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North Hills Monthly

Start Now to Save Money on Heating Bills this Winter

Aug 29, 2014 08:57PM ● By Vanessa Orr
According to the Farmers’ Almanac, this winter is expected to be much colder than normal, and have snowfall above normal. While that’s probably not what most homeowners want to hear, getting ready now for colder weather might help you conserve heat and save money before temperatures plummet.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey shows that Pennsylvania homes consume an average of 96 million Btu per year, which is 8 percent more than the national average. Homeowners spend 16 percent more for energy consumed in the home on average than other U.S. households.

In Pennsylvania, natural gas provides heat to more homes than any other fuel, serving approximately 38 percent of the population. Twenty-nine percent of the population uses electricity to heat their homes, followed by fuel oil at 20 percent and propane at 9 percent. In light of rising energy costs, Pennsylvanians are also increasingly using wood as a heating source, with about 2.5 million households, or 2.1 percent of the population, using wood as the main heat source for their homes. According to the EIA, the percentage of Pennsylvanians using wood for heat increased roughly 70 percent from 2005 to 2012.

Megan Murphy, co-owner of Hearth & Home Furnishings in Zelienople, says that over the last five years, their business has seen a big trend in people buying inserts for their fireplaces to make them work more efficiently. “There are inserts for wood-burning fireplaces, as well as gas inserts that work with natural gas or propane,” she explained. “Gas inserts are very popular in this area because of their convenience; they are pretty, efficient, clean-burning and easy to operate.”

The staff at Hearth & Home work with customers to help them decide what type of insert would work best in their homes. “With wood, there’s a lot to consider; it’s dirty, there are ashes to clean, you have to clean and maintain your chimney, and you have to know how to properly light a fire. On the other hand, if you’re willing to do the work, it can be a cozy and efficient way to heat your house, especially if you have access to free wood.”

For those choosing wood, Murphy suggests the purchase of a moisture meter, which is under $20, which lets homeowners know if they are using seasoned hardwood. To dry properly, wood should have been split and stacked for 18 months to two years. Whether choosing a wood or gas insert, Murphy also advises that it be installed by a professional.

No matter what heating source a home uses, the most important thing is that it’s being used efficiently, according to Jose Montes, office manager at Kennihan Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning. “Rather than just looking at one piece of equipment, the trend now is to focus on whole house energy efficiency,” he explained. “For example, while your furnace may be working fine, the system for delivering that hot air through the house, like your ductwork, may not be. In an average U.S. home, the efficiency rate is 57 percent—that means that of the 100 percent of warm air that is produced at your furnace, only 57 percent of it is being delivered throughout your house.”

Kennihans offers customers a home energy audit that helps determine where air leakage is occurring. “There are a lot of things that can affect air leakage, from how far the ductwork is situated from the furnace to whether hot air is being delivered to the attic,” said Montes. “You have to look at the house as an envelope; the smaller the leakage of air, the more efficient it is.”

In addition to fixing the areas where air is escaping, Montes also suggests that homeowners invest in a maintenance agreement to help them save money on heating and cooling their homes. “A technician will visit the home twice a year—once to check the furnace and once to check the air-conditioning systems—to bring them up to optimum conditions,” he explained. “Customers who have maintenance agreements save money because not only are their systems working efficiently, but these services are discounted by 5 to 20 percent. Some agreements also provide discounts on other services such as plumbing and electrical services.”

For those who heat their homes with fuel oil, Shawn Jackson of Jackson Oil & Burner in Valencia offers the following advice for those looking to save money this winter. “Call around—there can be a big difference in the cost of oil between different companies. I’ve seen it differ as much as 30 or 40 cents per gallon,” he said, adding that the least expensive time to get a tank filled is in the months of July and August.

“Depending on the size of the company, they may let you do a budget plan instead of having to pay the whole bill at once, but that usually ends up costing you more in the long run,” he added.

In order to keep your oil furnace running properly, Jackson advises having it serviced every one to two years and keeping it full as that helps prevent condensation and corrosion from occurring. “If your furnace is pretty old, you can also save yourself a lot of money by upgrading,” he added. “The furnaces that are made today are much more efficient, especially multi-pass boilers.”

Homeowners facing huge electrical bills may benefit by shopping around for a new electrical supplier as well. Pennsylvania is an ‘electricity choice state,’ which means that residents can shop and compare energy prices from alternative energy companies. While Duquesne Light delivers the power to Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas, consumers can choose where that power comes from after reviewing competitive energy prices from different companies and choosing the plan that works best for them. Otherwise, their rate is determined by a default price, which is currently 8.08¢/KWh.

For example, a homeowner could sign up to receive power from Oasis Energy, which charges 7.89¢/KWh for a two-year term, or pay 7.99¢/KWh for a one-year term. ConEdison Solutions offers an 8.05¢/KWh rate for four months or 8.39¢/KWh rate for 36 months, and other companies offer a cash bonus for signing up with them. When deciding, make sure to review the rate, whether that rate changes from month to month, how long the rate lasts, if the company offers a bonus for signing up with them, and where the energy comes from, especially if you’re concerned about being ‘green.’

Peoples Natural Gas also provides some energy-saving tips on their website. In addition to sealing duct work and air leaks, homeowners should also:
•    seal off fireplaces to prevent cold air from leaking in
•    lower the thermostat to between 65 and 70 degrees during the day and 58 degrees at night
•    lower the water heater temperature to 120 to 125 degrees
•    change furnace filters every month
•    weatherstrip doors and windows
•    add insulation to the attic
•    insulate water pipes coming from the water heater
•    add an insulation blanket to the water heater

It’s going to be a long, cold winter, so it’s best to get prepared now. With a little time and legwork, you can better insulate yourself from high heating expenses.