Here’s how to keep heating bills low this winter as inflation rises
A woman shovels her car out of the snow during a major snow storm January 29, 2022 in Stony Brook, New York.
Andreas Theodorakis | Getty Images
After a few winter months and two major snowstorms that hit much of the eastern US in January, many Americans may be finding that heating bills have increased.
For some, this will put additional strain on households already impacted by rising inflation.
About 20% of Americans struggled to fully pay their energy bills at least once in 2021, according to a December study by Help Advisor.
Those unable to pay their bills often delay paying for necessities like energy, potentially putting themselves and their families at risk. In the past 12 months, at least 18% of Americans have kept their home at an unhealthy or unsafe temperature, and 28% have foregone basic expenses like groceries or medicines to pay an energy bill.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Christian Worstell, a senior writer at Help Advisor.
Additionally, the households most vulnerable to not being able to pay bills or skipping other essentials tend to be those with children under the age of 18, people of color and people already struggling to survive on the lowest incomes, he added added .
“It seems the problem has accelerated slightly, but that’s nothing new,” he said.
According to the US Energy Information Administration’s Winter Fuels Outlook 2021 report, nearly half of US homes heating with natural gas are expected to spend 30% more than last winter. The 41% who heat with electricity are expected to spend 6% more.
The smaller number that heat with propane or heating oil – 5% and 4% of households respectively – could see even bigger jumps in costs. Propane users will spend 54% more this winter, while heating oil users could see bills increase by 43%, according to the report.
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Inflation is the culprit. Energy prices rose 29.3%, according to the December consumer price index from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Heating oil is around 40% more expensive than in the previous year, electricity is 6.3% more expensive and natural gas more than 24% more expensive.
These increases could blow household budgets if families are not prepared for them.
“Keeping costs as low as possible is important for homeowners, renters and businesses alike, especially as we head into these colder winter months,” said Kelly Speakes-Backman, deputy assistant secretary for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewables energies.
How to keep bills at bay
There are a few things people can do to keep heating bills down this winter.
One is to check your windows for leaks, which you can do yourself or with the help of a home energy audit, where a professional will come and assess your home’s energy efficiency and make suggestions for upgrades.
“Windows are a really significant part of that energy bill,” said Steve Hoffens, vice president of US window marketing at Cornerstone Building Brands. “Depending on the climate and the size of the house and everything else, 15 to 20% of your heat can go outside through the windows.”
You can combat leaky windows by caulking them with removable caulk, foil, or even spray foam, he said. A permanent solution could be to update your home with new, energy-efficient windows, which could save you hundreds of dollars a year on utilities, depending on the size of your home, Hoffens said.
You can also lower the temperature of your water heater, make sure the damper on your fireplace, if you have one, is closed when a fire isn’t burning, and even turn your thermostat down a few degrees at night.
Some utilities, like electric and gas, may give you a grade that compares your energy use to that of your neighbors, Speakes-Backman said. If you find that you are always using more energy than the people around you, it may be time to pay for an energy audit at home. In some states, utility companies may even offer the service for free, so it’s a good idea to check.
“Find out what are the first and least expensive ways to make a difference, and then look at some of the longer-term solutions,” Speakes-Backman said.
In addition to making temporary fixes, renters should review their lease and speak with their landlords to see what changes they’re allowed to make, Speakes-Backman said.
Tenants can also ask their landlord to optimize the heating system. You can make sure vents or radiators aren’t blocked by furniture and remove any window air conditioners they use in the summer.
Plan for the future
This winter could be warmer than last year, which could mean people use less heat. And some states regulate utilities, which means rates can’t go up without permission.
In addition, natural gas futures are down about 40% from their October high on forecasts of warmer weather.
But that doesn’t mean consumers can breathe easy — the price of natural gas is still up more than 50% year over year.
Those looking to make permanent upgrades to their homes should look to resources such as the Energy Star Home Upgrade and Weatherization programs, which are available to many low-income households in the United States
An Energy Star home upgrade will go beyond just heating and help people have more energy efficient and greener homes. The average household can save $500 a year by undergoing such an upgrade, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Federal tax credits and utility rebates are available for many energy-efficiency improvements that can help offset the cost, the EPA says.
“Certain parts of the country also have utility company programs that allow low-income families to access energy-saving upgrades at no upfront cost,” the agency said.
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