Ultimate Guide to Cheap Home Heating

When temps dip outside, it’s nice to cozy up inside, but heating your home comfortably can sometimes get expensive. Break out a blanket and snuggle up on the couch with some hot cocoa while you take a look at some ways to stay warm without breaking the bank.

Cheap Heating is All About Efficiency

"Cheap" goes hand in hand with efficient, especially when we're talking about home heating. If you want to save money with a heating system upgrade, you have to prepare your house. A home energy audit can identify items to address such as leaky windows and doors, or improved insulation.

Professional analysis can run you around $150 as of this writing, though you should check with your energy company before you pay for one—some utility agencies offer special support or discounts as incentives.

Low-Cost Ways to Seal Things Up

Common locations for drafts to enter are windows, doors, and any access points like pipes, chimneys, and attic hatches. Weather stripping and re-caulking around doors and windows are both low-cost and easy methods, providing a protective barrier between you and the cold.

Install thermal curtains and keep them closed to retain heat. They won't work well if you prefer to let in natural light during the dark winter months. If you can't stand the thought of not being able to admire your winter gardenscape, try applying transparent window film, which allows you to look outside while keeping the cold air out.

If your DIY interests lean more toward the crafty side, try sewing your own door snake, AKA door draft stopper—a weighted tube that rests at the bottom of the door to help keep the heat in. If you’ve got other DIY projects you’d rather do instead of sitting at a sewing machine, use a tightly rolled-up towel for similar results. A fireplace without a properly sealing flue is another chance to test your crafting skills. Try making your own chimney balloon out of cardboard and bubble wrap so you can avoid spending $50 for an inflatable one from the home improvement store. Just don’t forget to remove it if you want to use the fireplace!

person in protective gear spraying insulation on a ceiling

Insulation

We all know how important insulation is to keep your house cool in summer and warm in winter. These products fall into four types: spray-foam, blown-in, fiberglass batts, and reflective barriers. All work well and have varying price-points. Final costs are significantly cheaper for the DIYer, but as with any large scale undertaking, take your specific requirements into consideration such as budget, the area you’re insulating, and the R-value of your home.

Each one of these can pose a restriction on your project. For example, installing a reflective barrier may be the cheapest option for your 500 square foot attic, but this type of insulation is more effective in warmer climates where they reduce the radiant heat rather than slow it. Your expense can easily double if you choose this material, only to discover it would be more effective when used in conjunction with another type of insulation.

Types of Heating Systems

modern passive solar house with glass walls

Passive Solar

Passive solar systems use no mechanical devices like fans, pipes, or pumps, and they don’t need any electricity to run. These systems use the heat of the sun absorbed via concrete floors, brick walls, or other internal thermal mass. As the sun streams through south facing windows, floors and walls collect the heat during the day and release it at night. It is essential windows are low-e rated, and the area is air-tight and well insulated.

Incorporating a passive solar system in a new build is far easier than attempting to add one to an existing home since the entire home can be designed with considerations made for the system. While it's possible to add passive solar to an existing home, it's easiest to do in the form of an addition like a sunroom or an added bank of windows on the south-facing side of the house.

Active Solar

Solar hot air systems are often used to supplement an existing heating system. They use solar collectors mounted on south facing walls. When the temperature reaches a set point, it activates a fan which draws cooler air from the house into the collector where it heats up and is cycled back into the home. These systems are inexpensive and fairly easy to set up as long as you know where the electrical lines and plumbing pipes are located.

Efficient, long-lasting, and low maintenance, solar hot air systems provide significant bang for your buck. Before beginning the project, it’s wise to consult with a professional installer who can give you an idea of the size of the system you’ll need to heat your home.

house with solar panels on the roof

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps, whether ductless or ducted, air-source or ground-source (a.k.a. geothermal system), are a popular heating option for its energy efficiency and low environmental impact. They run on electricity, so you’re not completely free of dependence on fossil fuels, but because those fuels aren’t burned in your home, you don’t run the risk of indoor air pollution.

An added advantage of this system is its ability to cool the home during the warmer months. The initial investment can be high, with the geothermal systems far more expensive since they require ductwork in the house and outdoor excavation for pipework leading deep in the ground. It pays you back in savings on your electric bill reaped over the years of use.

Furnaces

Boilers or furnaces have dramatically increased in efficiency over the years. If installed with direct venting into combustion chambers, indoor air pollution and cold air infiltration are both reduced significantly. While both a boiler or furnace can be electric, they can also be oil or gas, so before you decide against these options because of their usage of fossil fuels, keep in mind they are also much more efficient these days, using far less of these fuels than their predecessors ever did.

hand loading wood stove with a piece of wood under a pot

Wood Stoves

A wood stove may sound like an old fashioned option, but modern wood stoves are developed to produce less air pollution, and often designed with a fan that circulates the warm air for improved heating efficiency. Homeowners who have access to firewood on their property can contribute to the renewability of their resources by planting trees after harvesting. Cost and energy efficiency aside, wood stoves tend to produce more air pollution than any of the other renewable energy heaters, and are considerably more work with weekly maintenance of removing the ashes.

Even better, wood stoves offer the one-two punch of heating your home while cooking your food!

Smart Heating

Add a programmable thermostat at a low-cost for high-payback. It allows you to set the temperature to your work and sleep schedules so you don't end up heating the house while you're gone, and setting it to cooler temps while you sleep. And don't forget to scoop up any energy rebates to help defray the costs of your new system.