smart spending

How to freeze home-heating bills

Want to keep warm this winter without burning stacks of money? You should start by taking a look around the house.

Regardless of whether you heat your home with an electric space heater that gets electricity from a natural gas-fired power plant or with a little blue flame inside a high-efficiency furnace, skyrocketing natural gas prices will make it more expensive to keep your toes from turning into icicles this winter.

Increasing demand for oil and natural gas means that most prices will go up. The cost will hit consumers right where it hurts -- in the wallet.

Whatever your heating source, you can take some simple steps to keep your bill from burning a hole in your wallet this heating season.

Be a draft dodger

Drafty rooms are the enemy of a warm house.

One culprit: Your duct system. The consumer's guide from the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, or EERE, says that unsealed ducts in your attics and crawl spaces lose air and uninsulated ducts lose heat. Both waste energy and money.

Get a professional to check your house for air leaks.

But if plopping down several hundred dollars to find some air leaks doesn't sound like a fun way to save money on heating, you can accomplish roughly the same results with a little time and a box of incense sticks. Light an incense stick and walk through the house, moving the stick near spots where the walls meet your floors, windows, doors and the ceiling -- preferably on a windy day.

If air is getting through, the smoke will show the leak immediately.

The worst leaks will be found near the floor and the ceiling.

You can also do this easy test: close a door or window on a sheet of paper. If you can pull the paper out without tearing it, you're losing energy, according to the EERE.

Once you find the leaky culprit, seal it up with caulk, spackling compound or foam weatherstripping that you can buy from any hardware store. Within a year, it will pay for itself in savings.

Stopping a draft has more effect than any other home improvement when it comes to heating and cooling.

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Ask for help

Once you have the drafts under control, you can turn to the utility company for some help keeping the sting out of your bill.

For example, Florida Power & Light offers a program known as "on call" which involves installation of a box on major appliances, such as the air conditioner, furnace or water heater. The box allows the company to switch the appliance off during times of high demand on its system and can save you anywhere from $10 to $63 a year, depending on what major appliance you choose to have cycled on and off. The company says it will only switch each appliance off for a maximum of 15 minutes at a time and rarely has to commandeer your heater.

Senior citizens, low-income and unemployed customers also may be able to get assistance from their state public service commission or the utility provider. In Michigan, for example, all state-regulated natural gas and electric utility companies offer assistance and/or shut-off protection programs to assist families in need. Low-income homeowners and renters may be eligible for the Michigan Home Heating Credit.

Do some R&R (repairs and renovations)

If you are up for spending a larger amount to save more money over the long run, some big-ticket purchases can pay real dividends.

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