- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

Cindy Workman isn’t waiting until the snow starts falling to prepare for the winter heating season.

When a friend told her recently that he was clearing land on his farm, Miss Workman happily agreed to take wood from the felled trees. She’ll burn it in the cast-iron stove in her living room so she can cut down on the amount of natural gas needed to heat her Omaha, Neb., home.

“I dread seeing what the heating bills are going to be,” said Miss Workman, a media coordinator for Creighton University.

The spike in crude oil prices already has sent gasoline prices to record levels nationwide and will likely lead to a rise in home heating costs. So, many consumers like Miss Workman are seeking ways to control heating bills.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy indicates that home heating fuel prices could rise as much as 21 percent this winter.

Heating a home with natural gas could cost an average of $1,200 this winter, up from $1,000 last year, according to projections by the department’s Energy Information Administration. The cost for homes using heating oil is expected to increase to $1,480 from $1,220 last year. Electricity and propane prices are rising, too.

A mild winter could help hold down fuel use and thus its cost, but consumers still may want to consider strategies to limit the bite heating costs take out of their budgets. These include:

• Ordering fuel oil and propane tank deliveries in late summer and early fall, when prices generally are lower.

• Negotiating fuel delivery contracts for the entire season, although some heating oil companies no longer offer fixed-price deals because crude oil markets are too volatile.

• Checking with gas utilities to determine whether they have “customer choice options,” which allow homeowners to buy fuel from competing energy service companies.

• Asking gas and electric utilities for so-called level-billing plans, or budget plans, that average fuel costs over the entire year.

Still, the best tactic for most families is to make efficient use of whatever fuel they buy, said Athula Kulatunga, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering technology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

He noted, for example, that many people pile on the blankets when they go to bed at night but leave their furnaces on full blast, wasting fuel. A programmable thermostat, which typically sells for less than $100, can turn that furnace down at night for fuel savings, he said.

Mr. Kulatunga also said families can save significantly on fuel bills by adding insulation to their homes to keep heat from leaking.

“Simply walk outside after it snows and take a look at your roof,” he advised. “If your snow melts faster than your neighbor’s snow, it could be a sign you don’t have enough insulation in your attic and should get more.”

And, he said, many families heat spaces they don’t use.

“In Japan, people carry kerosene heaters from room to room to heat the space they’re in,” Mr. Kulatunga said. “Here, we have very large homes and while we may be using four rooms, we heat up all 10.”

That’s something Cara Halstead and her fiance hope to avoid in their new home in Suffern, N.Y.

“I’m a little nervous about the coming winter,” Miss Halstead said. “We’re just getting used to paying all these bills — and high heating prices are definitely a concern.”

Miss Halstead, who works as a publicist at Pace University, said the couple were considering space heaters to supplement their fuel oil furnace.

“The way the house is laid out, each room is pretty separate,” she said. “We think we can put one [space heater] in the living room and one upstairs in the bedroom — then keep the thermostat lower.”

Peggy Laramie, spokeswoman for the American Gas Association, a trade group in Washington, said consumers also can hold down fuel costs by making sure their furnaces and heaters are operating properly.

“People should call a qualified service technician to come out and check the vents, the valves and other mechanical components to make sure they’re operating properly,” she said. “They should also check chimneys to make sure birds haven’t nested or there aren’t other problems.”

In some cases, families may have such limited income that they can’t handle the higher prices.

David L. Fox, executive director of the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance in Washington, said many low-income families may be eligible for aid under the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

The program, often administered by county governments, nonprofit groups or community action agencies, can help families who meet state criteria. But, Mr. Fox said, “there’s considerably more need” than the $2 billion program can meet. Details about the program can be found at www.liheap.org.

Another option for low income families is to seek help from local “fuel funds,” which pool private donations to help the needy.

George Coling, executive director of the National Fuel Funds Network, said some families are referred to participating organizations by utility companies when they can’t pay their bills. Consumers can get information at www.nationalfuelfunds.org or by calling their local utilities.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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