COLUMBUS, Ohio —With mountains of debt already weighing heavy on the wallet, potentially high heating bills this winter could put an even tighter chokehold on a consumer's strapped budget.
According to Department of Energy statistics, Americans are expected to spend more for heating oil, natural gas and electricity this winter, with Midwest customers carrying the brunt of the increased costs — over 70 percent higher than last year.
But not all hope is lost. Steps consumers can take to reduce energy consumption to keep heating bills low and to save money for worst-case scenarios are plentiful, said Susan Shockey, an Ohio State University Extension Educator in Family and Consumer Sciences with a specialty in money management.
"Energy costs are at the top of the spending list during the winter months," said Shockey. "Winter preparedness is important and there are many things consumers can do to save money."
Shockey, who works in the Franklin County office of OSU Extension, offers the following tips to help reduce energy consumption in the home or apartment:
• Conduct a home energy inspection. Look for cracks and leaks, poorly sealed vents and poorly insulated doors and windows and make repairs accordingly. For example, place weather stripping and draft barriers around doors and plastic on windows. Properly sealing a home can reduce energy bills up to 10 percent.
• Regularly clean and replace furnace filters. Clean filters increase efficiency and save money. It is recommended that filters be replaced every 30 days.
• Turn off lights after use, and close off rooms or other areas that don't get frequent use.
• Unplug unnecessary appliances, or those that don't get frequent use. Use energy-efficient appliances if possible. Look for the ENERGY STAR label and the bright yellow and black Energy Guide label when buying.
• Lower the heating system thermostat when not at home. Open south window draperies to help warm rooms on sunny days. Close draperies at night to conserve heat.
• Close storm doors and storm windows before winter sets in.
• Install weather stripping gaskets on electrical outlets, especially those on exterior walls.
In addition to conserving in the home, consumers can also better prepare themselves for high heating bills by conserving the cash in their wallet.
"Every decision we make can save us money, just by making simple lifestyle changes. Carelessness is the No. 1 factor in poor spending," said Shockey. "With people already living in debt, it's about making the best choices for themselves and their family."
Ways to save money include carpooling to work or taking public transportation to conserve gas consumption, cutting back on vending machine snacks, eating out less, bringing lunch to work and buying store brands instead of name brands.
For those families on a fixed income who struggle to make ends meet, assistance programs are available to help stretch their dollars. For example, the Ohio Department of Development offers HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program). For more information, call (800) 282-0880, or log onto http://www.odod.state.oh.us/cdd/ocs/heap.htm.
Some utility companies also offer a budget payment plan. American Electric Power (AEP), for example, will divide yearly energy costs into monthly payments to help alleviate high-usage months.
For additional energy-saving tips, contact your local OSU Extension office.