Pay less to stay warm this winter

Bracing for high heating costs? You may be pleasantly surprised.

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By Sarah Max, Money Magazine

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(Money Magazine) -- This year you can score a rare recession-induced break on your energy bill: The combination of a weak economy and a production boom has dropped the cost of heating with natural gas to a six-year low and is keeping a lid on other heat sources as well. But you can still save more. These questions will help you figure out the most cost-effective ways to keep out the cold.

How much will I pay for heat this winter?

If you use natural gas, you'll spend $434 to $1,044 to keep your home toasty, according to the Energy Information Administration. That is 3% to 22% less than last year. You'll also catch a break if you use propane, which is a byproduct of natural gas, since propane prices are forecast to fall 12%. If you heat with oil, you won't be so lucky: Depending on where you live, you'll spend $912 to $1,722, or 0.3% to 18% more. Electric heat costs will range from $792 in the West to $1,526 in the Northeast.

Does it make sense to switch to gas?

True, you'd cut your energy bill drastically this year if you swapped oil for gas. But since switching costs run to $5,000 and up, it would take six or more years to break even -- if the current disparity between gas and oil prices continues. Historically the costs tend to even out over time, says Ellen Berman of consumer energy consultancy CECA Solutions.

When the switch may make sense: if you're in the market for a new furnace anyway -- especially if your utility offers an incentive for converting.

Can I lock in today's low gas prices?

If you live in one of 21 states where you have the option to buy gas from a private supplier instead of a public utility, you could sign a contract for a set price that's good for the winter or the entire year. Given how low prices are now, that might be a good idea, says Ron Denhardt, CEO of Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

If you buy from a public utility, you usually can't lock in. But you may be able to opt for a level-payment program that estimates your total cost and lets you make 12 equal payments over the year. If you use less or prices go down, you'll get a credit.

What else can I do to lower my bill?

Assuming you've already tried the standard stuff -- beefing up your insulation and adding a programmable thermostat -- make sure your heating system is running as efficiently as possible. Clean or change your air filter monthly during the winter and schedule a furnace tune-up. That can extend the life of your system and shave as much as 10% off your heating bill.

Finally, don't forget about your water heater, which accounts for 15% to 25% of your energy costs. Turn down your water thermostat and, if the heater is in an unheated area, wrap it in an insulating "jacket."  To top of page

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