Q: We received our heating bill (gas) today in the amount of $266.74. We keep our thermostat set on 70 degrees during the winter and turn it down to 60 degrees at night. When we leave for any period of time during the day, my husband turns it down to 60 degrees.

My friend has a two-story house and keeps her thermostat set at 66 degrees during the winter. Her gas bill is much lower than ours. What might we be doing incorrectly? We have a fairly new energy-efficient heating system, the filters are changed, and the system is cleaned. –Ruth A.

A: There are lots of factors that can affect the difference in heating costs between two homes, including insulation levels, the efficiency of the windows, the amount of weatherstripping, how much air leaks into and out of the house, even how often you open and close exterior doors.

I would offer the following suggestions:

Have a heating technician come out and check the accuracy of your thermostat. If it’s calibrated incorrectly, you might be heating the house to a higher level than you realize, which can waste energy. While the technicians are at the house, be sure to have them check the condition of the ducts. A broken or loose duct can lose a lot of heat into the attic or crawl space, which really wastes energy. Finally, be sure that they check the furnace itself. A cracked heat exchanger or other problem with the furnace can also lead to high energy bills.

Try a heat setting of 68 during the day instead of 70 and see if you’re comfortable with that. Also, try setting the thermostat to 62 instead of 60 when you go out. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but a 10-degree temperature swing is a lot for the furnace to make up, and it make be making it work harder than it needs to.

If you tend to stay in one part of the house during some parts of the day — for example, if you tend to stay in the living room during the evenings — then consider lowering the thermostat below 68 and adding an energy-efficient portable electric or other type of heater in the living room. Known as "zonal heating," this helps confine the heat to the rooms you use instead of heating the rooms you’re not occupying. Do not, however, shut off ducts in unused rooms, as this can unbalance the air flow in the heating system and potentially damage the furnace.

Consider the installation of a ceiling-mounted paddle fan, especially if you have high ceilings or a two-story house. This will move heated air off the ceiling and back down into the room, helping to make the rooms feel warmer. Finally, have an insulation or weatherization contractor examine the house and make recommendations about insulation levels — including floor and duct insulation — as well as weatherstripping and other measures to prevent heat loss.

Q: I have recently done extensive renovations on my 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment in New York City. I am on the 14th floor and have great views [and] have worked hard to make it look as beautiful as I can. The problem? My neighbor below smokes in his bathroom and it unfortunately is rising up into my bathroom. I cannot figure out how it is getting into my bathroom, but every time I open my bathroom door after being closed for a while it hits me in the face! The smoke odor is nauseating to me, as I do not smoke and it’s extremely frustrating because I don’t know what to do about it! Any suggestions? –Kathy D.

A: Every building has a number of penetrations in the walls and ceilings where pipes, wiring and building components are run. This is especially true with multistory buildings, where large chases are created for water lines, drain lines, air ducts, etc. I suspect that what’s happening is that your neighbor’s smoke is getting into the walls and/or the ceiling through penetrations in his bathroom, coming up through one of these chases, and getting into your bathroom through similar openings.

The first thing I would suggest is that you seal up everything you can find in your bathroom. This would include caulking the joint between the floor and the baseboards; getting behind the trim rings where pipes come out of the wall and sealing between the pipe and the wall; sealing around any heating ducts; sealing around medicine cabinets and light fixtures; even installing foam gaskets at the electrical outlets and switches.

In other words, close off any access from the walls, floor or ceiling that could be opening into your bathroom. Depending on the location and the size of the gaps, you can use clear silicone sealant, colored acrylic latex caulk, or even expandable foam.

I assume you have an exhaust fan in your bathroom. I would suggest putting it on a timer, and having the timer operate the fan daily at a time when it’s convenient for you — perhaps while you’re away at work during the day, or late at night when you’re asleep. This will flush out the stale air, along with any excess moisture, and keep the odors from building up.

Finally, if you’re on good terms with your neighbor (or if you have a good building superintendent or condo association), perhaps you could explain the situation to your neighbor, and ask if he would consider the same steps in his apartment: sealing penetrations and installing a fan timer.

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