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How to keep your house warm this winter

Make sure your home stays cozy all winter long.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Brrr, it's frigid out there. Inside at home though, it's warm and cozy. At least it should be.

When the icy air of winter descends, cranking up your furnace is only half the battle when it comes to maintaining a comfy abode. You also need to keep your heating system running efficiently and track down any hidden weak points in your home that let the cold sneak in.

Just by following the first four steps on this checklist, you'll do more than just make your living room more comfortable -- you'll likely save on your energy bill as well.

Inspect your furnace 

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Whether your home is heated by a gas furnace or an electric heat pump, make sure your system is in good working order before the full brunt of winter hits. While a complete hardware inspection is best left to the pros (at least once a year), you can at least perform basic maintenance and a quick trial run. 

Here's what you can do yourself. First, turn off the power to your furnace completely. Next, remove the service panel from the side of the unit and gently vacuum any noticeable dust or debris out of the blower and burner cavities. Do the same for any grime you see outside and around the furnace itself. 

Set your thermostat to Heat mode and bump the target indoor temperature a few degrees above its current reading. After a few moments, you should hear the furnace leap into action. 

If you don't feel warm air flow out of your home vents shortly, call for professional help. You'll pay for the service, of course, but an early check will save you from an icebox home if your heater goes out on a holiday weekend.

Change your HVAC filters regularly to aid good air flow.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Use a fresh air filter

For a fully heated home, warm air from your furnace must flow freely. Over time, though, your heater's air filter can be clogged by dust, dirt and other particles. Avoid this dilemma by inspecting it frequently for ashen-colored grime. 

Most HVAC (that's heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems use a single disposable, nonrecyclable filter constructed from paper or fiberglass. At a minimum, you should replace a disposable filter every six months (at the beginning of winter and summer is best). Each home is different, though: Pet owners, for example, might have to change their filters more often. When buying a replacement, don't grab just one. Instead, buy multiple filters so you'll always have an extra on hand when you need it. Prices for disposable filters vary widely, but expect to pay between $5 and $15 a pop. 

Record the size of your HVAC filter so you get the right replacement.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Permanent filters made from metal and synthetic fibers last about 10 years. What's the catch? You'll need to wash the filter monthly and make sure it dries thoroughly to prevent mold and bacteria growth. These filters are also more expensive, costing $30 to $50 each.

Insulate, insulate, insulate

Drafty windows and door seals are the enemy of a toasty home. Stop warm air from leaking out and cold air from seeping in by making sure your doors and windows are properly insulated. Take a walk around your house both inside and outside looking for signs of noticeable drafts around door and window frames. Often, it'll be a stripped or fading weather seal, not an outright gap, that's to blame. Apply fresh sealant or caulking to any gaps. 

Another option is to contact your utility company. Many energy providers offer a free, in-person evaluation of your home's heat efficiency. Since it's in their interest to squash wasteful energy use, they should be happy to make a house call. The technician typically provides homeowners with a report of problem areas and an action plan for fixing them.

A properly maintained fireplace is a great way to keep rooms warm.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Don't forget your fireplace

If you have a working fireplace, but you've never used it, don't try to fire it up on your own. Instead, talk to a chimney sweep or other professional first. Any open flame is dangerous, especially when burning in a sooty chimney. 

As home repairs go, fireplace maintenance isn't cheap. Expect to pay $100 to $350 for a qualified evaluation. You'll want to clean your chimney once a year, as well. But once you get the official go-ahead, sitting by a crackling fire when it's subzero outside is priceless. (Just avoid using a wood-burning stove when there's an air quality alert in your area.) When you're not using your hearth, keep the flue and other vents closed.

Add a smart thermostat to upgrade your HVAC's brains.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Install a smart thermostat

An excellent way to add more brains to your house and keep it warm would be to upgrade to a smart thermostat. The Nest Learning Thermostat ($130 at eBay) and Ecobee4, both $249, are our favorite devices of their kind so far. Amazingly sophisticated, they intelligently control your furnace by using motion sensors to detect your presence and change heating accordingly. You also can adjust the temperature remotely via mobile apps, and over time, they'll learn to predict your schedule and even factor local weather forecasts into the equation. 

Smart thermostats like this Nest E need a "C" or "common" wire connection.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Smart thermostats also could save you as much as 10 percent a year on heating and cooling costs, according to the US Department of Energy. Installing a smart thermostat shouldn't be too tricky as long as your furnace has a "C" or common wire. If you don't have the right setup, or the installation process looks too daunting, contact a pro instead. 

This story appears in the winter 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

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