Home Heating Costs Are Rising. Here Are 3 Ways to Lower Your Utility Bills This Winter.

Simple steps to cut down on costs through what's predicted to be a cold winter

person changing temperature on thermostat Photo: Getty Images

Layers, people. That might be the watchword for the winter of 2021–22. Every forecaster from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the Old Farmer’s Almanac has predicted a colder than normal winter. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is calling it the “season of shivers.”

And across much of the country, as temperatures are easing down, fuel prices are going up for a variety of reasons, including increased demand. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that, compared to last winter, heating oil prices will rise by 43 percent, natural gas by 30 percent, and electricity by 6 percent. Ouch.

But take heart: You can get through the winter without requiring too many layers (and a hat and gloves) indoors.

Fortunately, there are other steps homeowners can take to offset these rising prices. Having your heating equipment serviced by a professional is the best place to start. From there, follow this step-by-step guide from Consumer Reports.

Step 1: Seal Air Leaks

“Homeowners tend to feel drafts around windows and doors, though the biggest air leaks are typically in attics and basements,” says John Galeotafiore, who oversees CR’s testing of home products. “If you have an easily accessible attic you can check to make sure your insulation is covering the areas where leaks are likely to occur—where the walls meet the attic floor, the access hatch, and around plumbing and electrical fixtures.”

In basements, look where the foundation meets the framing of the house and where wiring conduits and plumbing enter through the foundation. To stop your losses around windows and doors, you can plug those holes with a combination of weatherstripping, caulk, or expandable foam.

Professionals perform a blower door test to identify air leaks. But you can try a low-tech version by turning on all of your home’s exhaust fans and holding an incense stick near windows, doors, and electrical outlets. If the smoke blows sideways, you have a leak that needs plugging.

Step 2: Set Your Thermostat

If you haven’t upgraded to a programmable or smart thermostat yet, this might be the winter to do so; see our thermostat ratings for the best models on the market. The device will automatically lower the heat when you’re asleep or away from home. That can save you at least $50 a year or more on your energy costs, according to Energy Star, meaning the thermostat could pay for itself in a few years, depending on which model you choose.

More on Thermostats

We tested almost 40 smart thermostats that allow you to remotely control your thermostat via your smartphone or computer. They work in various ways: Some track your temperature preferences and use that data to optimize your heating and cooling schedule. Others have multiple sensors that monitor temperatures in various parts of the home for more balanced heating or cooling. For more information, see our thermostat buying guide.

For optimal efficiency, set the temperature to 68° F or lower when you’re home and awake, and set it back to 60° F all other times, as recommended by the Department of Energy. And if you can tolerate colder temperatures, try dialing down your daytime temperature because you’ll save money on every degree you set your thermostat back.

Step 3: Check the Filters

This applies to homes with forced-air heating. If you have the system professionally serviced, filter replacement should be included. But for optimal efficiency, you need to replace the filter every few months. (Learn about the 12 filters you should be changing at home.)

First, turn off the furnace. Then remove the existing furnace filter, located just inside the furnace or return air vent. Note the furnace filter size printed on the cardboard frame. Purchase a replacement filter from a home center, hardware store, or online retailer. Check our air filter ratings for recommended models that are best at trapping dust, pollen, smoke, and other airborne particulates.

Slide the new filter into place; check for the markings that tell you which side of the filter should face the furnace. Keep a record of the date (or set a reminder on your phone or calendar) so that you’ll know when it’s time to change the furnace filter again. Replace any cover that goes over the filter.

This is also a good time to make sure the warm-air registers throughout your home aren’t blocked by furniture, because that will make the system run less efficiently, driving up your utility bills.

These steps can combine to offset at least some of the price increase in home heating fuel. And there are a few behavioral changes you can make, too: for example, opening curtains on any south-facing windows during the day to allow the sunlight to warm your home, and keeping your fireplace damper closed unless a fire is burning.

Mary H.J. Farrell

Knowing that I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, I decided to spiff up my byline by adding the middle initials "H.J." A veteran of online and print journalism, I've worked at People, MSNBC, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and an online Consumer Reports wannabe. But the real thing is so much better. Follow me on Twitter.