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Personal Finance

How to cool high heating costs
Winter will see higher heating costs for U.S. homeowners. Here are some steps to lessen the blow.
September 27, 2004: 1:43 PM EDT
Les Christie, CNN/MONEY contributing writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - As the price of a barrel of crude hovers around $50, homeowners may be worrying about the impact of soaring oil prices on their heating bills this winter.

In the Northeast, where 82 percent of the nation's heating oil is consumed, homeowners paid an average of $1.36 a gallon last year. That was about six cents more than predicted earlier in the season by the Department of Energy and up $0.26 from 2001-2002.

This winter, says the DOE's Dave Costello, prices should run about $1.57, meaning that the average consumer would pay about $1,309 to heat the house with oil.

Ultimately, for every dollar increase in crude prices, heating oil rises about 2.4 cents. So if the barrel price hits $60, it could add another $0.25 to a gallon of heating oil.

Most homeowners, however, can stock up on heating oil when prices are low -- storage tanks typically hold 275 gallons or more -- and wait out price spikes.

Demand for natural gas is also affected by crude prices. "When oil goes up," says Costello, "many electric power generating plants can switch to natural gas."

Natural gas, the heating fuel of choice for the Midwest, will probably average $10.72 per thousand cubic feet this winter, according to the DOE, up from last year's $9.69. It will cost the average Midwesterner about $980 to a home this winter, up from $880 last year.

Costello says the DOE does not expect crude to hit $60, but concedes that, as spots keep rising, speculators may be betting on higher prices. Inventories have returned to average levels, however, which should help stabilize heating oil prices; last year at this time they were down about 20 percent.

Lock in a deal

There are several things consumers can do to help keep their heating bills down.

Winter fuel costs
Heating costs will be up across the board this winter
Heating fuel2003 - 2004 actual2004 - 2005 forecast
Heating oil$1.36 a gallon$1.57 a gallon
Natural gas$9.69 per thousand cubic feet$10.72 per thousand cubic feet
Propane$1.30 a gallon$1.41 a gallon
Source:Department of Energy

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 lowest. Many heating oil dealers and some gas utilities allow customers to contract for their entire winter's supply at a set price.

In New York's Hudson Valley last year, for example, heating oil stood at around $1.49 a gallon in September. By February, the price had risen about 22 percent to more than $1.82, in part, because of some sub-zero January days. Smart consumers who had locked in their supply at the old price froze out those price increases and saved as much as $165 on a 500-gallon delivery.

If your supplier offers a contract for prices at or below the DOE's $1.57 benchmark, consider taking it. Even if 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. If prices spiral up, 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 candle 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.
  • 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.
    Electricity Production and Distribution
    Oil and Gas
    Department of Energy

  • Regulate the temperature. Install a programmable thermostat so you can keep the house cool when nobody's home. You can set these devices 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 make a big dent on energy bills.

If you don't mind spending a bit more:

  • Install double-pane, insulated windows. This is a long-lasting fix, but it's expensive. 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.  Top of page

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