Low temperatures usually bring high energy bills in Wisconsin, and students sometimes sacrifice warmth for savings.
Those residing off-campus are often faced with old, poorly insulated buildings with drafty doors and windows that allow warm air to escape and cold air to enter.
“My bills definitely go up during the winter,” said Ben Gutknecht, junior resource management major. “The windows in my apartment let a lot of cold air in, and it’s pretty frustrating.”
Gutknecht said he and his roommates wait as long as they can before turning on the heat for the first time to make up for the spike in costs during January and February.
“Those months are just always so cold,” he said. “We all expect to pay more then, but it’d be nice if the price was a little more manageable.”
Heating systems in buildings that are not weatherized use more energy to maintain a comfortable temperature, but experts said following a few simple guidelines could have a big effect on bills.
Dave Barbier, sustainability coordinator, said the most simple step toward lowering bills is to keep furnaces or heating elements from overworking by setting thermostats at 68 degrees or less.
“If you can go lower and accept the fact that you may need to use some more blankets or wear sweat pants and a hoodie, that is probably the biggest thing you can do,” Barbier said.
A programmable thermostat, Barbier said, is an effective way to regulate furnace use because it allows the user to set specific times for temperature adjustment.
Roomates, for instance, may use the device to automatically raise temperature during the morning and evening when people are a wake and moving,but lower heat during the night and daytime hours, saving energy, he said.
Modern thermostat’s are relatively affordable, though not cheap, Barbier said. He encourages students to pursue their landlords to pay for installation of the hardware.
Barbier also suggests using weather stripping around the sides and bottom of doors. Weather stripping can be bought at a hardware store, or a cheap alternative would be to jam a towel along the base of the doorway, he said.
Jordan Kaiser of North Wind Renewable Energy said an evaluation by a professional company is a good starting place for those looking for a more thorough solution to home performance.
He said air leaks around windows can be difficult to discern, but even small ones decrease efficiency.
The company uses a blower door test, where a fan mounted in a doorway pulls air out of the house, exposing any unsealed cracks. It also uses an infrared camera to locate areas where warm and cool air is escaping from a building.
A basic fix for windows, he said, can be done simply by feeling for air leaks around the frame and sealing them with consumer grade plastic wrap.
“You can go down to the local hardware store and get some plastic window wrap. Those are always a good step,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t look good to have plastic over your windows all winter though.”
Water pipes, heaters and air ducts are another source of inefficiency in many buildings. Kaiser said many people aren’t aware of how much energy may be lost in those areas.
“People sometimes put insulation in and say ‘that should be good,’ but they may have miscalculated,” Kaiser said. “Insulating pipes to and from the water heater is something that’s so easy to do, but most people don’t do it.”
Barbier said insulating hot water heaters is important but noted many people heat their water too hot for showering.
“You should be able to turn that hot water all the way up, and it should be perfect,” Barbier said. “Otherwise that’s wasting some energy.”
Gutknecht takes a few precautions to help lower his winter bills. He uses plastic wrap to seal his windows and keeps his thermostat around 67, he said. He also keeps heavy quilts around for when he is relaxing especially on cold days.
He plans to be more diligent in weatherizing his apartment this year.
“I’m gonna really make sure I seal the windows pretty good,” Gutknecht said. “I think the little things really help.”
Wisconsin Public Service offers a budget billing option, which allows customers to pay twelve equal, monthly payments, based on average use which is reviewed every six months. The option may be a good choice for students who rent the same house or apartment for more than a year, Barbier said.
“There’s some benefit to that from a budgeting perspective, but it may be tough for some students,” he said.