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Column: We have a lot to do for home energy efficiency

By Jimmy Martin

After a mild start, winter has surely landed in Alabama over the past month. We have seen snow and hard freezes in almost every part of the state. How many winters can we remember when school has been canceled in any county of the state, let alone most of them? Old man winter is about as familiar in these parts as snow blowers and ice fishing, and yet he has certainly made his acquaintance with us this year.
We kid that there are really just two seasons in Alabama: summer and everything else. Winter is something that happens maybe for a couple of days or weeks. This year it certainly seems that the cold has been with us forever, and there is no doubt that we will be welcoming and noticing spring just a little bit more.   We are not used to harsh cold. Our pipes freeze or worse. We don’t drive well with slush and ice. And the extreme cold (for our state) sees our energy bills go up.
Again, this is a clear indication of how cold it has been in Alabama. Traditionally the summer months are the peak energy use months, with our air conditioning and other efforts to overcome rising temperatures and soaking humidity. When you go to web sites and other information resources on how to save energy for Alabama households, you see dozens of ideas on how to “beat the heat,” but much less on “how to save on heating.” Well, right now the farthest thing from our minds is how to beat heat; heat is the friendliest word in the English language.
There are some year round things you can do to save on energy on heating that are just as effective for winter as it is in summer.
First and foremost, the thing you can do to improve the efficiency of your heating unit is to make sure your air filter is clean. Replacing a dirty and clogged filter is basic and inexpensive maintenance, and experts say the most overlooked thing you can do to reduce energy use. A new filter improves the performance of your heating system, and will extend the life of your system by keeping dirt out of coils and fans that are the workhorses of any heating and cooling system. The rule of thumb is to replace it once a month.
The cold in our homes makes drafts more apparent than they would be in the summer months.
Check the windows and doors for air leaks, and most hardware stores have a wide variety of simple insulation and weather stripping materials that you can use without leaving the door open for an hour as you try and install it. Experts say it is often the little things that can add up to the biggest savings, like putting a sweeper on an exterior door, or at a minimum put a towel or blanket from keeping the cold air coming in.
The problems with cold and energy use are often made worse by the age of the home and household income. Folks on limited incomes, especially seniors who have lived in their house for decades, have the most need for weather stripping and energy efficiency and have the least ability to do it.
The Weatherization Assistance Program, a decades-old effort at the U.S. Department of Energy, was expanded in the federal stimulus package passed last year, with more than $70 million earmarked for Alabama to help weatherize homes, build a decent weatherization industry in the state with more trained professionals, and set a system of non-profits and contractors statewide that can do the job.
That money was approved in June of last year. Unfortunately, the program has only drawn down a little more than $6 million of the total funds to date, but has hopefully laid the groundwork to effectively start weatherizing Alabama homes.
We are behind other states in using these federal funds, but let’s face it, we are seemingly starting from scratch while states above the Mason-Dixon line do this kind of thing all the time.
Just like dealing with snow.