smart spending

Lower scorching winter heat bills

Highlights
  • Heating costs this winter are expected to be 10 to 25 percent higher.
  • You can save money with easy steps -- on any budget.
  • If your tap water is over 120 degrees you're pouring money down the drain.

Despite the recent drop in crude oil prices, keeping warm this winter is likely to have a chilling effect on household budgets as Americans continue to face record-breaking heating costs.

By taking stock of the situation now, you can make a few key adjustments to keep soaring prices in check.

According to the Energy Information Administration's Short-Term Energy Outlook, updated in October, the situation is not pretty no matter which way you slice it.

  • If you use natural gas you will pay on average $1,010 this winter -- $155 more than last year, an 18 percent increase.
  • If you stay warm using heating oil, you'll need to come up with approximately $2,388 this winter -- an additional $449 over last year, up 23 percent from a year ago.
  • If you have a propane system expect to pay about $1,861, or $188 more this winter, up 11 percent from last year.
  • If you depend on electricity to run your heating system, the EIA predicts that you'll pay $947 this winter, $89 more than last year, up 10 percent.

"This is going to be a very tough year for a lot of people," says Rozanne Weissman, a spokeswoman for Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C., based organization that promotes energy efficiency. But no matter what size financial investment you are able to take, there are steps you can take to keep costs down.

You can definitely make a dent in your heating bills for little or no money, says Charlie Szoradi, chief executive officer of GREENandSAVE, a Web site that calculates the return on investment of various energy-saving actions. Here are a few low-cost suggestions:

1. Turn down the heat. The quickest and easiest thing to do is turn the thermostat down a few degrees. According to the California Energy Commission, you'll save 5 percent on heating costs for every degree you lower your heat in the 60-degree to 70-degree range.

2. Change your heating system's filter. "If the filter gets dirty, that fan is sucking air through the dirty filter so it's costing more money to pull the air through," says Reggie Marston, who advises customers on energy savings as president of Residential Equity Management Home Inspections in Springfield, Va. Depending on the type of filter, you should change it every one, two or three months.

3. Make use of solar. Even if you don't have the money to install a solar heating system, you can make the most of the sun's natural heat. Open curtains and other window treatments during the day to get the benefit of the sun's rays.

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4. Turn down your water heater's thermostat. If your water heater's thermostat is set higher than 120 degrees, you're pouring money down the drain. "People jump in the shower and it's 150 degrees and they immediately turn cold water on to temper the hot water down so they just wasted all that money heating the water for no reason at all," says Marston. If your water heater measures temperature in a range such as high, medium and low rather than providing the exact degree, turn the water in your shower as hot as it can go and measure the temperature with a thermometer -- like one you'd use in a pool or spa or a meat or baking thermometer. If the reading is above 120 degrees, turn the water heater's thermostat down.

5. Maximize the air's moisture. If you have a humidifier, use it, because moist air feels warmer than dry air at the same temperature, advises HVAC industry expert Blaine Fox. If you add humidity to dry, heated air in the winter, you can set your thermostat lower and still be comfortable. Get the same effect by putting shallow pans of water on radiator tops or near warm air vents to raise the humidity level, Fox adds.

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