NEW YORK -- The surge in home heating oil and natural gas prices this winter is making many homeowners think about energy costs for the first time in years. Even though many people use energy-efficient appliances and have insulated their homes, utility and heating oil bills are becoming unpleasantly high.
Crude oil, home heating oil and natural gas are at their highest levels in nine years due to a combination of lower production and this winter's freezing temperatures. A year ago, a gallon of home heating oil sold in the futures market for about 32 cents a gallon; now it's in the 90-cent range. Natural gas, which sold for about $1.75 per 1,000 cubic feet a year ago, now costs $2.60.
Utilities and heating oil suppliers are passing along the increase to their customers. But consumers can find plenty of ways to pay less.
The answer, says Rozanne Weissman, a spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit coalition, is ''using energy-efficient technology to cut your energy bills in total.''
The most obvious ways to lower your bills is to buy a new heating or cooling system if your house needs one, installing double-paned coated windows or insulating your home.
You might not want to spend a lot of money to make big energy-saving improvements like these. But think of it as an investment -- replacing the windows in your house will probably improve its appearance, and anything that makes a house more energy efficient will also increase its value. If you're expecting to sell the house, it will be more attractive to prospective buyers.
Moreover, money spent on wasted energy disappears into the void, accomplishing nothing for you. But money you save -- perhaps hundreds of dollars a year -- could be spent on something you want or need, or it could be invested.
For someone with a newer house that has good insulation, energy-saving windows and efficient heating and cooling systems, energy bills may not be as much of an issue as they are for a homeowner with an older house. And in some older houses, it might not be feasible to make energy-saving changes without changing the character of the home -- you might not want to take out decorative leaded glass windows and install more modern ones, for example.
But new house or old, there are ways you could be wasting energy without knowing it:
Something as innocuous-looking as a crack in a wall or ceiling can allow heated air to escape and colder air to move in. Maybe there are drafty spots around windows and doors where the weather stripping isn't as tight as it used to be.
Put all those little cracks and spots together, and ''the average home has leaks equal to one open 3-foot by 3-foot window,'' Weissman said.
Even if you have a fairly new heating system, it may not be as efficient as you think. It's a good idea to have it serviced annually, and to change the filter monthly, Weissman said. If you have a hot water heater, be sure it's insulated. If it's warm to the touch, you should wrap some insulation -- even an old blanket -- around it.
Information about how to cut your energy bills is on the Internet, or, if you're not online, available from your local utility. The Alliance to Save Energy has a booklet called PowerSmart that is full of suggestions; it's available for free from the Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, Colo. You can order it by calling (888) 878-3256.
If you're looking for help online, the Web site for the Alliance to Save Energy (www.ase.org) has a calculator to help you see how much money you might save from making changes in your home, as well as a section with ideas on how to achieve those savings. The site for Mass-Save Inc. (www.mass-save.com), a nonprofit corporation created to provide energy conservation education, also has advice on making your home more energy efficient.
You can learn all kinds of tricks. Among them:
For older houses and apartments with free-standing radiators, consumers should use heat reflectors, which capture heat and redirect it toward the center of a room, suggests Consolidated Edison, the biggest utility in the metropolitan New York area.
Con Ed, noting that some people like to sleep with open windows, advises them to put weather stripping under their bedroom doors, to prevent the cooler air from moving into the rest of the home.
Some electrical utilities recommend consumers switch from top-loading to front-loading washing machines, estimating that an average family could save at least $100 over the course of a year.
On its Web site (www.eren.doe.gov/consumerinfo), the federal Department of Energy says three trees strategically placed around your house could save between $100 and $250 a year in heating and cooling costs.
Put this all together, and you'll save money. And maybe you'll feel more comfortable.
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