GateHouse News Service's weekly Home Help, with tips on energy-saving home improvements, hardwood accents and American arborvitae.

The beginning of the year is a great time to make positive changes in your home. While many will wait until March to embrace "spring cleaning" season and make home improvements, a few simple changes can be made now to help you conserve energy and start saving money right away. Here are some steps that can help lower energy consumption - and associated costs - in your home this month and throughout the year:

Turn your house into a "smart home"

From heating and cooling to ceiling fans, lighting and security systems, homes can now be wired for a number of automated functions to optimize the energy consumed by the systems they run.

"Smart home" technology can help save homeowners money by allowing customers to remotely manage thermostats and lighting controls. In addition to helping protect homes against intrusion, fire, flood and dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, integrated home automation systems can help users plan ahead to create schedules to turn off lights when they're not needed, or decrease heating or cooling settings when no one is home. In fact, according to Energy Star's website, using a programmable thermostat alone can save up to $180 a year in energy costs. Users can control their home automation system either through in-home panels, or through smartphones, tablets and computers.

Don't forget the basics

Every home requires insulation and sealing, whether you live in the steamy south or wintery north. Plus, adding insulation can prove to be economically beneficial for homeowners, who can save up to 20 percent on heating and cooling costs by sealing and insulating the "shell" of their homes (exterior walls, ceilings, doors, windows and floors), according to EnergyStar.gov.

Sealing and insulating is well within the abilities of most do-it-yourselfers, but you can also hire a professional to:

- Seal air leaks around windows and doors to prevent drafts.

- Add insulation to attics and exterior walls.

- Replace old, inefficient, worn-out or damaged windows.

- Seal heating and cooling system air ducts.

Lower your light bills

If your home is like the average American household, a significant portion of your energy bill each month could be attributed to lighting costs. Since you need a basic amount of light to function in your home, reducing the number of light sources is probably not an option. Instead, look to reduce the amount of energy needed to power the lights in your home, or increase the amount of natural light that enters the house.

Start by replacing incandescent bulbs - which are energy inefficient - with energy-saving bulbs. Energy.gov says replacing just 15 incandescent bulbs could save you about $50 a year. Energy efficient bulb options include halogen, CFLs and LEDs. And while some homeowners may balk at the higher initial cost of these types of bulbs, keep in mind that CFLs last 10 times longer and use a quarter of the energy of traditional incandescent bulbs, according to Energy.gov. LEDs are even more energy efficient, lasting 25 times longer and using only about 20 to 25 percent as much energy.

Taking proactive steps to improve your home's energy efficiency early on is a great way to save money this winter and throughout the year. It's a lifestyle commitment that will begin to pay off right away and continue for the rest of the year to come.

-- Brandpoint

Home Selling Tip

Hire a real estate agent who is agressive and well-known. Name recognition is important, especially in a buyers' market. Look for an agent with a good track record of selling houses.

-- Frontdoor.com

Did You Know...

Many electronic devices and equipment continue to consume unnecessary energy even when not in use. Often called energy vampires, these unplugged devices cost families about $100 a year. Use a power strip for electronic devices and turn it off when not in use to eliminate these energy vampires. And be sure to unplug your chargers -- they draw energy even when they aren’t connected to a device.

-- Rebecca Matulka, Energy.gov

Decorating Tip

Susan Muschweck, a Pittsburgh-based interior designer, says painting walls and upgrading floors is a great way to dress up a listless space, but for many clients, she often suggests another cost-effective option. "I like to recommend hardwood moulding," she says. "Trim brings a room to life. And by using hardwood, you really add permanent warmth, distinction and value to your home."

-- Brandpoint

Garden Guide

The American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) is an easy and adaptable evergreen that shines in the winter and can thrive in almost any landscape situation. Hundreds of cultivars have been introduced which allow this native, northeastern U.S. plant to fill almost any landscape niche.

From miniature selections like Mossy growing to just 1 foot tall and Hetz Midget growing to 2 feet to Green Giant growing up to 30 feet tall, these plants can fulfill many uses in the landscape. Cultivars also tolerate a range of soil conditions. American arborvitae can be found growing in the wild in swampy, damp conditions as well as in the dry cracks and crevices of rocky cliffs. It can equally tolerate a range of light conditions, thriving in light shade to full sun.

One of the favored features of American arborvitae is its fine foliage texture. The evergreen, scaly foliage grows in fan-like sprays making for a soft, fine texture. Some stellar selections are valued for their striking foliage colors, too, like the bright gold foliage of Yellow Ribbon, Lutea, and Sunkist; the orange-bronze color of Rheingold and Fire Chief; and the showy variegated foliage of Sherwood Frost and Wansdyke Silver. Consider  a gold or variegated selection in your landscape to brighten up a winter garden.

Many different forms along with varied sizes and colors allow for a range of landscape uses of American arborvitae. For a privacy screen and nice backdrop plant, you can’t beat Green Giant, Smaragd Emerald Green and Degroot’s Spire. Round and spherical forms like Bowling Ball, Rheingold, and Hetz Midget make good foundation plants or good decorative container plants. Pyramidal forms such as Emerald Green, Sunkist, and Yellow Ribbon can make nice specimen or accent plants.

-- HGTV.com

GateHouse News Service