19 cheap or free ways to cut your winter energy bills

Winter heating bills are likely to rise this year, the Department of Energy says. Last winter, fuel bills were unusually cheap, thanks to warmer-than-usual winter temperatures combined with lower-than-usual fuel costs. This year, both temperatures and fuel prices are expected to be more in line with historical trends.

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The U.S. Energy Information Administration advises customers to expect to pay more, depending on the type of heating fuel they mostly use:

  • Natural gas: Expect to pay an average of $116 (22 percent) more this winter compared with 2015.
  • Heating oil: Prepare to pay an average of $378 (38 percent) over last winter.
  • Electricity: Get ready for an average increase of $49 (5 percent) over last winter's heating bills.
  • Propane: Costs associated with propane heating will rise this winter, although they'll remain lower than most recent years. Increases are expected to vary by region. The EIA report singled out average increases predicted in two regions: $290 (30 percent higher) in the Midwest and $346 (21 percent higher) in the Northeast.

You can't do anything about rising fuel prices. But since heating living spaces accounts for about 45 percent of your home's energy bills, there's a big potential payoff for doing all you can to cut back your consumption of heating fuel. Increased consumption (because of colder weather) is expected to account for about half of this winter's bigger costs.

Here are 19 cheap or free things you can do to cut energy costs. None requires a big investment, yet any of these changes can contribute to nice savings:

18 inexpensive ways to cut your winter bills
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18 inexpensive ways to cut your winter bills

1. Program and forget the thermostat

Save up to 10 percent a year by setting your thermostat 7 degrees to 10 degrees lower for eight hours a day, says Energy.gov. Set it and forget it by using a programmable thermostat. Twiddling with the heat makes your furnace burn more fuel.

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2. Treat heat pumps differently

With a heat pump, big moves to lower the heat can backfire, causing the unit to work less-efficiently and actually increasing your costs. It's more efficient to make smaller adjustments in heat settings instead — lowering the temperature just 1 or 2 degrees instead of 10 degrees (although some newer heat pumps do have programmable thermostats that make bigger changes cost-effective.)

Small drops in the thermostat setting are recommended for other types of heating, too, including electric resistance heating, steam heating and radiant floor heating. 

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3. Adjust the water temperature

Hot water is a big energy user. Keep your water heater's thermostat set at 120 degrees. Anything higher is unnecessary. Water that's too hot can even be dangerous. 

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4. Caulk cracks and leaks

There are many places where warm air can seep out of a house, allowing cold air to creep in. Thoroughly check the interior and exterior of your home for cracks and gaps, paying particular attention to areas around chimneys, furnace flues, pipes, electrical outlets, windows and doors. Fill small leaks with caulk.

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5. Bigger gaps need special attention

Use spray foam — find it in cans at the hardware store — to close up openings that are too big to be sealed with caulk.

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6. Insulate the attic door

Even if your attic is insulated, it's easy to overlook the attic door. Add a layer of insulation to the inside of the door, too, to prevent expensively heated air from rising into the attic. 

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7. Shrink-wrap windows

Windows — especially inefficient windows — account for a large proportion of the heat that escapes from your home as warm air is lost to the cold glass. Yet replacing windows — and even adding energy-efficient honeycomb shades or thermal lined draperies — can be prohibitively expensive. One cheap way to reduce heat loss is to install window film. It resembles plastic wrap and helps retain heat. Lowe's, which sells the film, says that insulating films "retain up to 55 percent of your home's heat in winter." The film over windows also keeps a home cooler in summer heat. Apply it to the inside of the windows, and can be easily removed when spring rolls around so you can open the window. See Lowe's for application instructions

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8. Close the damper

Enjoy the fireplace by all means, but when you are not using it keep the damper closed. An open damper creates a draft, pulling air from the room and sending heat — and your money — up your chimney. 

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9. Use a ceiling fan ... correctly

You may not give a second thought to using ceiling fans in summer to keep the house cool. But did you know that most ceiling fans have a switch so you can set the blades to rotate in reverse, pushing the warm air near the ceiling down toward the floor to keep you warmer in winter? Find this switch on the body of the fan and set the blades to turn counter-clockwise in winter. In summer, reverse the direction so the blades move in a clockwise direction. Since fans consume electricity, turn them off when you leave the room, since they don't contribute to the overall temperature of the room, only help you enjoy the heat or cool more.

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10. Change furnace filters

Replace furnace filters regularly — even monthly, depending on the type you buy and how much the furnace is running. Read your appliance's manual to find the replacement schedule and type as well as installation instructions.

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11. Insulate the water heater

Wrap older water heaters in an insulating jacket to keep the heat from radiating out. Also, insulate hot water pipes leading from the hot water heater outside and under the house to prevent heat loss as the hot water travels through your plumbing system.

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12. Install door sweeps

Prevent cold drafts of air from blowing in by installing a door sweep at the bottom of exterior doors. Some utility companies offer them free to customers, so before you buy one call to inquire.

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13. Close the drapes

Here's a simple fix: Reduce heat loss by keeping drapes closed at night or when the sun is not streaming in. When it's sunny, open your blinds or drapes and let the sun's warmth pour into your home.

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14. Seal the heat ducts

While you're in the attic, take a look at the ducts for the heating system. Look for tears or holes and use mastic or foil tape to seal them so the ducts are as airtight as possible.

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15. Insulate the basement

Up to 30 percent of a home's heat loss can be due to an uninsulated basement, says HouseLogic. That translates to a loss of as much as $170 in heating costs per year. HouseLogic says insulating can be done in one of two ways: Treat the basement like an outdoor space by insulating only the basement ceiling, which prevents the home's heat from escaping into the cold basement. Or, treat the basement like a room in the home, insulating the walls instead of the ceiling (bonus: you gain more living area by insulating and enclosing walls).

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16. Insulate electric outlets

The more cold air leaks you discover and plug, the more you'll find, making leak detection a constant process, says The Portland (Maine) Press Herald:

A house is like a chimney. Warm air exits at the top and is replaced by cold air from the bottom. You want to slow the process as much as you can.

One possible surprise: Electric outlets and switches can be sources of air leaks. Solution: Insulate them. A video at the Alliance to Save Energy tells how.

"The real problem comes from the holes in the walls behind your outlet's base plates," says the video. First, turn off the power at the circuit breaker box so you don't get a shock.

Insulating is simple with premade foam gaskets (measure the outlet before you purchase). Also, put easily removable child-safety plugs in unused wall outlets to plug potential leaks.

Electrician installing new current socket with screwdriver. Installing electrical outlet or socket - closeup on electrician hands. 

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17. Seal outside-facing baseboards

Even baseboards along outside walls can be a source of cold air leaks. To prevent cold-air intrusion into your home, use clear caulk to seal joints where baseboards meet walls and floors. 

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18. LED lightbulbs

LED lightbulbs won't help with home heating costs, but they sure will make a difference in your electric bills for lighting. Here's a step-by-step guide to choosing the LED bulbs that work best for you and where to put them in your home to make the most difference.

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Marilyn Lewis and Susan Ladika contributed to this post.

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