New York (CNN/Money) – Still basking in the warmth of late summer? Then you probably don't even want to think about getting whacked by winter heating costs.
In the Northeast, where 82 percent of the nation's heating oil is consumed, inventories have dropped 20 percent below their five-year average and 18 percent below last year.
That should keep the price of heating your home at least as high as last year's average of $1,084 for the season.
Natural gas users in the rest of the country have no reason to gloat. The Department of Energy predicts that the price of natural gas will average $9.29 per 1,000 cubic feet this year, up from $7.98. The typical Midwestern homeowner will pay about $850, or $50 a month more, for heat this winter.
And since many electricity suppliers use oil or natural gas for generation, electric heat users may also see higher bills.
There are several things consumers can do to help keep their heating bills down.
Lock in a deal
If you heat with oil, propane, or kerosene, and even, in some states, natural gas, you can often guarantee your fuel price in late summer or early fall when prices are usually lowest. Many heating oil dealers and, says Peggy Laramie of the American Gas Association, some gas utilities allow customers to contract for their entire winter's supply at a set price.
Last year in the Northeast, a cold winter sent energy prices spiraling. In New York's Hudson Valley, for example, heating oil rocketed from $1.18 a gallon in early September to more than $1.91 by March, a 62 percent increase. But smart consumers who had locked in their supply at the old price froze out those price increases and saved as much as $300 on a 500-gallon delivery.
But is this a good strategy for 2003? DOE economist Neil Gamson says that the agency predicts that prices will be about the same as last year, a nationwide average of about $1.30 a gallon. "We base this forecast on normal weather conditions," says Gamson, "and we expect a smoother price curve than last year."
If your supplier offers a contract for prices below that $1.30 benchmark, consider taking him up on it. Say prices drop and you end up paying a bit more than you would have, you still have been able to plan and budget out your heating costs for the year. And if prices spiral up again, you'll be happy you acted.
Help the house out
Minimize your heating costs by making your house more energy efficient. The DOE has a number of suggestions to help consumers do this without big out-of-pocket outlays:
- Shut off the leaks. On a windy day hold a lit incense stick near windows, doors, plumbing, ducting, and wiring. If the smoke starts blowing sideways, you've got a leak. Cut off the air-flow by taping clear plastic sheeting to the insides of windows, weather stripping doors, and caulking around plumbing, ducting, and wiring leaks. Many power companies provide free home heat-loss inspections to try to identify problem areas. Call your local gas provider to see if they offer this service.
- Insulate, insulate, insulate. Put an insulating blanket around your hot-water heater and pipes. They'll lose heat slower and require less input from the furnace. Check the attic to see if your insulation is up to standards. Visit the DOE for recommended insulation levels.
- Regulate the temperature. Install a programmable thermostat so you can keep the house cool when nobody's home. You can set these devises so they start to heat things up again an hour or so before you're due back. Lower the setting when you go to bed; just grab an extra blanket and snuggle under the covers.
- Check for cold ducts. The DOE says this is a common, and largely hidden, source of heat loss. Look for sections of your heating ducts that have separated or have holes in them. Insulating ducts can have a large positive effect on energy bills.
If you don't mind spending a bit more:
- Install storm or double-pane, insulated windows. This is an expensive, long-lasting fix that will take years to amortize. In the meantime, your home will be cozier and less drafty.
- Put in a new energy-efficient furnace. The DOE says to look for the Energy Star, an indication of high efficiency.
For low-income Americans, a federally funded program called LIHEAP, may help offset energy expenses. Locally based LIHEAP offices determine who's eligible. Call 1-866-674-6327 or visit the LIHEAP homepage.