Six ways to shrink that heating bill

Most of these simple tips require little or no investment and are said to reduce costs significantly.

By Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- With winter fast approaching, and the cost of natural gas and oil still far above historic norms, here are six basic steps that could save you big on heating bills.

Most are cheap and easy, although a couple require a significant financial outlay and professional installation. Either way, the tips below, outlined by the Alliance to Save Energy, will help go easier on the environment, strengthen the nation's energy security and save you money.

Clean your furnace filter - This could be as easy as cleaning the lint from your dryer, says ASE spokeswoman Ronnie Kweller. Or it could entail running to the store for a $10 replacement, she says.

Although hard to quantify, Kweller says your furnace will struggle less, and hence will be more efficient, if it doesn't have to push hot air through a clogged filter.

Also, she recommends getting the furnace tuned up at least once a year by a professional to further boost efficiency.

Get a programmable thermostat - For about $100, you can tell one of these devices to automatically turn down the heat or air conditioning when no one is home, like during the workday, which can shrink your heating bill by about 10 percent.

And unlike just turning down the heat when you leave and turning it back up when you get home, the programmable thermostat can do it a bit before you arrive.

"The beauty of it is you come home to a comfortable house," says Kweller.

Take advantage of the sun - This doesn't even require any extra spending. Just remember to open up the curtains on south-facing windows during the day, close all the curtains at night, and let the sun help naturally heat your home.

Turn down the hot water - Kweller says most hot water heaters come with a default water temperature setting of 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

"That's hotter than you need for showering and dish washing, and can risk scalding," she says, recommending 120 as safer and more efficient choice.

If you're in the market for a new water heater, Kweller recommends a tankless variety that heats water up only when needed, using 30 percent less energy.

Also, she says using cold water to wash your clothes can save up to $68 dollars a year on water heating bills.

Insulate and seal - Adding an extra layer of insulation to your roof or walls, and using caulking, foam or weather stripping to seal cracks around windows, light fixtures or electrical outlets can not only save you on energy, it can get you a tax break as well.

Kweller says up to 10 percent of the costs for insulation, up to a maximum of $500 a year, can be written off on your taxes until the end of 2007. For more information on insulating and tax breaks, go to http://www.simplyinsulate.com/.

For locating areas that need sealing, it's helpful to go around windows and fixtures with a lit candle and watch for the flickering flame.

Upgrade your windows - Kweller recommends ones that carry the government-endorsed Energy Star rating label, both for efficiency and to take advantage of the tax credit, which can be used not just for insulation but a variety of efficiency-enhancing products.

She says the Energy Star windows, which will be either double or triple paned, start at around $300 each.

"It's a big investment, and we don't think people should do it just for the tax credit or energy savings," she says. "But if you need new windows anyway, definitely go for Energy Star."

She estimates consumers can save $110 to $540 annually on heating costs. For more information on the variety of tax credits available for all energy efficient products, go to http://www.ase.org/content/article/detail/2654.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.