Q&A: Lauren Urbanek on keeping warm and saving energy

Lauren Urbanek
Jan 31, 2019

Lauren Urbanek is a senior energy policy advocate in the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her work focuses on ways to reduce energy consumption at homes and businesses through improved energy codes and equipment standards. She knows a lot about efficient buildings and appliances and clean energy.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers, Marie Kondo or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Lauren Urbanek of the Natural Resources Defense Council can help you feel warm and cozy in this frigid winter chill. As the senior energy policy advocate, climate & clean energy program, she focuses on reducing the energy consumption of homes and businesses through improved energy codes and equipment standards. She can help you with your questions about heating your home and saving money. Let's chat.

Good morning, hope everyone is staying warm on this cold day. Let's talk about how to save energy!

What do you think is a good temperature to have your heat on during the night? My husband and I fight about this.

This is a common dispute! The Department of Energy recommends setting your thermostat to 68 degrees in the winter, then setting it lower when you're away or asleep. Setting it back to the low 60s at night or while you're out of the house could save you up to 10% on your heating costs. Of course, where you set your thermostat depends on your comfort level, but I personally find I sleep better in a cooler room with a nice heavy blanket - and I sleep better knowing I'm saving energy!

I prefer to leave my heat on a certain temperature day and night. Is that okay? Am I wasting energy?

If you're not home during the day, it's more energy efficient to set your thermostat to a lower temperature so that you're not heating an empty house. You may benefit from using a programmable thermostat: if you have a fairly regular schedule, it's easy to set your thermostat for your home to be cooler when you're not there (or warmer, in summer months), but have your heating or cooling system kick on so that it's comfortable by the time you walk in the door. The Energy Star website has great tips about how to use a programmable thermostat. You can save up to $180 in annual energy costs, and your utility may even offer a rebate to bring down the cost of the thermostat itself. 

Fortunately we get eastern and western exposure from our windows. So we open the blinds for the western facing windows before we leave home. Amazing how much heat the sun can generate thru the day. Summertime we make sure the blinds/curtains stay close to keep out the outdoor heat and sun.

That's a great - and free! - way to save energy: use your window coverings. On a cold day like today, you may want to close your blinds to prevent drafts. But on warmer days, sun-lit windows will give a great solar boost to a room, which will not only make it warmer but also means you don't have to turn on lights, which saves even more energy. Another tip: consider hanging cellular shades tight and close to your windows. They will act as an extra layer of insulation in the winter or the summer, while still letting light through. 


Can furnace filters help with heating costs and saving on fuel? What type do you recommend?

Yes! It's important to replace your furnace filter regularly. We recommend you check it about once a month. A dirty filter means that your heating system has to work harder to circulate air around your house, which makes it operate less efficiently and use more fuel. And, when your system is constantly running in overdrive, it can lead it to fail sooner or cause other issues. As for the type of filter, it's important to make sure it's the proper size. Otherwise the filter type depends mostly on your preference (its ability to filter out different allergens, etc).

We keep our thermostat at 68 during the day (we work from home so we're always here) and 65 at night, but our bedroom is in the basement and gets really cold. So we run a space heater at night. Is there a way to calculate whether it would be cheaper to raise the thermostat on the whole house (gas furnace) versus warming up just the bedroom with the (electric) space heater?

Sounds like you may be a good candidate for an energy audit. Check with your local utility - many offer energy audits for reduced cost. An auditor will be able to come to your home and diagnose why your bedroom is cold, and whether it makes more sense to run the space heater or do something like add more insulation. I've had this same issue in my own house, and found that adding more insulation helped immensely!

Hi! On the super cold days we use the wood stove in the basement. Unfortunately the heat doesn't get much upstairs well. Is there something we could be doing to help that warm air migrate up the stairs? Thanks!

You may want to consider checking the insulation levels of your house. An energy audit is the best way to do this. While that won't help directly get the air up the stairs, adding more insulation will mean that the warm air stays in your house, rather than escaping through un-insulated nooks and crannies. That means your whole house will be warmer and more comfortable!

I had some remodeling (bathrooms & kitchen) done on my 1955 split level house after inheriting some money. A coworker (a construction estimator) advised me that new windows would make a huge difference. I had storm windows over the original windows, but I went ahead and had double-pane replacement windows installer (it cost about $8,000). It has made a HUGE difference. My house is staying much warmer. The same man advised that getting new siding would not be a good investment, because the foam board insulation under vinyl siding is only about R-5.

I'm glad to hear you're more comfortable. You bring up a good point: windows can be expensive. While in many cases your windows may need to be replaced, I always recommend that homeowners also think about the insulation levels in their walls, too. It's often cheaper than replacing windows, and most of the time a contractor can blow insulation into the walls and the attic without needing to disrupt siding. If you're looking for another way to improve your home's insulation, get an energy audit and add more insulation. Utility companies often have rebates for both, so you can be more comfortable and save money.

Owner of a 1929 bungalow that is reaching the end of its useful life and looking for a complete rehabilitation. On the energy side I read of PRIUS houses. I'd like to make a go of that without making the house look boxy and dark. Where does one start?

A full rehab is a great time to upgrade the efficiency of your house. The good news is that you'll likely be required to meet a new version of the building energy code, meaning you'll have more insulation, better windows, and more efficient heating and cooling systems. I think you're referring to Passive Haus (www.phius.org), which is a great resource for information related to energy efficient buildings and comfort. Choose a contractor who specializes in energy efficiency. I wouldn't be too worried about the house looking boxy and dark - technologies have improved a lot since your house was first built, so it's totally possible to keep the historic charm AND be efficient and comfortable.

Live in an older condo that has through-the-wall AC/Heating units. Due to the historic designation and condo association covenants, putting in Central AC/Heat is not an option. Since we have heat/cool through-the-wall units, which while sealed aren't letting through tons of air through gaps, it still means they're hard to have turned on or off. Is there any type of timer or thermostat we might be able to somehow tie to these so they're not running 24-7?

Newer models of these types of products are available with a wi-fi capability, so that they can be programmed and controlled remotely. I don't know offhand of a way to retrofit an older model, but when you're looking to replace them, definitely consider one with programmable capability. And, look for the Energy Star label - that means you'll be choosing one of the most efficient products on the market.

I have old hot water radiators in a large Victorian. Given the long response time of the heating system, does it make sense to lower the thermostat during the day and at night, or should I just leave it at a constant temperature?

I also live in an old house with radiators. I've found that it absolutely makes sense from an energy efficiency perspective to lower the thermostat during the day and at night! I recently installed a "smart" programmable thermostat that I can control from my phone. I set what time I want my house to be warm when I get home, and the thermostat learns how long it takes for my home to warm up. Your utility may have rebates for programmable thermostats, too.

We have three large trees in our front yard. Two of them are very close to the house, and I worry when we have strong winds. I want to have them all taken down, but my husband argues that the green canopy helps the house stay cooler in summer. That's probably true, but I think the risk isn't worth it. What can we replace them with to be safer while still getting some natural protection against summer heat?

That's a tough call. There's no doubt that tree canopy helps your home stay cooler in the summer. I'd recommend talking to an arborist to determine the risk of keeping them up, which may help you make your decision. If you end up having to remove them, a tree expert can also give advice about the best thing to replace them. And in the meantime, if your house is too hot or too cold, you may want to look into an energy audit and add more insulation. That will help save energy and make sure you're more comfortable even on the hottest or coldest days.

If you have an old gas furnace, is it a good idea to have a humidifier attached to it?

A humidifier can definitely help a room feel  more comfortable in the winter! You may want to consider using one particularly at night, and you may find you'll be comfortable while lowering the thermostat temperature.

So timely to have Lauren Urbanek on the chat today as we have bone chilling temperatures all over the country. Thanks so much. Designer Annie Elliott is scheduled to be on next week discussing downsizing. Keep as warm as you can.

My windows are terrible. The cold air comes right through. I do have heavy curtains in most rooms and that helps. What else can I do, short of replacing them?

Using your curtains to keep cold air out is a great start. I recommend getting an energy audit! They're often subsidized by your utility, and a professional can come in and evaluate your whole house. They may recommend something like storm windows, or it may turn out that your house could benefit from insulation and air sealing (which is often much less expensive than replacing all your windows). 

Lauren! Great to see you are keeping up the good work! While it may be too late to make major changes today, what would you say is the single most important thing a consumer can do to avoid getting hurt by high energy bills arising from cold snaps on a day like today (or summer heat waves)?

Pay attention to the energy efficiency of your home. Unless your home was constructed in the past year or two - and constructed with a focus on energy efficiency - there's a good chance you can benefit from more insulation in your walls or attic. An energy audit is a great first step, and will give you a tailored way to make the right improvements that are best for your specific house. Energy efficiency improvements always pay for themselves over time by lowering utility bills. You can't say the same thing about granite countertops!

Thanks for the great questions, everyone! Visit nrdc.org to learn more about how you can make your home more energy efficient. 

I have glass instead of fake logs in my vented gas fireplace.. the glass throws off so much radiant heat, my furnace does not kick in as much.. say it kicks in approximately 70% of the time it does without the fireplace. Do you think this is efficient or do you think I am wasting gas by sending it up the chimney? I own a 1920’ bungalow and only heat the first floor (1200 square feet). Thank you.

There are a lot of factors at play here. A lot depends on how efficient your house is, overall, meaning whether you have insulation in your walls and attic, whether air is leaking out of your windows, and whether you have weatherstripping around your doors. It also depends on the age and condition of your furnace. An energy audit will help you answer all of those questions. You may find that adding more insulation to your house could mean that your furnace kicks on even less! 

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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