Lower scorching winter heat bills

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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.

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.

If you have a few hundred dollars to spend on making your home more energy efficient, you can expect to see a return on investment in one to two years, according to Szoradi. Consider the following:

1. Buy a programmable thermostat. At a cost of about $100, a programmable thermostat lets you lower the temperature of your home while you’re at work and set it to rise before you come back home. The savings can be substantial since you can save between 5 percent and 15 percent by rolling the thermostat back 10 degrees to 15 degrees for eight hours a day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy which offers an online savings calculator.

2. Have your heating system serviced. Not only will servicing your heating system help ensure that it lasts as long as possible, but spending a couple hundred dollars for a tuneup can ensure that it runs as efficiently as possible, saving you money in the process. Get a tuneup every year for oil-fired systems, every two years for gas furnaces and three years for heat pumps, advises Randy Scott, vice president of product systems management for heating system provider Trane.

3. Blanket your water heater. Place your hand on your water heater. If it feels warm to your touch that means it’s not well insulated and is losing heat, Szoradi says. A $20 water heater blanket could give it the insulation that it needs, but first check the unit manufacturer’s specifications, warns Marston. “Some don’t recommend the blanket and will void the warranty if the blanket is used,” he says.

4. Change your window treatments. About one third of a home’s heat loss comes from windows and doors, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Add insulation to your windows by purchasing double cellular shades and thinking in layers, for example, adding thick draperies in addition to blinds or shades.

5. Enlist the aid of an efficiency expert. If you have a few hundred dollars to spend, consider hiring an energy auditor to use special equipment to identify areas of air leakage in your home. Armed with that information, you can have them correct the problems or you can caulk and weatherproof your home yourself. Seal ducts in attics, crawlspaces and unfinished basements and do wonders for your heating bill.

6. Humidify efficiently. Room and home-size electric humidifiers are widely available — ranging from $25 for 700 square feet to less than $100 to cover as much as 2,000 square feet.

Making major renovations to your home to increase energy efficiency can run in the thousands of dollars, but if you’re planning to live there for many more years, you’ll make much of your money back over the next decade, Szoradi says. Here are some suggestions:

1. Replace your heating system.Since a heating system can run $10,000 or more, most people wait for their old systems to break down before buying a new one, says Marston. But if you’re planning to buy one, spend the extra money for the most energy-efficient unit you can afford. Look for Energy Star-qualified models, which are 15 percent more efficient than standard models, the Department of Energy estimates. Figure out your savings by using this heating system replacement ROI calculator.

2. Replace windows, doors and skylights.Energy Star-qualified windows, doors and skylights use double- or triple-paned glass and special coatings that keep heat inside during the winter. For a big energy savings boost, consider making the investment. The increased insulation will cut down your heating bills — and summer cooling costs — over time.

3. Install ceiling fans.By rotating the blades in a clockwise direction, you’ll be pushing hot air down from the ceiling back into the room, says Dave Walton, director of home ideas for North American energy provider Direct Energy. During the summer months, those same ceiling fans will also cut your cooling costs, providing year-around savings.

Tamara Holmes is a freelance writer based in Maryland.