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Q: How can I keep my energy costs down?

A: A key component of energy efficiency is proper maintenance. Even if you can’t afford to make energy upgrades to your home, the following suggestions will help you lower your energy bills.

Heating is one of our biggest energy expenses. No matter what kind of system you have, improving your home’s insulation will make a big difference. The goal is to make the house airtight while ensuring that there is proper ventilation. Installing weather stripping and caulking are inexpensive ways to reduce air leakage.

Open the drapes or blinds to let sunlight warm the house during the day, then close them when the sun goes down. Be sure to have routine maintenance done on your heating system at least once a year, and clean or replace your furnace filter at least every three months during the heating season.

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If you have an air conditioner in your home, make sure to clean its filter at least once a season. A dirty air filter is less efficient and could damage the unit.

Check the air circulation throughout your home. If furniture pieces are blocking your heating vents, move them. Ceiling fans can be used in the winter to help circulate heat throughout the house.

If you have a basement, keep it fairly warm. Heat rises, so keeping your basement or first floor warm will help do the same for other levels in the home. Clean your warm-air registers, and keep them free of dust and pet hair.

In the Northwest, we love our fireplaces. But it’s important to know that traditional wood-burning fireplaces actually draw heat out of the house, whereas gas fireplaces with sealed units maximize heat use. Unless you lose power during a winter storm, it may be better to refrain from using a wood-burning fireplace during really cold weather.

Be sure to close the damper whenever you’re not using your fireplace.

In the kitchen, you can save up to 50 percent of your cooking-related energy costs when you use a microwave instead of a conventional oven.

In the summer, microwave cooking helps keep the temperature down inside the home. Toaster ovens are also energy savers. For maximum energy efficiency, make sure that air can circulate freely around microwaves, electric grills and toaster ovens.

When it’s time to install a new bathroom fan, choose one with automatic humidity sensors. The fans run long enough to remove excess moisture, and then turn themselves off to save electricity.

Low-flow showerheads and toilets limit water consumption. You also save water by taking quick action to replace worn-out washers that cause dripping faucets.

Washing your clothes in cold water can save up to 90 percent of the energy that would be used to heat the water. Adjust the water level to match the size of your load. But always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, as too little water can damage the machine.

HomeWork is the weekly column by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties’ Remodelers Council about home care, repair and improvements. If you have questions about home improvement, send them to

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