Next to property taxes, heating costs rate as a homeowner’s greatest annual expense. But while few of us can do much about lowering our property taxes, everyone can have at least some success in reducing heating costs.

Excepting for new, super-insulated houses, most structures have a few “money holes,” places where heat and heating dollars literally fly out the window. Older structures in particular usually have a few such defects.

Major repairs, such as installing new, energy-efficient windows, cost big bucks, however. Such moves pay off over time, but what about those who just can’t swing the high cost of upgrades? There are a number of things we can do to make our houses more energy efficient and one of them is as simple as banking the foundation.

“Banking,” in this sense, means “to cover.” And covering the foundation with any number of materials does much to keep heat in and cold out. Also, some structures were built on pads or pilings and have no foundation. These must be banked in order to make them livable year-round.

Banking materials

The cheapest and easiest to install material, plastic sheeting, is available at nearly every hardware store and even many convenience stores. The store nearest me sells a 100-foot roll of 4 Mil plastic for $8.99. A bundle of 4-foot wooden lathes, needed to hold the plastic in place, also costs $8.99. And while one bundle of lathes usually suffices for even the largest structure, some places will need two rolls of plastic sheeting. But even so, the $26.97 (minus tax) cost for materials will save far more than that in heating costs.

A slightly more expensive, but longer lasting material, black felt paper (tarred paper) blends in better than plastic. Also, in times with little or no snow on the ground, the felt paper, being black, holds heat, helping to warm up the mass of the foundation.

Some people, especially those who have fields and cut their own hay, bank their houses with hay bales. This worries me a bit, since sparks from a wood-burning stove chimney might fall on dry hay bales and ignite them. And wet bales, the type used for mulch hay, are heavy and hard to work with. Besides that, they can transfer moisture to a foundation and encourage rot.

Finally, some people just cut lots of fir boughs and pile them around the foundation. These work OK once they become snow-covered, but they do little to keep out wind. And one of the main purposes of either plastic or felt paper is to keep out wind. To cite an example of how just keeping out wind can make things warmer, consider a stick-built greenhouse, covered with plastic.

Such greenhouses allow daytime temperatures to skyrocket, simply by keeping out wind. And at night, an un-insulated, plastic-covered greenhouse is still warmer than ambient outside temperatures.

Snow welcome

Even a house completely and skillfully banked with plastic or felt paper will suffer some heat loss around the foundation as long as the ground remains bare. But when snow comes, everything changes.

Snow acts as a great insulator. Ruffed grouse know this and during winter storms, will dive into the snow and remain there safe and warm until the snow and winds cease. We can benefit in a similar way by shoveling snow over our banking. It pays to heap as much snow as possible around a foundation, because it will eventually compact and shrink.

So to reap the maximum benefit from your banking material, wait for the first measureable snow storm and go around the house, shovel in hand, and heap snow up in front of the banking. As soon as the banking becomes completely covered with snow, something amazing will happen. Inside temperatures will rise by several degrees. In my house, I notice a three or four-degree rise after putting up snow around the banking. These numbers will vary, but even so, remember that every degree saved equals a certain sum of money saved.

Given our warmer-than-usual winter weather as of late, we may need to go out two or three times each winter and shovel snow on our banking. It’s well worth the time and effort to do this, however. During and after times of heavy snowfall, my not-too-well-insulated cottage is always toasty warm, a testimony to the great insulating value of a free-from-nature material, snow.

Insulating windows

Some years ago I had to modify the window frame in my office in order for it to accept an air conditioning unit. But when fall came and the A.C. was removed, the window was drafty. Instead of installing a new window, a rather costly prospect, I bought some transparent weatherseal tape and applied it to the inside of the windowsill. Then, after passing a wet (wet hands detect drafts better than dry hands) hand over the area to check, the draft was gone.

Not content with this alone, I went outside and with a can of foam sealant, filled all visible crevices on the outside. And finally, I installed a plastic storm window. These come in kit forms and can be had for most any size window. The only drawback to these is that the plastic is translucent rather than transparent. For me, the slightly-fuzzy view out of my office window is a slight cost to pay for increased savings on heat.

Other windows in my place don’t need those plastic storm windows because they don’t leak. The office window was compromised and the above-mentioned steps were necessary. On the other hand, even if a window doesn’t appear to leak, some small heat loss may still occur. So if you have a window that with a view that isn’t important to see, by all means put up the plastic protector and save some money.

Remember, it is the sum total of all these steps that add up to cutting back on heat loss and giving significant savings on heating costs.

Forgotten places

We often suffer heat loss in places where we wouldn’t ordinarily think to check. This is true in older houses and also, in buildings that have additions such as an add-on bedroom or other room. Where the two parts of the structure join, we often find less-than-tight fits.

If your older home has a mouse problem, just remember that they are coming in from somewhere and even a tiny mouse hole can cost heating dollars. Even if it means going around searching corners and under sink cabinets on hands-and-knees, it’s worth the time.

In the end, everything and anything you can do to tighten up your house before winter will contribute to heat savings. Every little bit helps.

Timely tip

To locate sources of heat loss, try using a stick of incense or even a punk, the things used to light off fireworks. The smoke will respond to even a slight draft, showing where to patch or insulate.