heat from it.
  2. Ground-source heat pumps (also known as geothermal or earth-energy systems) make use of the earth’s ability to store natural heat. They pump heat from deep in the earth into your home rather than taking it from the air. A ground-source heat pump may cost more than a conventional system, but the energy savings could pay for the unit in three to five years.

Tip: When buying a new central system or heat pump, check the unit’s Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) number. The higher the SEER, the more efficient the unit’s performance.

Be Good to the Planet and Your Pocketbook: Go Solar

Using passive solar energy to heat and cool your home can cut your heating costs by more than 50% and help reduce your cooling costs, too. If you’re building a new home or doing a major renovation of your existing home, consider passive solar techniques such as:

  • Placing larger, insulated windows on south-facing walls for more efficient heating.
  • Improving heat transfer by locating thermal mass, such as a concrete slab floor or heat-absorbing wall, close to windows.
  • Using reflective coatings on windows, exterior walls, and roofs to keep out heat in summer.
  • Installing strategically designed overhangs to shade the house from the summer sun.

Keep the Air Inside Where It Belongs

Floors, walls, and ceilings: 31%. Ducts: 15%. Fireplace: 14%. Plumbing penetrations: 13%. Doors: 11%. Windows: 10%. Fans and vents: 4%. Electric outlets: 2%.
Where Does the Air Go?
Adapted from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers booklet, available at the Department of Energy website

If your heating and cooling dollars are going out the window due to air leaks in your house, you need to caulk, weather-strip, and insulate.

Caulking, or filling cracks and gaps in your home will eliminate air leakage around doors and windows as well as in areas where plumbing, ducting or electrical wiring penetrates the house. Weather-stripping is also useful around doors and windows that leak air.

Insulation creates a barrier of resistance to keep heat from escaping in winter or coming in during summer. The “R-factor” assigned to different types of insulation refers to the level of resistance. Different R-factor ratings are appropriate for different parts of the state, so check with your co-op and a local insulation dealer to see what’s right for you.

lightweight fencing and wire lacing as insulationTip: In a multi-story building, lightweight fencing or wire lacing retains insulation between floors.

The best place to start insulating is the attic. That’s because heat tends to rise and is therefore more likely to be lost or gained through the highest part of the house. The attic is also one of the easiest places to install insulation.

Attic Insulation

  • Measure carefully to be sure you buy the correct amount of insulation.
  • Get the right stuff. Choose batts or blankets to fit between joists, and use rolls or blankets on the attic floor.
  • Install a vapor barrier of thick plastic sheeting if you choose insulation in the form of “faced” batts or blankets.
  • Follow the product instructions and wear proper protective gear when installing insulation.
  • Have attic vents installed along the ceiling cavity; this will ensure proper airflow from soffit to attic to control moisture and maintain the insulating power.

Fact: More than 600,000 cubic feet of air passes through the older Texas house daily. That’s enough to fill three Goodyear blimps every 24 hours.

three blimps over house illustration

Let the Sunshine In (But Only in Winter)

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that one-fourth of the energy used to cool and heat your home is lost through windows.

Inside the Home

  • Use lined draperies, opaque roller shades, or special thermal shades on windows.
  • Choose carpeting over fibrous padding for optimal heat gain or loss.
  • Use fabric or woven wall coverings.

Outside Your Home

  • Consider installing storm windows and double-pane windows, which are at least twice as effective as single-pane windows.
  • When you do spring planting, choose deciduous greenery for the south and west sides of your house that will leaf out and block the sun in summer—but lose its leaves and let in warming rays in winter.
  • Consider the new solar panels that can absorb and dissipate up to 70% of the sun’s heat and glare before it reaches the windows. They are easy to install and can be removed in winter.

Keep the Home Fires Burning Efficiently

As much as 30% of your conditioned air could vanish right up the chimney. That’s because a fireplace needs air to keep the fire burning—and it gets that air from inside your home, where you’ve already paid to make the air warm. Take these steps to improve fireplace efficiency:

  • fireplace damper illustrationCover the firebox opening with tight-fitting metal or glass doors.
  • Have a tight-fitting flue damper with an accessible handle; keep the damper open when the fireplace is in use and closed when it’s not.
  • Use a combustion air intake with a tight-fitting damper to draw air from outside into the firebox.
  • Keep ash box clean, especially if outside, to provide air source.
  • Use well-aged firewood, which burns hotter and cleaner.
  • Caulk around the hearth.
  • Plug and seal the chimney flues of unused fireplaces.

Tip: Keep your fireplace damper closed unless a fire is going. Leaving the damper open is like throwing open a 48-inch window. The damper should be well sealed. It’s best to cover the firebox opening with metal or glass doors, which will restrict the amount of heated air drawn from the house.

Stay Out of Hot Water

Showers and baths: 49%. Clothes washer: 26%. Dishwasher: 14%. Sinks: 11%.
U.S. Hot Water Usage
Adapted from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers booklet, available at the Department of Energy website

Water heating accounts for a sizable part of your energy bill—about 14%. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to ensure that you have plenty of hot water without wasting energy in the process.

Start by thinking of ways to use less hot water:

  • Take showers instead of tub baths.
  • Install low-flow showerheads and faucets.
  • You can also reduce your energy consumption for water heating by turning down the water heater thermostat. (A setting of 120 degrees will provide a comfortable water temperature for most uses.)
  • Insulate your hot-water storage tanks and pipes to reduce heat loss.

Regular System Maintenance

Like any other mechanical device, a central heating and cooling system will only work well if it’s regularly maintained. That means keeping the system properly “tuned” with regular professional checkups, frequent filter cleanings or replacements, and periodic observation of both the inside and outside units.

Heating and Cooling in a Nutshell

  • Set the thermostat at 78 degrees in summer, 68 degrees in winter
  • Consider alternatives such as fans to take the load off your central system
  • Have your system serviced regularly for efficient operation
  • Clean or replace filters regularly
  • Keep ducts in good repair to avoid air leaks
  • Caulk, weather-strip, and insulate
  • Install storm windows and double-pane windows
  • Landscape with plants that will block the sun in summer and let it in during winter
  • Choose window coverings, carpet, and wall coverings with energy efficiency in mind
  • Take steps to minimize air loss through the fireplace
  • Lower the water heater thermostat to 120 degrees