Save Hundreds on Your Heating Bill
Save Hundreds on Your Heating Bill

Updated on October 25, 2006.
HOMEOWNERS CAN SLEEP EASY this winter, at least as far as home heating-bills are concerned. While average prices will be somewhat higher for heating oil, natural gas prices are expected to be lower than last year.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a typical homeowner in the Northeast — where 32% of homes use heating oil — can expect to spend an average of $1,559 this winter season, a 6.7% increase over last year. Homeowners using natural gas will spend 9.7% less than last year, bringing the winter tally to $1,117.

Want to push bills even lower? Here are a few simple steps to protect your house and your savings from Mother Nature.

1. Schedule a Checkup
Regardless of the type of heating system you have, it needs an annual checkup by a professional, says Wendy Reed, an Energy Star spokeswoman and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official. "It's like having your car tuned up," she says. "It's absolutely necessary maintenance that needs to be done on your system. Otherwise it will continue to lose efficiency over time." A small fee upfront will help avoid bigger costs down the line. And annual checkups are also an important safety precaution. (You can download A Guide to Energy Efficient Heating and Cooling at the Energy Star web site, which includes a handy maintenance checklist.)

Keep in mind that if your heat is delivered through a duct system (the most common heating system in the U.S.), you aren't off the hook once your annual checkup is complete. You need to continue to clean or change the filters regularly, says Reed. If your filter is full of dust, your system will have to work harder — thus driving up costs. Generally, filters should be checked monthly, although some filters need to be checked only every three months.

2. Buy a Programmable Thermostat
After a cold commute, you like to open your door to a toasty home. And you hate waking up in a cold bedroom. But that doesn't mean you need to have the heat blasting day and night.

With a programmable thermostat, you can heat your home at various temperatures throughout the day, allowing the house to be cooler when no one is home or when everyone is asleep, says Mel Hall-Crawford, energy-projects manager at the Consumer Federation of America. You can crank up the heat 30 minutes before it's really needed, and never feel the difference.

Installing a programmable thermostat shouldn't set you back more than $150 — and you can quickly recoup your costs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you can slash your heating and cooling bills by 10% annually just by turning your thermostat down 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours a day.

3. Plug Up Leaks
Imagine a water balloon with lots of little pinholes in it. Sure, the holes are small, but that doesn't mean the balloon isn't losing water.

Chances are, your house is like that balloon — slowly but surely losing heat to tiny leaks. And a lot of little leaks can add up to one big bill. Doors and windows are the most obvious culprits. But you also should check out electrical outlets, ceiling fixtures, ducts and your attic door, according to the DOE. "If your home has leaks, you're in essence heating the outdoors," says Rozanne Weissman, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy.

So how do you know you've got problems? Some you can obviously feel. For smaller ones, a simple test suggested by the Department of Energy is to light an incense stick and hold it up near the locations mentioned earlier. If the smoke goes horizontal, you've found a leak.

The good news? Plugging up these leaks with caulk or weather stripping (whichever is appropriate) is easy and inexpensive, and you'll start saving immediately. Any hardware or home-improvement store will have the goods.

4. Add Insulation
Many homes — particularly those that are more than 20 years old — lose lots of heat because of poor insulation, according to the DOE. And because heat rises, the No. 1 problem area is your attic. (Other areas that could need more insulation are your basement, crawl space, floor and walls.)

Just how much insulation is recommended for each part of your home depends on your climate and your home's design. Insulation is measured in something called an "r-value." The higher the r-value, the greater the insulation. For help with what's appropriate for your home, click here for a DOE worksheet.

5. Upgrade Your Appliances
If you have home-heating appliances that date back to the Reagan administration or earlier, it could be time to think about an upgrade. Replacing an outdated model with one that has earned the Energy Star label (Energy Star is a joint program run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy) could cut your home-heating costs significantly. Energy Star furnaces, for example, are 15% more efficient than standard models.

Typically you'll pay a bit more for a product with the Energy Star label. But consider this: As of Jan. 1, 2006, you could be eligible for a tax credit based on your energy-efficient purchases through Dec. 31, 2007. We won't lie to you: These new tax breaks are confusing, so if you're banking on earning one, you should run it by your accountant beforehand. But the savings can be substantial.

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