After two years of flat or lower fuel prices, many residents will pay sharply more to heat their homes this winter, according to government forecasts.
But there are a number of ways residents can blunt the expected rise in heating bills – beyond putting on a turtleneck.
Staying warm is expected to cost more because fuel prices are rising and forecasts call for cooler weather in some areas than the last two relatively warm winters. Natural gas, propane and electricity prices are expected to rise, affecting 94 percent of U.S. households. Heating oil users will catch a slight price break but still pay near-record bills to heat their homes.
National Fuel Gas Co. is predicting that heat bills for its average residential customer will jump by almost 22 percent from last winter’s unusually low levels.
The company predicts that the average heating bill in the Buffalo Niagara region will jump by about $128 to about $714 from the beginning of November through the end of March, compared with the 10-year low of $586 last year, when consumers benefitted from steadily declining natural gas prices and warmer temperatures that meant consumers used less natural gas to heat their homes.
One obvious way to lower your heating bill is to lower the thermostat – sleep under a few more blankets, watch TV in a sweater and use a programmable thermostat to turn the heat down when you are away or asleep. The Energy Department estimates that residents can save 1 percent on their heating bill for every degree a thermostat is set back.
Here are a few other ways:
• Think of the sun as a heater, and your drapes as a blanket: Open drapes when you are getting direct sunlight, then close them at night to keep heat from escaping.
• Make sure the damper in your fireplace is closed when you aren’t using it.
• Keep air vents clean and uncovered so heat can easily flow throughout your home.
• Shut off kitchen fans and bathroom fans as soon as they are no longer needed.
• It takes more energy to heat water in cold weather. You can lower the temperature of your water heater a bit and still get a hot shower, and use cold water to do laundry and rinse dishes. Also, insulate pipes that move hot water around the house.
A look at the government’s forecast for winter fuel costs shows why homeowners will want to use some cost-cutting measures this winter. Natural gas customers will pay an average of $679 this winter for heating, up 13 percent from last year. Electricity customers will pay $909, up 2 percent. Propane customers in the Midwest will pay $1.453, up 9 percent, and propane customers in the Northeast will pay $2,146, up 11 percent. Heating oil customers will pay $2,046, down 2 percent.
At the same time, funding for low-income heating assistance is falling. In 2010, Congress set aside $5.1 billion for heating assistance. This year Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, is expecting $3 billion.
Many states and utilities offer incentives for home energy audits and home weatherization programs that include things like adding insulation, installing more efficient windows, and replacing an old boiler or furnace with a new one. National Fuel offers incentives for high-efficiency furnaces and certain types of energy-efficient water heaters.
These investments can pay for themselves in heating savings in just a few years, especially when energy prices are high.