A cup of coffee to fight the morning chill: 99 cents. A pair of lined boots for the trek to and from the office: $65. Coming home at the end of a long day to a warm, cozy house: Priceless, you say? Well, not quite. According to the federal government's Energy Information Administration, the average household will spend $960 on heating bills between this month and the end of March.
But keeping warm doesn't need to come at such a cost. Here are some tips for staying out of the cold without pushing your checkbook into the red.
An ounce of prevention ... is worth a few hundred dollars per winter of cure. As families tighten their belts to cut costs, the idea of spending now to save later may not sound all that appealing. But if you feel as if you're spending too much on heating, putting off the bills won't make them go away. One relatively inexpensive solution is to buy a programmable thermostat. If you know you're going to be out during certain periods, you can set the thermostat at a lower temperature (try around 65 degrees) for those hours, while at the same time making sure the heat kicks back in on time for you to return to a comfortably warm home. This can save you around 10 percent on your bills.
A more costly approach, but one that also offers greater savings potential, is an energy audit. With the help of thermal-imaging cameras, a home inspector can identify problems with insulation and airflow that prevent your heating system from operating at full capacity. "There's just no way to get some of that information and narrow down the [problems] without the camera, or no cost-effective way to do it anyway," says Terry Grube, owner of Seacoast Inspections, a firm that does energy audits throughout New England.
If an audit reveals problem areas, the next step is evaluating whether it's worthwhile to fix them. Especially in older houses, tending to cracks and insulation problems can trim up to 20 percent off of heating bills, according to Ronnie Kweller, director of media relations for the Alliance to Save Energy.
"The first thing that we always recommend is that you have your house nice and tight, because otherwise you could have a really highly efficient furnace, but you'll still be sending the precious warm air out the window," she says. Still, even with the promise of cumulative savings, some problems are best left unfixed. "Not every deficiency justifies opening up a wall," says Grube.
Don't ignore the small stuff. It doesn't take much to make a series of smaller dents in your monthly heating bills. In fact, there are a number of quick changes you can make without even spending a dime. For starters, keep your furnace filters clean. Also remember to lower the temperature on your electric water heater to around 120 degrees and to close the damper on your fireplace if you have one.
According to David Holt, president of the Consumer Energy Alliance, people tend to overlook the importance of these cost-free fixes. "What we fail to realize is how much energy goes into our carpet or our wallpaper," he says. To that end, he suggests "taking a step back and realizing . . . ways that we can really simply and effectively reduce our energy usage and improve our monthly budget."
Research federal grant programs. If you want do more than small fixes, though, and are worried about financing the projects, take time to investigate your options. With the federal stimulus, billions of dollars are now available in grants and other incentives for energy-related home improvements.
If you live in a low-income household, the Department of Energy's weatherization grants can help you lower your bills while the government picks up the tab. But even if you don't, incentives are still available. Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) bonds, for example, allow homeowners to take out loans and pay them back through assessments on their property-tax bills.
"Broadly speaking, there is a remarkable amount of money that is flowing into programs to help property owners save money on their energy bills," says Cisco DeVries, president of Renewable Funding, which is the group that pioneered the PACE model.