With winter temperatures expected to be near normal, most households will be spending more to heat their homes than last season when temperatures were mild. The pocketbook pain will be especially acute for the six percent of homes that heat with oil—average expenditures for those households are forecast to be higher than any previous winter on record, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and almost 20 percent more than last year.
Crunching the numbers, it's not the price of fuel but the drop in the mercury that will account for most of the cost of heating as actual prices aren't that much higher than last year. But east of the Rockies it's projected to be 20 to 27 percent colder than last winter. Because of that, heating bills are expected to rise 20 percent for heating oil customers, 15 percent for natural gas customers, 13 percent for propane customers and 5 percent for electricity customers, according to the EIA report.
Now, before the first snowflake flies, is a good time to prepare for the frigid months ahead. In addition to tightening the envelope of your home by caulking and weatherstripping, you can shave a lot off your utility bill by installing a programmable thermostat. That way you're not heating the house when you're not in it.
Early versions of these energy-saving devices could be a bit tricky to use but in our recent tests we found that they're becoming more intuitive. Some will save you money right out of the box because they come pre-programmed with the routine of a typical family. But you can fine-tune yours to match your schedule either day-to-day or by weekdays and weekends.
Consumer Reports recently tested 30 thermostats of which 10 were top picks. And while some of the best models cost $250 to $300, we named the $70 Lux TX9600TS a CR Best Buy because it was easy to use and has a good display. We also found three models that were excellent overall by Venstar, Honeywall and ecobee. Venstar also had the lowest-scoring unit, the Venstar Wireless Remote T1100RF, so don't buy by brand alone.
—Mary H.J. Farrell