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Natural gas is expensive, dirty and financing war. Here are 5 ways to use less of it to heat your home

Close-up of hand of a man adjusting the heat setting on a Nest Learning Thermostat, an Internet of Things device from Google Inc, in a smart home in San Ramon, California, December 17, 2019. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

(CNN) — The cost of natural gas was already rising fast as the world emerged from repeated Covid lockdowns and demand for energy soared. Now the war in Ukraine is pushing prices even higher.

In Europe, countries are planning to dramatically slash their reliance on Russian gas, and while the US doesn’t import much gas from Russia, it’s also feeling the pain of high prices, which are linked to global markets. It’s the same for the UK, which only relies on Russia for 3% of its gas.

Millions of people are set to shell out hundreds, possibly even thousands, of extra dollars just to keep their homes warm this year. But there are plenty of ways to keep bills down, and a lot of them will help tackle climate change, too, and help damp gas prices — which means less money for exporters like Russia.

Turn the thermostat down

This is one of the simplest things you can do to save on energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says the average building in Europe is set at 22 degrees Celsius (71.6°Fahrenheit) in the heating season. If all the buildings in the European Union turned down the heat by just 1° Celsius, for example, the bloc would need 10 billion cubic meters less gas per year.

That’s roughly the same amount of natural gas that New York City consumes in three months, or what Hungary or the Czech Republic consume over a year.

In the UK, homes can save £80 ($104) a year on their heating bills, according to experts from uSwitch, a UK energy comparison company.

This may be a small amount of money, but in terms of climate change, it’s 19 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions saved. To put that into perspective, that’s around the same as what 4.2 million American cars emit over a year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Lower temperatures indoors are something you can get used to. In Australia, for example, people are advised by the Climate Council to warm their homes to 18°-20°C. Sometimes Australians live in those temperatures simply because it’s hard to heat houses well there — many aren’t set up for the cold weather and insulation can be poor. Still, people manage.

In the US, the Department of Energy recommends people set their thermostats to 68° Fahrenheit (20°C), but the most popular average indoor temperature in American homes is 70°-75°F (around 21°-24°C). So there’s a lot of room to turn temperatures down.

“Having better control over our heating systems doesn’t cost anything to do, and it would immediately reduce our bills,” Will Rivers from the UK-based Carbon Trust, a group that provides solutions to the climate crisis, told CNN.

Fit some solar panels

Whether or not you can do this will depend on if you own your own property. Solar panels are more effective in houses with roofs, but some companies can install panels for apartments, too.

Solar energy is renewable, and its panels — also known as photovoltaics (PV) — are a good source of cheap energy in many countries. The panels capture the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity, which can be used to power appliances in homes directly or stored in a battery for later use. If some of that electricity is not used or stored, the excess power can typically be sold back to a central power grid. On a good run of sunny days, you could even make money from the energy you sell.

The panels do not need direct sunlight to work, so they can still be effective on cloudy days, as solar radiation is still present. However, the stronger the sun, the more electricity will be generated.

The Energy Saving Trust, a UK organization promoting energy efficiency, says a home solar PV system could cut electricity bills by up to 15-25% in the UK.

In the US, the average household could save $260 a month using solar panels and battery storage. That’s between $10,000 and $35,000 over 20 years, according to the energy market website EnergySage.

Solar panels are able to provide power to run a heat pump (more on that below) and other household appliances, as well as directly for heating water and air.

“This way, all of your space heating, water heating, lighting and appliances will use electricity, and solar PV will become well utilized in your house all year round. It’s a zero-carbon set-up,” he said.

There are a number of factors that determine the cost of a solar panel system, such as the system size, equipment used, roof characteristics, labor involved in installation and location. According to Energy Sage, solar panels in the US cost about $20,474 for a 10 kilowatt (kW) system, which will give a large family home adequate power. On average, it takes seven to eight years to see a return on investment. But many countries, states or even local authorities offer subsidies, so you could break even much sooner.

Heat pumps

Energy experts CNN spoke to said the best way to reduce your carbon footprint at home is through the “electrification of heat.” In fact, “electrify everything” in general is a mantra for many advocates of climate action. That’s because you can power most things now with electricity from clean, renewable energy sources, and that means less need for coal and gas for power, or oil for cars.

So, what exactly are these heat pumps everyone is talking about? They are big boxes that sit outside and extract heat from the air, ground or water to funnel into a home. They typically use four times less energy than gas boilers.

“We need to get off gas, and the best way to do that is to switch to heat pumps. That way, you are completely removing gas from the property,” said Ed Matthew, a campaigns director from European think tank E3G.

The IEA said that doubling the current EU installation rates of heat pumps would save an additional 2 billion cubic meters of gas use in one year. This could also reduce a household’s gas consumption by 90%. And as the EU imports most of its gas, that’s an action that could greatly reduce reliance on Russia for energy.

Heat pumps work particularly well in very cold climates. Nordic countries, including Finland, Sweden and Norway, have the highest heat pump installation rate in Europe, said Matthew.

In the US, switching to a heat pump could save households an average of $557 a year on their home heating and cooling bills, according to a study conducted by energy research firm Carbon Switch.

The pump itself and installation, however, can be expensive — an average of around $10,000 — so depending on your current heating system, it can be a while before you break even. But a lot of countries and states offer good rebates to install heat pumps, in which case, you’ll start to see savings more quickly.

In the UK, for example, grants of up to £6,000 ($7,800) are available for new heat pumps. The average British household could save up to £261 ($340) a year by switching to one, according to analysis from the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), a Brussels-based not-for-profit group. That’s significant, as annual energy bills are expected to rise by at least £600 ($780) after the government lifted a cap on prices so energy companies can survive the power crunch.

Get better insulation

Depending on how old your building is, there’s a good chance a lot of the heat is escaping your home through poorly fitted windows and poor insulation. This is a big problem in the UK, which has the oldest and “leakiest” housing stock in Europe, according to BRE, a UK environmental advisory group.

To keep energy bills low and reduce carbon emissions, installing insulation is one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to keep buildings warm.

According to the UK Energy Agency if you live in a home with solid walls, rather than ones with cavities, up to 45% of your heat could be escaping through them. That’s likely to be the same regardless of which country you live in.

One way to improve the energy efficiency of our homes is to insulate them from the roof down to their foundation, E3G’s Matthew said. Home insulation involves materials used to prevent heat from escaping or entering.

“There are different kinds of insulation measures,” Matthew told CNN. “Cavity wall insulation, loft insulation and draft-proofing are very cost-effective, while solid wall installation is much more complex and expensive.”

Cavity walls are insulated by a professional who injects materials into the cavity or space in the wall. Solid walls can be insulated from the outside — a technique used to keep older homes warmer for longer.

To insulate the roof, a mineral fiber material is laid between and over the joists. This material captures heat and prevents any drafts from getting in. Flooring can also be improved by laying down new insulation.

Insulating water tanks, pipes and radiators, and draft-proofing using sealant, are other easy and quick ways to save money on energy bills.

Around one-third of all heat lost in an uninsulated home escapes through the walls, while up to 25% can be lost through the roof. While the exact impact of insulation will differ between households, Rivers from the Carbon Trust says it could reduce heat demand by up to 50% in some cases.

It’s worth doing this before switching to renewable energy. Heat pumps, for example, are far more effective with robust insulation.

Underfloor heating

OK, so this one involves tearing up your floors, but if you find yourself in a position to do that, underfloor heating is a great option.

Historically considered a luxury, it’s actually one of the most cost-effective and energy-efficient ways to heat your home.

Underfloor heating operates at a lower temperature than standard radiators, it regulates heat in a larger space, it’s quick to heat up a room and can retain heat for a good length of time after it’s switched off.

There are two main types of underfloor heating — water-based and dry. Both can be powered using solar panels or wind turbines. Water-based underfloor heating uses heat pumps, while dry underfloor heating uses electricity and is easier to install than water pipes. But beware — if your electricity comes mostly from coal or gas, this isn’t a green option, and may not even save you much money.

Reducing reliance on Russian gas will not be simple, Matthew explains, but it’s clearer now than ever that the world needs to use less natural gas.

“The crisis in Ukraine is a wake-up call for the powers in the US and Europe to accelerate the transition away from gas. Not just for the climate, but for our energy security too,” he said.

Of course, if you rent or own an apartment, your options to make many of these changes may be limited. But you can always contact your landlord or building management to express your preference for cleaner ways of heating over natural gas. These measures should dramatically cut down your energy bills, too.