As winter descends, you may be dreading the higher energy bills that come along with the need for heat. But you can follow some tips to keep your house warm and save energy at the same time.

Make some basic changes

Some of the most effective methods for warming up your house are the simplest. For example, open your blinds in the morning to let in both light and heat during winter. Close them at night to prevent a chill from cold windows. Switch your ceiling fan so it runs clockwise at a low speed — the toggle should be on the side of the fan body. Since warm air tends to rise, this gently pushes heat down back into the living space.

Save water heater energy usage

Most water heaters are automatically set to 140 degrees. If you lower it to about 120 or 125 degrees, you'll reduce the amount of fuel needed. Insulate the first 3 to 6 feet of pipes coming out of the heater. If you have a tank-style heater, wrap it in an insulation blanket, which you can purchase at a big-box store.

Turn your home into an airtight space

You spend a lot of time, money and energy warming up your home, so you don't want it to go to waste. Prevent warm air from slipping outside by creating a tight envelope. Replace, caulk or apply weatherstripping to drafty windows and doors. Don't overlook air leaks from utility cut-throughs — the gaps that allow pipes into your home, as well as chimneys and recessed lights. A clear plastic sheet taped tightly to your window frames can stop air from escaping as well. Schedule an inspection with an insulation professional to make sure old and worn-out insulation isn't causing leaks. Check your ducts to make sure you don't have holes, which can seriously affect your bills.

Perform an energy audit

A professional energy audit will teach you more than you ever imagined about your home's energy usage. The auditor will use a variety of tests, including a blower door and possibly infrared imaging, to identify air leakages, air infiltration, humidity levels and insulation efficiency. They'll offer recommendations to clear up air loss. The cost can range up to several hundred dollars, but the savings in energy over the months and years to come can more than recoup it.

Maintain your HVAC equipment

Hire an HVAC service to inspect, clean and maintain your heating system. A good technician will tune up the system for peak performance, and they can also catch small problems before they become big problems that leave your family shivering in the middle of the night. Also, check and replace your HVAC filters once a month. A dirty filter makes your system work harder to generate the same amount of heat.

Check your fireplace

A working fireplace creates a straight path to the outdoors. Keep your damper closed anytime you're not burning a fire. Check the seal on the flue damper to make it as tight as possible. Caulk around the hearth to prevent air loss.

Use a programmable thermostat

A programmable thermostat can keep you warm and lower bills at the same time. Set your thermostat to roll back about 10 degrees when you're asleep or out of the house.