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What luck: Prices for electricity and home heating oil are expected to hit record highs -- just as the days are getting shorter and colder. And this is only the beginning: It's estimated that the cost of electricity might jump another 9 percent this winter, with heating oil not far behind with a 6 percent increase. That's on top of big increases that have already taken hold -- 34 percent for heating oil during the first six months of 2008 and 12 percent for electricity during the first five months, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
But there are simple ways to fight back against soaring energy expenses. It's hard to estimate just how much you can lower bills, but here are 20 tips that can certainly add up (some, like a programmable thermostat, can save hundreds of dollars all on their own):In the Kitchen
1. Don't overstock your fridge. Holidays mean an abundance of food, but because air can't circulate properly in an overloaded refrigerator, the compressor has to work harder than it should.
2. Buy a toaster oven so you don't have to turn on the full-size oven just to reheat a turkey breast.
3. Try making holiday meals in a slow-cooker. According to Progress Energy, a North Carolina energy company, it costs 2 cents an hour to use a slow cooker -- only 18 cents for an eight-hour roast. Firing up an electric oven burns more than 22 times as much power per hour.
4. Use ceramic or glass when cooking -- it allows you to lower your oven temperature by about 25 degrees F. and the food cooks just as quickly.
5. Deck the halls (and save money). If you're into lighting up your house with holiday decorations, opt for LED holiday lights. The bigger your display, the bigger your savings when the power bill arrives in January.
6. Thinking about a new TV for the holidays? Today's plasma and LCD sets can account for about 10 percent of the average home's energy consumption, so pay attention to ratings from the federal program Energy Star.
7. Think you can't air-dry your clothes when the snow's falling? Indoor drying racks let you do just that, allowing you to keep the dial on your clothes dryer in the "off" position -- and eliminating a major electricity drain.
8. Twenty degrees or lower outdoors? Not a good time to use the fireplace -- you'll lose more heat up the chimney than you'll generate.
9. For a wood-burning fireplace or stove, try to chop logs to a diameter of from 4 to 6 inches. This increases the surface area exposed to the flame, so the fire will burn more efficiently and create more heat.
10. Install "furnace filter alarms," which make a whistling sound when they sense that the filters are dirty. Clean filters help your furnace run most efficiently.
11. Investigate a variable-speed direct-current motor to replace your furnace's regular motor. By pushing heat produced by the furnace throughout your house, a variable-speed motor lets your furnace operate on a lower fan speed 90 percent of the time, reducing electricity costs.
12. Buy a programmable thermostat, which automatically lowers the temperature when you don't need as much heat, such as at night when everyone's sleeping. According to Energy Star, the average household can save about $150 a year with this fix.
13. Consider making landscaping changes. Well-positioned deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter, allowing more sunlight to heat your home. They're just as beneficial in the summer, providing shade that cuts cooling costs.
14. Install an energy-efficient pet door. More than just a lightweight flap, energy-efficient models have a much better seal, minimizing heat loss when your dog heads outside or in.
15. Lubricate door locks and hinges to make sure they close completely for the best possible seal.
16. Check your recessed lighting -- great-looking, but a potential heat leak. Install airtight fixtures, if necessary.General Tips
17. Moving? Consider the location -- good southern exposure can drastically cut heating bills. On sunny days open all south-facing curtains and blinds for passive solar benefits.
18. Don't forget to reverse ceiling fan rotation (there's a switch that makes this easy). The fan should move counterclockwise, which forces warm air back down into the room. That means you can lower the thermostat.
19. Watch "vampire power," or energy use from appliances that are turned off but remain plugged in. Unplug them when they're not in use. Coffeemakers, toasters, and computers are major culprits.
20. Turn off bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans as soon as you've finished bathing or cooking -- they're a major source of heat loss.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2008.