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Hold on to Your Heating Bills

How To Survive Rising Energy Costs

Every summer, usually in July, we get a letter from the oil company with an offer to pre-pay for our winter fuel. By paying several hundred dollars in one lump sum, we guarantee that our oil will cost a pre-determined amount per gallon that will not change even if the cost of oil increases.

This summer, July and then August came and went without a letter from the oil company. Finally in September, we received notice stating that the oil company would not be offering the locked-in prices this year. Oil, the letter said, had become too expensive to make the offer feasible.

My husband put down the notice and said, "I suppose we should get used to it."

Why the Worry?
Along with an increase in oil prices, those who heat their homes with natural gas are also suffering sticker shock when the bills arrive. Energy experts warn that this winter, like the one before it, is likely the start of a trend. Both oil and natural gas are limited energy sources, which are being consumed more quickly than predicted. And like oil, the percentage of natural gas imported into the United States is increasing.

"Natural gas production in the United States peaked in 2001," says Greg Pahl, author of Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2005). "We now rely on Canada to supply approximately 15 percent of our natural gas."

Unlike oil, which can be easily transported on tanker ships, natural gas found in Europe, Asia or Africa would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to import. "You can't put a pipeline under the ocean," says Tom Mast, author of Over a Barrel: A Simple Guide to the Oil Shortage (Hayden Publishing, 2005). To transport natural gas by ship would create safety and environmental hazards that few, if any, port cities want to deal with.

What You Can Do

Until other energy sources – such as wind farms, hydropower and solar panels – become more readily available and cost efficient, there are plenty of ways to conserve heat and cut down on costs. Both Mast and Pahl emphasize the very first thing to do is turn the heat down, especially at night. "Wear more sweaters," Mast says. It seems like such an obvious suggestion, but most homes can turn down the thermostat a few degrees without discomfort. A programmable thermostat will allow homeowners to automatically control the heat when they aren't home or at night.

Each family can be creative with ideas, as well. In my house, for example, I try to use the shower immediately after my son. His shower has heated the bathroom, and I don't have to warm up the hot water. The bathroom is the coldest room in our house. Shutting the door after the showers keeps the room warm for hours.

Other suggestions include the following:

Block the leaks.
Old windows and doors suck out warm air and let in cold. Clear plastic and tape seals the window and keeps the warmth inside. Push a rug up against doors leading outside, and make sure garage doors are kept shut if the garage is attached to the house.

Open the blinds.
Since in the winter most of us leave the house while it is still dark, we might forget the sun will shine later in the day. Opening the blinds and curtains, especially on the south side of the house, naturally heats rooms.

Change furnace filters.
According to Gale Tedhams, product manager at Owens Corning, replacing filters and cleaning air registers, baseboard heaters and radiators can provide energy savings up to 10 percent.

Turn on the humidifier.
Tedhams also says that by increasing the humidity in your living space, the additional moisture will increase the heat index inside your home, making 68 degrees F feel more like 76 degrees F. "Make sure that the relative humidity in the home is between 20 to 40 percent," she says. "As the outside temperature falls, lower the percentage to prevent condensation from forming on windows."

Use kitchen and bathroom vents sparingly.
According to the Kansas State Extension Office, "vents are designed to remove moisture from the interior of the home, but may also remove warm air and increase overall energy costs. Indoor air tends to be dry during winter months. Consider excessive condensation on windows as a signal to use the vent."

Exercise.
"Dancing is always excellent to keep warm, as is exercising to an exercise DVD," says Pamelyn Casto of de Cordova Bend, Texas. "Both work up a nice warmth in the winter."

Keep pretty throws around.
Casto says she has one in just about every room. "Great for snuggling up in and reading," she says.

Pull out the rake.
"I borrowed an old trick from my parents and placed plastic bags of leaves raked up from the yard around the base of the house on the side exposed to the prevailing winter winds," says Liz Bennefeld from Fargo, N.D. "Once the bags get covered with sleet and then snow, they will stay put and provide good insulation of the concrete and cover the area up to the siding."

Go room by room.
"We are really into managing heat by room instead of trying to heat the entire house," says Barbara Hampton of Carterville, Ill. "We shut off rooms we don't frequently use. We also have several of those electric oil heaters that look like radiators. We never leave them running over night, but it helps to close off a room and turn one on if you are going to be sitting. I frequently use one in my office since I'm at the back of the house where it is harder to heat in the winter."

Bake some cookies.
Turn down the heat and turn on the oven in the evening. The oven will warm up the kitchen, and the family can enjoy time together baking and eating cookies.

Spend a romantic evening by the fire.
We use our fireplace frequently in the winter. We turn down the heat in the rest of the house and spend an evening by the fire. Sometimes the whole family will play games or read books by the fire, but often, my husband and I will turn off the lights, light candles and enjoy an evening together in this cozy, warm room.

Keep a good attitude.
A positive attitude is everything. Hang up pictures of warm places. (I have a calendar of tropical beaches that I look at whenever I'm cold.) Recall summer vacations. Wear fuzzy bedroom slippers and flannel pajamas that make you smile. And remember, winter won't last forever.

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