Home & Living

The Cheapskate’s Guide to Home Heating

Here are the most cost-efficient ways to get winter-ready.

Go ahead, relive the pain—check your bank and credit-card statements from last winter and you’ll be reminded just how much a really cold winter can cost in home-heating bills.

And while another bitterly cold winter is not forecasted for much of the nation, national weather experts say the Mid-Atlantic states may be the exception, with below-average temperatures predicted, especially in southeastern states. (You knew we were going to have to pay for that cool summer, right?)

The Old Farmer’s Almanac, meanwhile, concurs that the winter in our area “will be colder and slightly wetter than normal, with above-normal snowfall.”

So, how to squeeze the most out of each heating dollar? We need to start by wrapping our heads around the sometimes vast differences in cost per British thermal unit (BTU) of different fuel types.

For starters, homeowners who rely on home-heating oil are paying more than they would with almost any other fuel. Oil costs more than propane, which, in turn, costs more than electricity to heat a same-size house. And electricity is costlier than natural gas (in which the U.S. is awash these days because of the controversial extraction method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking). In fact, using heating oil costs more than three times the price of natural gas. And for those lucky enough to have conventional fireplaces or wood stoves, firewood, depending on where you get it, can be the cheapest option of all: the cost of chainsaw gas if you cut it yourself.

Of course, just to confuse you, prices of commodities fluctuate depending on things like demand, speculation, and refinery mishaps.

In the case of electricity, prices are expected to rise somewhat, in part because of recent federal environmental regulations that are forcing energy companies to shutter their coal-fired generating stations. (Coal may be dirty, but it’s also cheap.)

But don’t worry, you don’t have to check the energy markets every day in The Wall Street Journal to make all this information work for you. Just come up with a plan to capitalize on the lower prices of certain fuels. Especially if you’re stuck with an oil-fired furnace, here are a few ways to make your home more energy-efficient:

Bundle Up
Put on a sweater and get your electric blanket out of mothballs, so we can talk about this without the distraction of your chattering teeth.

Turn it down
Turn your furnace’s thermostat down to, say, 62 degrees. Don’t fret, we’re not going to have you freeze to death: We have a plan.

Plug ‘em in
Get two or three electric space heaters, and put them only in the rooms you use the most—the goal is to leave the rooms you rarely use colder. Be sure one of the space heaters is in the room where the home thermostat is, and close to the thermostat itself. (The extra bit of electric heat in that corner will fool the thermostat into thinking all is well, so it won’t flick on the oil furnace sooner than necessary.) Consumer Reports agrees that lowering the temperature in little-used rooms and using space heaters in the most popular spots in the house is one of the best ways to get the most for your money. They also recommend space heaters with a fan option.

Think cheap natural gas
If you’ve got natural-gas fueled heat, you’re already in the cat-bird seat, cost-wise. If you don’t, but you’re thinking, ‘Why can’t I heat my kitchen and adjoining rooms by just running my gas oven and range?’ Well, you can. We know because we’ve tried it and nobody died. But in a society now endowed with more warning labels and lawyers than common sense, our magazine safety compliance officer says we can’t advise that, especially if you leave the room. (Also, if you use the gas oven for that purpose, it will eventually wear out the igniters).

If you’ve got a wood or pellet fireplace, use it as much as possible. It’s all part of the master plan to create a few warm spaces in the parts of the house you use the most.

The furnace still kicks on at night when it’s bitter cold? That’s okay, it’s there as a backup for really cold spells. And you can always crank it up when royalty comes to visit. But you’ve still succeeded in bypassing heating oil as a sole heat source.

Give your home an energy check-up
“It’s a great starting place,” says Ruth Kiselewich, director of demand side management programs at Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE). For BGE customers, “It’s an hour walk-through of a person’s home with an energy-efficiency expert; it can be for a homeowner, or someone who rents.” Some of the items the expert will check include appliances, the heating and cooling systems, insulation, and lighting. Customers will get a detailed report at the end of the inspection. And there’s not an additional cost—it’s already part of your monthly bill. (If you’re wondering why utilities are so big on conservation, it’s because they don’t want to be forced to build new, multi-billion-dollar generating plants; their shareholders want them to squeak by with the existing ones.) Kiselewich says, “Customers can see a savings of up to $60 a year.”

Invest in a programmable thermostat
Products range from $40-450, but can save you quite a bit in the long run. There are several programmable thermostats on the market that are “smart” and learn your daily habits, so the temperature in your home changes when you are at work or away. Some can even be adjusted remotely via your cell phone or computer. Energy Star says people can save about $180 each year on energy costs.

Properly insulate
“We go into homes with low-level attics, split levels, or homes with different roof pitches that aren’t properly insulated or sealed correctly,” says James Otterbacher, division manager of Energy Services Group. “Air travels through these spaces, so there aren’t thermal boundaries. You see more energy use in those types of attics.”

There are plenty of insulation options available, including cellulose, rockwool, and fiberglass. Otterbacher recommends that homeowners have 14 to 16 inches of insulation in their attics. He also says, “Pull down your stairs from the attic and make sure your attic, as well as your crawl space, is well-insulated.”

Check and replace filters
Energy Star suggests checking your air filters monthly.Dirty filters restrict airflow and will make your system work harder, which means you will be using more energy. Energy Star suggests changing your air filter every three months.

Take a closer look at your windows
“A lot of times, people have windows cracked open and don’t even know it,” shares Otterbacher. For instance, many people like a little cold, fresh air in bedrooms at night, but then they forget to close them in the morning. Cold air is heavier than hot air and will hug the floor and go right downstairs. And while you’re checking around the house, look around your windows. A proper sealant or weather stripping can make a difference when you’re trying to keep warm air inside. This is especially noticeable in older homes.

Use a draft stopper
Draft stoppers hug the bottom of your exterior door and keep cold air at bay. And while sometimes energy savings aren’t about aesthetics, you can have fun with this one—draft stoppers come in all shapes and sizes, from stuffed dogs and snakes to snowmen.

Let the sun shine in
It sounds really obvious, but busy schedules sometimes make us forget the simple things in life. When the sun comes up, open those blinds or curtains on your south-facing windows. And when it goes down, “close the blinds at night to keep the heat in,” says Otterbacher. Every little bit helps.

Reduce your water heater temperature to 120 degrees
Sometimes changing a simple setting on the water heater can give your energy savings a boost. The U.S. Department of Energy says, “For every 10-degree Farenheit reduction in temperature, you can save from three percent to five percent on your water-heating costs.” Another recommendation is to make certain your water heater is well-insulated.  

The Proof is in the Prices

U.S. Average Household Winter Fuel Expenditures: (October to March) *Numbers are based on a base case forecast.

Natural Gas: $649 ($31 decline from last year, or 5 percent less).
Electricity: $938 ($17 less than last year, or 2 percent less, with prices 3 percent higher and consumption 5 percent lower than last winter).
Propane: $1,724 ($652 less than last year, or 38 percent).
Heating Oil: $1,992 ($362 less than last year, or 15 percent less).
Wood: “There are no readily available sources for estimating wood consumption or prices at the regional or national level,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Space Heater Safety Is No Accident

For you fatalists who hate reading warning labels, there is a safety risk with a space heater: The Consumer Product Safety Commission says that nearly 22,000 house fires are associated with these devices each year. But a little common sense goes a long way. A few safety tips:

  • Keep combustible materials like a bed, sofa, curtains, clothes, and paper at least three feet away from the heater.
  • Be sure the heater plug fits tightly into the wall outlet. If not, do not use the outlet to power the heater.
  • Never operate a heater that you suspect is damaged.
  • Never power the heater with an extension cord or power strip.
  • Never run the heater cord under carpet or rugs.

Getting Too Cheap Will Cost You

If you plan on turning down your thermostat while you are away, don’t get carried away—you don’t want your pipes to freeze.

“We see lots of insurance claims each year in personal homes and commercial buildings, especially rental units, because of frozen pipes,” says Chris Kastendike, a partner at Kastendike Insurance Group. Most susceptible are pipes hidden in crawl spaces or places that don’t have as much insulation. An old trick that works in a super-cold spell is to leave a faucet supplied by a crawl-space pipe dripping a bit overnight. But if you do that for long periods, your water bill will reflect it.

Several insurance companies recommend your thermostat be set above 55 and up to 68 degrees if the house will be empty. And it’s worth checking your homeowners’ policy to see what would be covered in the event of an interior pipe burst.