With most Detroit homes being built before 1950, they are likely to have energy deficiencies through air leaks and old heating systems. But gaps around doors, windows and other places where air can enter from the outside sometimes come with inexpensive remedies.

As the temperature drops outdoors, many Detroiters have undoubtedly been looking at their thermostat and wondering when they should turn up the temperature indoors. The thought of rising utility bills has that effect on us.

Detroiters live in older homes—a majority of the city’s housing stock was built before 1950—which are much more likely to have energy deficiencies through air leaks and old heating systems. This results in Detroit residents paying more on average for their energy despite not using as much per square foot. 

That DTE Energy continues to institute rate increases doesn’t help either. Outlier and ProPublica have teamed up to investigate shutoffs for nonpayment among DTE customers.

Fortunately, there are simple steps every homeowner can take to improve the energy efficiency of their home and lower utility bills. And it doesn’t require an expensive renovation like installing a solar roof array. 

“People see the highest energy savings from [Michigan’s weatherization program] compared to any other utility program,” said Justin Schott, project manager of the Energy Equity Project at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. “It’s something on the order of 20-25% savings.”

Here are some low-cost ways to winterize your home and resources you can access to make those upgrades even more affordable. We’ve organized these generally by ways you can get the most bang for your buck.

Educate yourself

Behavioral changes are by far the least expensive way to cut energy usage. They don’t cost anything! 

It may be obvious, but you can lower your energy bill substantially just by turning the heat down when you’re out of the house or at night. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, for every eight hours you lower the temperature by one degree, you save 1% on your bill. 

Another quick change is lowering the temperature on your hot water heater so that when the hot knob is turned all the way, it’s the right temp to wash your hands or shower. That might be at 120 degrees, but test to make sure. 

“Some can reduce energy consumption 30% just by making simple lifestyle changes,” Schott said. 

For further education, check out Eco-D, a program within the nonprofit EcoWorks Detroit, which offers a weatherization kit for low-income residents to lower their energy bills. 

Make sure the home is well-sealed

Gaps around doors, windows and other places where air can enter from the outside are a common, fixable source of energy inefficiency in homes. If you put your hand up to a crack in a wall, for instance, you’ll feel a draft. That’s because the pressure difference between the cool air outside and warm air inside creates a suction effect that takes away some of the warmth you’re spending money to create.

There are a lot of affordable ways to seal your home. Door sweeps that fill in the gap between the door and floor cost as little as $10. A whole roll of weather strips for your windows costs about the same. Both are incredibly easy to install. Uninstalling your window air conditioner unit during the winter closes off another pathway for air to enter your home. 

Even your electrical outlets can be drafty. To test it, hold up a lit match or candle to the outlet to see if the flame flutters. A foam outlet cover, about $3 for a six-pack, usually does the trick.

Put plastic over your windows

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that heat gain and loss through windows could be responsible for 25-30% of your heating bill. So you should definitely take extra steps to make sure your windows are insulated.

The most efficient solutions—installing double pane windows and/or storm windows—are expensive. Window film, however, is not. A whole kit covering 10 windows costs just $12. It’s a little tricky to install and may make it harder to see out your window, but you’ll probably be happy with the tradeoff. 

Get a programmable thermostat

Digital thermostats are convenient. They give a clear readout of a home’s temperature and make setting it to your desired temp simple. 

The latest generation of digital thermostats are programmable, giving users the ability to schedule temperature changes. DTE’s Insight app combined with its Energy Bridge device provides even more control, allowing you to manage your thermostat from your smartphone and get a granular view of your energy usage, down to individual appliances. 

Digital thermostats run from about $60 to $200, but DTE will give you a $50 rebate if you purchase one of their approved products.  

Tune up your heating system

If it’s been a while since you’ve had your boiler or furnace inspected, especially if it’s old, it’s probably time for a tuneup. Think of your car—if you treat it well, you’ll get better mileage, and it will have a longer life. Same with your heating system. 

Replacing the system’s air filter is a simple task. But if you want a more thorough inspection, get in touch with an HVAC technician who will lubricate all the moving parts, drain any clogs, inspect the controls, make sure the exchanges are working properly and more. The cost varies by contractor, but a tuneup will generally run between $50 to $150. 

Insulate the attic

If you don’t currently have insulation in your attic, you should seriously consider getting some. Hot air rises and is constantly trying to leave the house when it’s colder outside, so insulation in the attic can make a huge difference. 

Unfortunately, insulation is not cheap; it can cost $2,000-$3,000 to insulate a fairly large attic. That’s an amount that will likely pay for itself over time (as you’ll also save money cooling your house during the summer), but the upfront cost will be too expensive for many homeowners.

There are a couple of programs available to low-income households in Michigan that can potentially defray the entire cost. The Weatherization Assistance Program provides grants of up to $7,000 for home energy services, including insulation, to low-income Michigan residents. Those in Wayne County can apply through Wayne Metro Community Action Agency. 

There is a major caveat with this program, however, as there’s currently a waitlist and not many homes qualify for it. You’ll get an inspection and will be deemed ineligible if you need a roof replacement, have plumbing leaks or need other kinds of major repairs. 

“Somewhere around 200 Detroit households get weatherized by the state every year,” Schott said. “Wayne Metro is trying to do more so they don’t get turned away, but it’s an incredibly small number compared to the need.”

Take it to the next level

Once you’ve taken care of these essentials, go a little bit further and take a comprehensive look at hard-to-notice gaps in your home’s energy efficiency. 

Consider getting an entire home energy audit. It costs around $300 but comes with a report and recommendations for ways to save on energy. The savings eventually could cover the cost of the report. 

If there’s an important renovation you need to undertake (like insulating your attic!), check out MIchigan Saves. The nonprofit “green bank” not only provides a list of qualified nearby contractors, but it also shows you financing opportunities. The University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions put together an extensive Detroit home repair guide with information on numerous loans, grants and other kinds of assistance. The city also offers a 0% interest home repair loan, which can be put toward renovations. 

Whatever your income level or energy usage, now is the time to take on these improvements. The energy and dollar savings could be significant.

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221.

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