10 Ways to Lower Your Utility Bill

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Last year, most of us in the colder states got lucky with one of the warmest winters on record. We didn’t have to crank the heat and cheaper fuel prices staved off high utility bills. But we might not be so lucky this year.

Although no one can never truly predict the exact weather months in advance, The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting “exceptionally cold” weather for most areas of the U.S. and some pundits are predicting increased utility costs as a result. If you’re hoping heating bills don’t bite into your holiday budget or new year savings plan, read on. We reached out to energy savings experts in some of the coldest states in the U.S. to find ways to lower your utility bill.

1. Insulate Walls, Attic & Floors

In Alaska, the coldest state in the U.S., surviving the cold is a matter of life or death. Temperatures routinely plummet far below zero, and have set the country’s low temperature record of -80 degrees. (Alaska’s winters get so cold that a steaming cup of water will freeze before it hits the ground.) “Since fall is so short in Alaska, many people start thinking about their winter energy use near the end of summer,” said Michael Rovito, spokesman for Alaska Power Association/ARECA Insurance Exchange. They make insulating their homes a priority. “The first task many Alaskans think about is to make sure their insulation and weather stripping is in top condition. This helps to prevent against heat loss from the home during the long Alaska winters,” Rovito said.

According to the laws of physics, if it’s colder outside, heat will always leave your house without a proper barrier to block its departure, and “experts estimate that 40 million single-family homes in the U.S. need more insulation,” according to Black Hills Energy, which provides gas and utilities to some of the colder states, such as Wyoming, where January temperatures can hover around -5 degrees.

Insulate just about everywhere. Things like improperly installed ceiling fans, chimneys and improperly insulated ducts can whisk heat away and cost you up to 30% of your house’s heating (or cooling) energy, and a whopping 30% of your energy costs could be saved by better insulating your attic or top floor, according to Black Hills Energy. Another 20% of energy can be contained by insulating your exterior walls. And insulating the floor areas over crawl spaces, basements and garages can save another 8% if you insulate properly, according to Black Hills Energy.

2. When You’re Hiring, Get Specific

Some insulation jobs might need a professional, and if you’re choosing an insulation contractor, get a few estimates. Once you decide, make sure the contract includes the job specification, cost, method of payment and warranty information provided by the insulation material manufacturer, according to the Insulator Contractors of America. Keep in mind that some types of insulation are better for different areas of the house, and make sure that your contract lists the type of insulation to be used and where it will be used, and that each type of insulation is listed by R-value (which indicates resistance to the passage of heat).

3. Cover Windows

Heat escapes through a single pane of glass almost 14 times faster than through a well-insulated wall, according to Black Hills Energy. Other penny-pinching options if you can’t afford new windows or storm windows are plastic sheeting, a thick curtain made of thermal material and double glazing (i.e. installing another window or door to reduce the heat transfer between the windows or doors).

4. Apply for Help

If boosting your home’s energy efficiency seems like too much of a financial hurdle, the Department of Energy has a Weatherization Assistance Program which, according to its website, “provides funding to states, territories and tribal governments to improve the energy efficiency of the homes of low-income families, persons with disabilities and senior citizens.” It’s also wise to check with your utility provider since programs are also offered through many utility companies and there may be state programs to assist you as well.

5. Look for Energy-Efficient Appliances

“A furnace that is over 10 or 15 years old, may not be as efficient,” said Roger Morgenstern, spokesman for Consumers Energy of Michigan, which has several months of below-freezing temperatures. Furnaces now are 96 to 97% efficient, which means they burn fuel more effectively, he said. Also, have it inspected once per year by a licensed heating and cooling professionals. When buying appliances, seek Energy Star labels that indicate lower energy usage, and make sure your lint trap and exhaust trap are cleaned to prevent fire hazards and keep the dryer from working so hard, said Morgenstern. Also keep the dryer only 75% full so that the clothes have room to dry.

6. Consider a Programmable Furnace (or Thermostat)

Wouldn’t it be nice if your house could be toasty warm just in time for your arrival but stay cool during the day? This is another tool Alaskans use to cut their heating usage. “Many Alaskans invest in programmable furnaces so they can adjust the temperature of their home and control costs. This is helpful since it remains cold for so long that it’s important to regulate how long a household’s furnace runs,” Rovito said. Installing one before the winter could save as much as 20% on your heating costs and recover your investment in the first year, according to Consumers Energy.

7. Limit the Energy Vampires

Reducing your water heater down to 120 degrees, or turning it off when it’s not needed, can save you more than 20% on energy, according the U.S. Department of Energy. And some appliances and electronics still draw electricity when they’re not in use. Unplugging them or confining them to a power strip that you can flip on and off can help you to lower your utility bill. Also turn off lights when leaving a room, use timers on holiday lights and switch out old, fluorescent bulbs, recommended Rovito.

8. Put Weather Stripping Around Doors

If you can see daylight around your doorframe, or can feel a draft around a gap, get some weather stripping from the hardware store. “A half-inch gap around your door would be the same as a softball-sized hole in your door to let that cold air in,” Morgenstern said.

9. Know Average Local Utility Costs

Residents in some states spend more on their utilities than others, and, if you’re new to an area, or considering a new house and mortgage, it helps to know what an average utility bill will be for your source of fuel so that you can budget ahead. (You can check out our housing cost tool here for more budget planning.) It also helps to know your credit history, because some utility companies will charge you a larger down payment if your credit isn’t stellar. (You can get a snapshot of your credit report for free every 14 days on Credit.com.) People spent an average of $1,121 on their residential utility bills in frigid Alaska in 2012, according to a chart from the Department of Energy, and $918 in New York, while Hawaii spent $814 and Utah spent an average of $518.

10. Get a Budget Plan

This is a free option from your utility company that levels out your bills so that you don’t have to go into debt, overburden your credit card or become a holiday spending scrooge when you face a large utility bill. It works by mashing up your utility bills over the last year and averaging them into one consistent amount for each month. “That way, you’re not paying significantly more over the winter months and less over the summer,” said Morgenstern. If it’s a new home to you or your first year at your apartment, the average is taken from past bills at that address, but it’s reconciled and adjusted every year, said Morgenstern. 

Image: 101dalmatians

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