If the storm that dropped up to 30 inches of snow from Maryland to Maine over the weekend is any guide, this winter could mean lots of snow -- and with it, higher heating bills. But experts say there are still ways to keep energy costs down.
Many Americans were socked with high-than-usual energy bills this past summer. Unfortunately, winter won't provide much of a break. The Energy Information Administration expects the average household with heating oil will spend a record $2,493 from October through March, up 8% from last year. Those heating with propane will spend as much as $2,979 (up 9%); natural gas $744 (up 3%); and electricity, $956 (down 1%).
Higher fuel prices account for the bulk of the jump, says EIA economist Neil Gamson. Although the forecast figures for a milder winter than last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said consumers -- particularly those on the West Coast -- could see another La Nina year with plenty of snowfall. "Until [Oct. 28], we had a very warm October, so that will help a little bit," Gamson says.
For consumers looking to cut costs this winter and beyond, experts recommend looking into financial assistance from the government while it lasts. Federal tax credits worth up to $500 for energy efficiency home improvements, in place most years since '05, may expire at the end of the year, says Ronnie Kweller, a spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy. Eligible projects include new insulation (10% of the cost, up to $500), biomass stoves ($300) and energy-efficient windows (10% of the cost, up to $200) -- so long as the items meet federal guidelines.
A handful of states also have rebate cash lingering from the "cash for clunker" appliance program of 2010 and more recent initiatives, according to the Department of Energy. Oregon, for example, still offers 70% of the cost for a qualifying gas furnace, up to $2,000. Ohio reimburses 100% of the price for an Energy-Star-qualified gas, oil or propane furnace. The government estimates the more efficient products could cut your energy bill by as much as 15%, to boot.
It's not too late to shop around for deals on fuel, either, says Gamson. Providers' rates largely depend on when they purchase their fuel supply, so calling around or joining cooperative buying groups that locked in prices months ago could yield a better price.
Consumers can also cut their energy costs by making smaller home improvements , says Dayle Zatlin, a spokeswoman for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. A home energy audit, available for free in many states, can help pinpoint problems -- including too-thin insulation and drafty areas. Spending as little as $30 for some caulk and sealing kits can cut your energy bill by up to 20%, a savings of as much as $1,000 a year. Actually programming your programmable thermostat so that the house is 10- to 15-degree cooler while you're out at work and asleep can save you up to another 15%, Zatlin says.