Little things add up to big savings on heat

SANDUSKY It's 85 degrees outside, and more heat is probably the last thing on your mind. But
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010



It's 85 degrees outside, and more heat is probably the last thing on your mind.

But a little planning now can pay off this winter, when heating costs are expected to rise to record levels, experts say.

While natural gas prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange are showing declines, the Energy Information Administration predicts natural gas will cost about 52 percent more this year.

High oil prices, lower imports of liquid natural gas, an increase in consumption and decline in inventories are all factors contributing to the spike, the EIA says.

At a recent forum on home heating, Janine Migden-Ostrander of the Ohio Consumers Counsel reported Columbia Gas plans to increase customer charges from $6.50 to $11.97 this winter. FirstEnergy Corp. also filed for a possible rate increase, she said.

"Everybody's worried about it," said Otis Young, 63, who lives on a fixed income with his brother, George, in Sandusky.

The Youngs said they saved money by keeping their thermostat at 70 degrees last winter, but they're not sure they can afford this year's increase.

Ryan Lippe, spokesman for the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, said the simple act of adjusting the thermostat by 5 degrees over an eight-hour period saves a resident 5-10 percent on their energy bill. But there are other ways to keep heat from escaping, he said.

Fire your old furnace

One of the biggest culprits of energy loss is the furnace.

Steve Savastuk of Bayside Comfort Inc. in Marblehead said homeowners should service their furnace each winter to check for potential problems. His company charges less than $100 for a typical troubleshooting session.

Owners should also change their filters at least once a month -- and more often if they have pets, he said.

A dirty furnace filter causes a furnace to run hotter and longer, using more energy.

And if your furnace is more than 15 years old, it might be time to say goodbye.

"A 15-to-20 year-old furnace may be still running, but efficiency-wise, it's costing them a lot of money," Savastuk said. "If you have to put more than a few hundred dollars into it, you might as well get a new one."

Homeowners who use electric heat should also check the blades of their outdoor heat pump to make sure nothing is blocking them.

Prep your windows

Jay Clevenger, representative for Olde Towne Windows & Doors in Milan, said inadequate windows and doors cause the majority of a home's energy loss.

The old, 1930 and 1940-style homes with single-pane pulley system windows are common in Sandusky, he said. Those windows often have an R-value (resistance to energy loss) of less than .4 on a scale of more than 9 -- meaning they are 10 times less efficient than they could be.

"What you're aiming for is at least an R-4 rating for your investment to pay off," Clevenger said.

Achieving a rating as high as R-7 will reduce heating costs by at least 40 percent, he said -- but even average improvements can yield a savings of 10 to 20 percent.

Homeowners can achieve a higher rating by replacing old windows with at least double-paned, insulated glass and low-emittance (Low-E) panes that block ultraviolet rays and prevent sun fading. They can also look for Energy-Star rated glass that meets standards set by the U.S. Department of Energy -- though Clevenger cautions these don't always guarantee the highest level of efficiency.

For window frames, vinyl is best. The cost of replacing windows with more energy-efficient glass typically starts at about $300 each, and consumers can expect to pay an additional $75 to have them wrapped and insulated. It's not cheap, but the investment will more than pay for itself within a few years.

Ditch old doors

Patio doors are also a big source of energy loss, he said. He recommends replacing cheap patio doors with six-paneled, insulated ones, which start at about $900. Storm doors cost about half that much but can significantly cut back on energy costs. Sliding patio doors should have tempered glass and insulation, as well as welded corners. As with windows, vinyl frames are better than metal or aluminum.

Pipe down the hot water

Lippe says water heaters are another common cause of added expenses.

Heaters should be set between 115 and 120 degrees for most common uses and wrapped with an insulation blanket to retain heat. Switching from warm or hot washes to cold water washes can also help.

Train your thermostat

To get the most out of a winterized home, experts recommend investing in a digital programmable thermostat. These thermostats allow homeowners to store four or more pre-set temperatures, which will be adjusted automatically throughout the day. Costs range from $40 to $200, depending on the brand.

Upgrade your bulbs

Experts recommend replacing old light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs -- the coiled-shaped lights now available at most retail outlets. The fluorescent bulbs use 66 percent less energy and last 10 times longer, Lippe said.

"A single bulb can save customers $30 or more over its lifetime," he said, "and it takes as little as 18 seconds to change."

Start saving now

One of the easiest ways to plan ahead for heating costs is to start paying up now. Columbia Gas of Ohio offers a budget payment plan, which estimates the cost of service for a year and spreads it more evenly over each month, starting in August. Each customer's budget is based on the historic usage patterns for their home. Columbia predicts its average budget billing amount for the 2008-09 year will be about $133 each month.

"The Budget Payment Plan allows customers predictability in their natural gas bills and greatly reduces the impact of large usage and price spikes that can occur during the heating season," Columbia spokeswoman Linda Siddons said in a news release. "They never pay for more than they actually use."

Shop around

Those frustrated by rising prices can take matters into their own hands by shopping around.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio offers a comparison of supplier prices so consumers can change providers before the winter months, PUCO spokeswoman Shana Eiselstein said.

"Now is a very good time to be thinking about winter while the weather is warm," Iselstein said. "It pays to shop around."