Here are a few heat- and money-saving ideas that elderly people can do themselves without having to hire someone

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Q: I live on a fixed income, and every winter I have to make choices on where I can spend money because of the heating bills. I have an older gas furnace and a fireplace to heat with. Do you have any ideas that elderly people can do themselves without having to hire someone?

A: In many areas, the local utility company can average your costs for the use of natural gas and bill you over a 12-month period. This will help you in setting a budget for the winter.

If you use the fireplace for heating, you are most likely losing more energy than you need and it is not practical unless your firewood is supplied to you for free.

The first thing would be to seal the damper to the open chimney. When the air outside is cold, it will come down the chimney flue and cool the home and the walls of the chimney. Use a piece of unfaced fiberglass insulation to stuff the opening to the chimney. Make sure the fireplace does not have any embers; then cover the fireplace opening with cardboard or a blanket. This will stop drafts and remind you not to use the fireplace with the blocked flue.

Next, use a long stick of incense to produce smoke. Walk around the home’s interior near windows and doors to see if there are major air leaks. Stay away from curtains and any other combustible material when using the smoking stick.

You can seal cracks around leaky windows and doors by caulking their exterior frames. Doors and openings to attics can be air-sealed using self-adhesive weather stripping, which is available at all home stores.

You can also make an interior storm window by installing plastic insulation (also available at home stores). Heavy curtains will help to insulate the windows against heat loss, but they need to be opened for sunlight which helps to heat the home.

Use the incense stick to check for air leaks near outlets and switches on outside walls. Some estimates place the energy loss through utility openings as high as .5 percent of total energy loss. You can seal around the cover plates with messy caulk or, for best results, purchase foam seals designed for switches and outlets. They cost about 35 cents each.

Replacing the furnace filter every three to four months will help conserve energy. Some experts estimate that you can lose up to 20 percent of your conditioned air (air that you’ve paid to heat or cool) through the openings or seams in the ductwork in an attic, crawl space and attached garage. Add loose-fill attic insulation if you can afford it.

Some utility companies offer rebates for some of the improvements mentioned above. Contact your local utility company for assistance.

C. Dwight Barnett is a certified master inspector with the American Society of Home Inspectors. Send questions to