Asbury Park Press

Beat The Heat

Rising energy costs are expected to put a dent in your wallet this winter. But there are ways to cut how much natural gas or fuel oil you use and lower your bills.

Asbury Park Press — Sunday, October 23, 2005

BY DAVID P. WILLIS
BUSINESS WRITER

By all accounts, this winter's heating bills are not going to be pretty.

And unless you have a personal stash of heating fuel hidden away somewhere, the one thing you can do to shave your costs is to conserve.

"Really, the only way that we can quickly bring down the energy costs is by reducing demand," said Ronnie Kweller, deputy communications director at the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. "You can't control the price, but you can control your own use."

Manalapan residents Ed and Miriam Cohen drop the thermostat's temperature setting a little when they go to bed.

"If we are going to be out of the house for many hours or a weekend, we will definitely lower it," Miriam Cohen said. "Hopefully everybody does."

High energy demand and damage to the Gulf region from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are among the forces that have pushed up energy prices and will hit you right in the wallet.

The cost to use fuel oil to heat your home is expected to rise 32 percent this winter, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In New Jersey, gas utilities estimate their costs for gas will rise 15 to 35 percent this winter, said Jeanne M. Fox, president of the state Board of Public Utilities.

Regulators have encouraged the companies to hedge their wholesale gas purchases to lessen price spikes. Nationwide, gas bills are expected to rise 48 percent this winter, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"It is very scary," Fox said.

The state's utilities, including Wall-based New Jersey Natural Gas Co., have permission to raise rates 5 percent both on Dec. 1 and Feb. 1 if needed to cover higher costs.

But regulators are discussing how to pass on utilities' additional higher costs to ratepayers. Utilities pass through the cost for wholesale natural gas to consumers and make their profits on its distribution to homes.

"I am very nervous about the impact (of higher prices), especially on the middle class and the working class and how this will play out," Fox said.

Fox said no decision has been made, but regulators expect to have proposals from the state's utilities by the middle of November.

Discussions will center on what is best for customers and when they should have to pay for the increased costs. If a decision is made to wait until later next year, users would have to pay for the higher costs, plus interest, Fox said.

"They would get hit with interest and by the time they get hit with it, they would not be able to take any action" to save energy.

Passing on the higher costs quickly to consumers, rather than serving up smaller increases over time, could encourage energy conservation and save money, Fox said.

"People are more apt to take action (with a sudden increase) and they take it quicker and get a better response," she said.

Simple steps

Some the things people can do to save on their energy costs are simple.

First, you can take a free energy audit online to help figure out what you need to do. Check out www.energyguide.com or www.njcleanenergy.com.

Start by lowering your thermostat, said Bob Gallo, director of marketing at New Jersey Natural Gas. For instance, if you typically have it set at 70 degrees, lower it to 68 during the day and 60 at night and get a 14 percent savings, he said. Buy a programmable thermostat to do it automatically.

Another piece of advice is to open the curtains to let the sunlight warm your house and close them at night. Similarly, seal the cracks around your home's windows, doors and foundations with caulking or weather stripping.

"If you add up all the cracks and crevices in your home, it lets in as much cold air as an open window would," state Ratepayer Advocate Seema M. Singh said.

Ocean Township resident Tom Kraeutler, co-host of The Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show, suggests caulking between a window and the siding outside. Use latex caulk that matches your paint color to fill indoor gaps between the window and the wall.

Buy rubber foam gaskets for your electrical outlets, he said. "It stops the winds from coming through the outlets," he said.

Do a good job and you'll save about 10 percent on your bill. You'll also find that that thermostat setting of 68 degrees will feel comfortable, Gallo said.

Also, look at your attic insulation. Kraeutler said you need at least 10 inches of attic insulation. If you don't have enough, buy unfaced fiberglass batts, or rolls, and lay them perpendicular to your existing insulation. "The secret is to have a lot of insulation and for it to be fluffy," Kraeutler said.

Tinton Falls resident Pamela Coviello had the crawl space under the house reinsulated. It will make a difference in her oil bill, she said. "When you do it, you get long-term results out of it," she said.

Don't forget water heater

Your water heater is the third-largest user of energy in your house, Gallo said. He recommends setting the temperature gauge to medium, or about 120 degrees, which will save about 14 percent.

If your water heater is in an unfinished area of the house, such as a basement, insulate the tank with a water heater blanket, Gallo said. You can insulate the tank's pipe as well.

Have your heating system serviced once a year, said Eric DeGesero, executive vice president of Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey. "If you tune up your existing heating system and make sure it is working to its maximum potential, you will save 5 to 7 percent in terms of your energy costs."

If you have oil heat, try to get a deal with a price cap to protect you from winter spikes, said Wende Nachman, director of the New Jersey Citizen Action Oil Group. "People are locking into these price caps early on so they are protected for the year."

Some major home improvements can help, but they are costly and typically not designed simply to lower your energy bills.

Some rebates are available to help pay for high-efficiency water heaters, furnaces and appliances. New Jersey Natural Gas expects to process 2,500 rebate applications this year.

High efficiency

If you need to replace your furnace, upgrade to a model with a high efficiency rating, said Mona Mosser, chief of the BPU's bureau of energy efficiency. A $300 rebate from the state is available to help cover the incremental cost, she added.

Experts say a furnace should have an energy efficiency rating of 90 percent or better. That means that for every $1 spent, 90 cents went to heat your home.

Point Pleasant Beach resident Rich Akins recently purchased a high-efficiency natural gas furnace to replace an old oil furnace. The furnace needed to be replaced and energy efficiency was another concern, he said.

"It was a twofold decision for us," Akins said. "The hope is that with the price of oil and gas the way they are, the more efficient I can be on any level, it is going to benefit."

The new furnace follows earlier moves to replace old windows and reinsulate the attic last year. The attic floor had no insulation, he said. "The upstairs was definitely cooler in the winter (before the reinsulation)," he said. "It has definitely improved."

The Cohens also chose high-efficiency windows when it came time to replace 17 old windows in their Manalapan home. They hope to see some energy savings. "I don't know if we are going to see a savings on our energy bill, but if we hadn't replaced them, our energy bill would probably be higher," Miriam Cohen said.

Need a new water heater? Try a new tankless water heater, which heats up the water only when you need it.

Hung on a wall, they are highly efficient, but the units are costly. With installation, they can run about $1,400, about twice the price of a tank water heater, Gallo said.

Top Top | NJCA Homepage | NJCA in the News