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Dealing With Home Heating Bills

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The arctic plunge felt all over the country is pressuring Americans' wallets. Despite the revolution in energy production, high demand and supply constraints are sending energy prices soaring. Propane prices are double their previous highs in the Midwest as demand spikes. Meanwhile, natural gas prices are soaring as inadequate pipeline capacity struggles to fulfill demand in the Northeast.

The Energy Information Agency reports that 90% of the 116 million Americans homes will face higher home heating bills this winter. Heating oil users will face the  highest bill for the season at an average of $2,114. Propane users come in at No. 2 with an average bill of $1,666,  Electric heat users average tab is seen at $914 and natural gas users will pay $665, that's up 13 percent from last year. Natural gas is used by about a half of American households to heat their homes.

Experts say that keeping your home warm and safe is nothing short of a challenge this year. On the one hand, every time your ratchet up the heat on your thermostat a single degree, you increase your costs by 3 percent. But lowering your thermostat too much can cause trouble. Second home owners need to keep a particularly sharp eye on how much they turn down their thermostat. Turn it too low and your pipes can freeze. Danny Lipford, host of Today's Homeowner, recommends allowing your faucets to drip overnight when the weather is extremely cold. Open up the cabinet doors below your kitchen faucets to allow warmer air to circulate around pipes.

January is the month for home fires and if you are using electric space heaters be particularly careful.  Underwriters Laboratories estimates that the safest distance between your space heater and curtains or other household items that can catch fire three feet. Use a high quality extension cord and shut the heater off if you aren't in the room.

One way to bring your costs down for the long term is to buy a more efficient furnace. New furnaces these days are extremely efficient, capturing as much as 97 percent of the fuel's energy. But at a cost of $2,500 to $14,000 to buy and install, a gas furnace isn't cheap. Get a pro to help you determine how much you might save by upgrading your furnace and then figure out how long it would take the savings to pay the cost of the furnace. Most experts weigh three factors: the efficiency of the furnace, the cost of the fuel and the heating load of the house – that's the amount of energy it takes to maintain a steady 65-degree temperature. Check your state government's website to see if you can score some government-funded rebates to make the cost easier to bear.

Chances are if your furnace still has several good years left in its 15 to 20-year life, you might want to consider other ways to improve your homes fuel efficiency, such as weather stripping and insulating your attic or blowing in insulation into your walls. (I've done the latter after determining that the builders of our 81-year-old house insulated with newspaper.) If you're still not satisfied, ask your energy provider for an energy audit, which will provide detailed information about where your home drafts are coming in.

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