This winter is expected to be much milder than last year's, even though it might not seem so after Augusta was blanketed in snow the first week in January.
But the experts have spoken, and despite the freak snowfall they're expecting higher temperatures this winter. A mild winter drives down demand for heating fuels - natural gas, propane and heating oil.
When demand is mild, so are the prices.
"We had very high prices and much colder weather last year," said Doug MacIntyre, senior oil market analyst with the Energy Information Administration. "Inventories were drawn down to uncomfortably low levels, so prices went up uncomfortably. We shouldn't see that this year."
Although this season won't be as harsh, heating-fuel prices invariably rise during winter, Mr. MacIntyre said. Consumers can protect themselves not just from the winter weather, but also from rising energy costs, with some simple measures.
A top seller is blown-in cellulose insulation, said Wayne Adams, manager of the Lowe's on Peach Orchard Road. The product - chopped up bits of insulation - is fed into a hopper and blown into the attic. The insulation settles to form a layer over the existing insulation.
Home-improvement stores have formulas to show you how much insulation you need to buy to reach a certain level of thickness in "X" amount of square footage.
"That is really popular right now," Mr. Adams said. "It's fairly easy to install, and people can actually notice the difference in heating their homes."
Door insulation and weather stripping are also popular and easy to install, he said, adding, "anything to cut down on the air flow coming into your house."
Helen Stembridge, Scana Energy's regional manager for central Georgia, said she has even felt cold air coming in through electrical outlets on exterior walls, so during the winter she plugs them with plastic child-safety devices.
Every little bit helps.
Thermostats can be set lower in a house that retains heat well. Ms. Stembridge said heating costs increase 5 percent for each degree the thermostat is raised.
People who keep their thermostat at 60 degrees save 25 percent more than those with a setting of 65 degrees.
Georgia's natural gas marketers offer energy-saving tips on their Web sites. Of course, they generally suggest you keep your thermostat at 68 degrees, but it can be kept lower. The main thing is not to turn it on and off all the time. That does cost money.
The Infinite Energy site (www.infiniteenergy.com) offers energy-saving analyzers for homes and businesses.
The home analyzer has 14 questions, which, once answered, give you case-specific ways to save energy in your home. It also compares your energy use to that of similar-size homes.
The business analyzer has 19 case studies and facility types. By logging onto one of the case studies, small businesses with similar setups can find out new ways to save. The program outlines the amount of investment and savings.
Another way of battling rising winter rates can be accomplished in the summer, when rates are low and consumers can lock in to a "fixed" rate for one or two years. No matter how rates fluctuate during the term, your rate never changes.
In December, Georgia's seven natural-gas marketers had an average variable rate of more than 70 cents per therm. But New Power Co., Georgia Natural Gas, Infinite Energy, Scana and Shell all had fixed rates below the average.
Of course, if variable rates fall below your fixed rate, you can't do anything about it. Natural-gas marketers impose a penalty for pulling out of a fixed rate before the term is up.
"It gives consumers peace of mind and stability," said Jeff Dickerson, spokesman for Scana. "It can allow them to budget for the future because they'll always know what their commodity price is, no matter what."
Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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