10 Simple Strategies to Slash Your Winter Energy Bills

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Whether you heat your home with oil, electricity or natural gas, you can't do much about either the cold weather or utility rates -- on course to rise as much as 37 percent in some parts of the Northeast this winter -- but you can slice that heating bill with some new tech and old-school tactics.

10 Simple Strategies to Slash Your Winter Energy Bills
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10 Simple Strategies to Slash Your Winter Energy Bills

Turn down the thermostat. Who doesn't know that? Throw on a sweater, dress in layers and keep your head and feet warm to make you even more comfortable. In fact, you'll sleep better if those popsicle toes are kept toasty, according to recent sleep research. Try a tip from the Brits and use a hot water bottle or heating pad to warm the bed down by the foot before you retire. Electric blankets are another way to keep warm. 

Most utility companies offer free or low-cost energy audits. As my utility put it when it scheduled mine, "It's free. You paid for it." Most are subsidized by a monthly charge on all customers' bills. I came away with a dozen compact fluorescent bulbs, a low-flow shower head, faucet aerators, a surge protector strip and some practical suggestions on what my bill should look like and how I could get it down. Most interesting I discovered from my energy audit that a gas fireplace or wood stove is cheaper to run than to raise the thermostat to heat the whole house.
Take a page from the WWII playbook and try blackout curtains. They insulate, and they muffle street noise and keep a room darker for sleeping. You buy them at most department stores' home sections or make your own. Lined curtains, extra layers of drapes or even blankets will keep out the cold.
Easy do-it-yourself projects include weatherstripping, window caulking and attaching plastic sheeting on windows and glass doors. For the last (a personal favorite), use-two sided tape and and a blow dryer to pull it taut. It takes me on average a half hour to do a window and less once the ladder is already up. Another very inexpensive fix for exterior drafts is to insulate behind electrical outlets on exterior walls with small foam cutouts or rubber gaskets. This only takes minutes to install.
The newest smart thermostats allow you to program away from home on your smartphone, but very affordable models also allow you to set it and forget it, turning down the heat when you are asleep or away. Some utility companies offer rebates on smart thermostats, and some like ConEd (ED) offer free smart thermostats to customers. According to energy.gov, every one degree lower can reduce your heating bill by 1 percent and using a programmable thermostat year round can cut heating and cooling costs by 10 percent.
Another Old Farmer's Almanac tip is that running a humidifier will allow you to feel more comfortable at lower temperatures. It will also help your complexion. Just be careful the moisture level isn't too high or mold and mildew could create a worse problem than dry skin or high heating bills.
According to energy.gov, the worst offenders draining your power and wallet are computers, TV set-top boxes, DVD players, electronic charging units, gaming consoles and kitchen appliances. These phantom loads cost the average American household $100 a year. Turning these off with a convenient surge protector strip can drastically drop a bill. Replacing just 13 incandescent light bulbs with more energy efficient CFL or LED bulbs can save $50 annually. Pacific Gas & Electric (PCGhelpfully suggests that if a device's plug adapter runs warm to the touch or has a continuously running light or display, it is probably an energy vampire.
Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Close the flue in the fireplace once the fire is entirely out. Change your furnace filters once a month. Shorten your hot showers. This latter tip saves both water and energy -- especially if you turn your hot water heater down to around 120 degrees.
Open your drapes when the sun is shining into a room -- especially south-facing windows. Just imagine where a cat would lay to soak up the warmth and open the curtains to let Old Sol do its job. Close curtains when the sun has moved on. Outside your home, use solar-powered light fixtures where possible.

Some ceiling fans can be reversed to draw hot air down and keep you warmer. Check the owner's manual (available online if you've misplaced it) to see if yours has this option. Use rolled up towels or draft-dodgers at the bottoms of doors. If you bake or roast in the winter, leave the oven door ajar to warm the kitchen and shut the door once the oven cools down. Finally, if push comes to shove, most utility companies offer budget billing solutions and heat assistance for senior citizens and lower-income customers.

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