By Lynette Holloway

Jamie Swise, a Chicago-based weatherization expert, said President-elect Barack Obama made his job a whole lot easier when during a recent debate he urged Americans “to weatherize” their homes to save energy.

Obama made the appeal at a presidential debate last month before his election in response to a question about sacrifices his administration would ask Americans to make during these tumultuous economic times.

“Here you have the soon-to-be president of the United States stressing the importance of weatherization,” Swise said after the election. “He’s got a lot of people thinking about how weatherizing their homes can help save energy. You can’t beat that.”

Swise, who has been in the business of weatherizing homes for 10 years and works with the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, one of the largest weatherization programs in the nation, says having such support coming from on high is important because the issue has long been ignored. Ignoring the issue, Swise and other experts say, is foolhardy because weatherization adds up to savings and goes a long way toward helping to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. And in some cases, the effort doesn’t cost a dime.

Easy Steps, Money Back

“Most people can start by lowering the furnace (settings),” Swise said. “Most people have it up too high. They should also change the filter. These simple steps can result in immediate savings.”

Clogged filters force furnaces to heat the same area. Clean filters help remove dust and mold from the air, resulting in cleaner air. Filters should be checked monthly.

Additionally, homeowners can receive federal tax breaks if they replace their furnace, windows or doors with higher efficiency replacements. The long fought-over incentives passed as part of the $700 billion bailout bill approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in October.

The law extended or added several energy tax incentives – allowing homeowners to get tax rebates for installing Energy Star-rated windows and doors, insulation, roofs or heating and cooling equipment. The total amount of the credit is capped at $500.

Each item carries different rules. Homeowners can get back, for instance, 10 percent of the cost of new storm windows and skylights or exterior doors and insulation up to the $500 allowed.

For more details check with The Alliance to Save Energy, which has outlined these tax incentives and similar ones that apply to automobiles.

The Alliance also suggests several simple ways homeowners can reduce their winter heating bills:

  • Turn down the thermostat at night and add a blanket to the bed
  • Lower the temperature on the water heater to the “warm” settings, and buy a water tank insulation wrap to help the water heater retain heat
  • Reduce hot water use by washing in cold water and taking showers instead of baths.

Seal It Up

Another big first step homeowners can take is to seal open airways, whether they are doorways, or around pipes or duct work. One way to identify open passages is to conduct a blower door test, which helps determine a home’s airtightness. But you’ll have to hire a professional energy auditor to do this correctly.

You can check for leaks yourself, looking for obvious openings and feeling for air flow at duct junctures and around window frames. See this consumer’s guide for more ideas.