It has been a long, hard and cold winter in many states, especially the Northeast and Midwest, but also in normally moderate regions such as the Carolinas as well.

Combined with higher natural gas prices, the cold weather is putting a big squeeze on consumers' wallets. While it may be too late for this year, you can definitely find ways to reduce energy use and lower bills when winter again shows up at the door in December.

And when I say too late, I mean for this winter. Efforts should now be directed to projects that will help reduce cooling costs this summer.

The National Association of Home Builders' Research Center and Rebuilding Together, which calls itself the nation's largest volunteer home-rehab organization, have come up with a demonstration project near Annapolis, Md., designed to show how anyone can cut energy costs by 20 percent a year.

The project focuses specifically on reducing energy costs in low-income homes.

"The number of low-income homeowners spending as much as 50 percent of their income on housing rose 36 percent in the last few years," said Patty Johnson, president of Rebuilding Together.

"People are having to make difficult choices among medicine, food, electricity or heat," she said. "Our mission is to help these homeowners live in warm, dry and safe houses. Implementing these energy efficiency measures will enable them to do so."

Here are some of the things they came up with that fit the conditions in most areas of the country:

  • Insulate areas near exterior penetrations -- electrical service, plumbing lines, telephone/television cables, ductwork for vents and fans, and the flue pipe into the chimney.
  • Insulate areas near penetrations to your attic or basement, electrical wiring and fixtures, and plumbing supply and waste lines.
  • Caulk the sill plate around the perimeter of the house from the exterior, if it is accessible.
  • Weather-strip/insulate your attic access panel. Install gaskets beneath receptacle and switch-cover plates.
  • If you are replacing the siding on your house, take that opportunity to install exterior air barrier or house wrap.
  • Replace broken or missing windowpanes and replace locking hardware. Re-glaze windows, caulk exterior frame and interior trim, and weather-strip sashes.
  • Repaint exterior wood window frames and sashes.
  • Install exterior or interior storm windows. If you can afford to, install low-e replacement windows.
  • Replace and adjust lock sets on exterior doors, and replace doors leading to spaces without heat or air conditioning.
  • Caulk around exterior door frames and re-glaze as needed. Replace weather stripping and install door sweeps on exterior doors or doors that adjoin unheated spaces.
  • Insulate the attic to at least R-38 and the floor above an unheated or non-air-conditioned basement or crawl space to R-19. Insulate exterior walls.
  • Have your furnace, boiler or heat pump professionally cleaned and serviced each year. Replace the furnace filter with a pleated one.
  • Seal ductwork in unheated or non-air-conditioned spaces with mastic or aluminum tape. Install a programmable thermostat.
  • Reduce water-heater thermostat setting to 120 degrees, or "medium." Install a water heater insulation blanket. Flush the water heater to remove sediment.
  • If you are replacing the water heater, install an energy-efficient model.
  • Install pipe insulation on hot and cold lines within five feet of the water heater, as well as on all hot-water pipes in unheated spaces, such as an unfinished basement.
  • Replace washers on bath and kitchen-sink faucets and install low-flow aerators.
  • Install low-flow showerheads and a toilet-flow reduction bag. What's that? It's a specially designed plastic bag that can displace about two-thirds of a gallon of water. It costs about $6 and hangs in the toilet tank without moving around or interfering with the toilet's operation. The bag is not designed for low-flow toilets, however.
  • Replace light bulbs. Install compact fluorescent bulbs in high-use areas, such as the kitchen, living room, entryway and porch -- but not in dimmable fixtures. Install a light-sensitive or motion-sensitive fixture at the main entrance.
  • Vacuum refrigerator coils and clean the fan grill. Consider replacing your refrigerator if it was manufactured before 1990, which can mean a savings of about $50 per year in energy costs.
  • Clean or replace dryer, range hood, and bath fan vents with dampered vents.

The Maryland home used in the experiment features blown fiberglass wall insulation, high-efficiency replacement windows, new siding, a new roof, attic, floor and water-heater insulation, and a new air-conditioning system.

You may not be able to get to everything, but try to do as much as you can. It will help.

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