How to freeze home-heating bills

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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.

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.

For more instant gratification, check with your state or utility company, which often offers tax credits or rebate programs for making those energy-efficient upgrades.

To qualify for such programs, you often have to work with an energy rater or other professional inspector who will help file the proper paperwork and ensure all the protocol is being followed correctly.

You can also look for future energy savings when it comes time to replace large household appliances.

The U.S. Department of Energy sponsors the Energy Star program, which certifies the most energy-efficient appliances on the market. They typically cost more, but can save you enough money on energy to more than pay for the difference. For advice in making your home more energy efficient, visit the department’s home energy adviser and try its home energy yardstick to see how your energy use stacks up against the national average.

If you are not up for big-buck upgrades, some simple steps, such as wrapping hot water pipes with foam insulation and replacing weatherstripping around doors and windows, will still help keep you warm without draining your bank account.

Buyers beware

Before you spend your nest egg insulating your homestead, make sure your expenses are worthwhile. Watch out for unusual and strange devices and “miracle” schemes that promise to cut your bill in half. Check references, ask people in the industry for opinions and visit the Better Business Bureau’s Web site to make sure other people were satisfied with the products and the service. It never hurts to get multiple quotes, either.

Here are more tips to ensure your home is ready for those cold north winds:

  • Have a professional test your duct system for air leaks. The Department of Energy says gaps, cracks and disconnections in home duct systems are responsible for losing 25 percent to 40 percent of the energy generated by the central furnace, heater or air conditioner.
  • Get your heating system professionally cleaned and tuned to reduce the chance of breakdown midwinter. This simple step improves safety and pays for itself through greater efficiency.
  • Install a programmable set-back thermostat. Used properly, a programmable thermostat can save you about $100 per year, according to the Energy Star program.
  • Set your thermostat as high as comfortably possible in the summer.Wear warm clothing indoors during cold weather. An electric blanket is much less expensive than heating your bedroom.
  • Consider heating your home with a passive solar heating system. Passive systems make use of home design and climate and forgo the need for pumps, fans and electrical equipment.
  • Insulate your water heater. This will pay for itself in about a year. Be careful not to set the thermostat above 130 F for electric water heaters with an insulating jacket or blanket — the wiring may overheat.
  • Open draperies and shades in winter to let in sunshine and close them at night to hold in heat. Remove awnings from sun-exposed windows in cold months. Prune any trees or shrubs that block sunlight.
  • Install storm doors.
  • Heat only those rooms that are in use.
  • Avoid the use of kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, and keep the fireplace damper closed when not in use. Turn off heat when the fireplace is being used.
  • Never use the range or oven to heat the kitchen. This can be dangerous as well as energy-inefficient.
  • Weatherstrip your attic door to prevent heat from escaping.
  • If wood is plentiful where you live, have a professional install a wood-burning stove.
  • Dust or vacuum all radiator surfaces frequently. Dust is a wonderful insulator and tends to build up on radiators and baseboard heat vents, keeping heat from dispersing.