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Saving Energy For Your Second Home

With the price of airfare, gasoline and, well, just about everything else these days, there’s plenty to worry about. Needlessly high energy bills at your second home — your vacation home, where there should be no worries at all — should not be on that list.

According to the Department of Energy’s “Energy Savers” booklet (available at, American households spend 31 percent of their home-energy costs on heating the space, 12 percent on cooling and another 12 percent on heating water. There are simple steps you can take in your second home, though, to make sure those numbers fall.

“One of the first things we need to do is make sure the ductwork is not leaking, especially in attics,” said Kent W. Peterson, chief engineer of P2S Engineering in Long Beach, Calif., and a past president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. This is easy to do, he said. Just feel for hot air leaks near the ducts when the unit is running. He also recommended feeling for drafts by windows and doors, and making sure any weatherstripping you have is not cracked or broken.

Ronnie Kweller, a spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, notes that sealing your house with weatherstripping and caulking, in combination with sufficient insulation, can save up to 20 percent on heating bills in winter and cooling bills in summer. (To check on whether you have sufficient insulation, you can consult the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association’s site,

Once you have the house sealed up, turn your attention to the heat itself. “Invest about $100 in an Energy Star programmable thermostat,” Ms. Kweller said. “It can pay for itself in a year.” By programming the thermostat so that the heat goes down during the hours that the house is empty and only rises about an hour before you get there, you can save up to 10 percent on heating bills. “For a second home,” she added, “if you’re there on the weekends, you could definitely program it so that it’s a cooler temperature during the week, and set it to come on at 6 p.m. on Friday.”

Mr. Peterson breaks down the numbers. “Your heating load is directly proportional to the difference between outside and inside temperature,” he said. “If it’s 10 degrees colder outside than you want it to be in your house and you can live with the thermostat being one degree cooler, you would save 10 percent on your energy. If it’s 20 degrees colder, then it’s only 5 percent if you lower it one degree.”

The same logic applies to the water heater. “We recommend turning the thermostat on the tank down to 130,” Ms. Kweller said. Mr. Peterson goes even lower: “Normally if a water heater is set at 115, that’s plenty hot to get nice hot showers.”

Finally, one of the easiest ways to save money on energy bills is to unplug things. “People don’t realize how much energy appliances use when they’re not being used,” Mr. Peterson said. “The amount of energy the microwave oven consumes 24-7, 365 days just to run that little clock is more than you’d use running the microwave to cook.”

Now extrapolate that to a TV on standby, a DVR on standby, and a stereo system on standby — all of these items consume watts even though the switch is off. “So people who leave their house, I would highly recommend you unplug those appliances,” he said. If you have any appliances on a power strip, your job is even easier: just turning off the power strip will cut all power to the system. (You may, however, have to reset these devices the next time you want to use them.)

But wait — there’s more! Taking these energy-saving precautions doesn’t just save you money by lowering your bills. It’s about to save you money through energy efficiency federal tax credits (recently reinstated by Congress, after expiring in 2007).

“Potentially, folks can save up to $500 on their federal income tax if they wait until Jan. 1 to purchase items,” Ms. Kweller said. “Some are high-ticket items like Energy Star windows and boilers; then there are some lower-ticket items like products to seal up the home.” Even better, if you didn’t use all of the tax credit owed to you between 2005 and 2006, you may be able to claim the unused part in 2009. (Go to for more information.)

How’s all that for lowering your worries?