Q: The price of petrol is killing me this summer. I'm already dreading winter - how bad are my home heating bills likely to be?
A: While crude oil's climb to record high prices has made it likely that home heating oil will also cost more this winter, natural gas plays a far bigger role for heating for most of us. Only about 8 million of the roughly 110 million U.S. households use heating oil to fire the furnace, with natural gas used in most of the rest.
Natural gas costs have averaged about $6 per 1,000 cubic feet this year. (A cubic foot is 1,027 British thermal units; one Btu is the amount of natural gas needed to heat one pound of water by one degree.)
This is $2 to $3 higher than historical averages, as demand has soared.
As a result, 2004 could be the winter when higher fuel costs prompt many Americans to overcome inertia and replace aged windows, doors and furnace components, said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington-based non-profit organization.
People are paying attention to higher costs, Callahan said. "If your bills go up by 20, 25 percent for a couple of months, you'd consider it."
Some tips to lower your energy bills:
If your house is drafty, you're essentially heating the outdoors. Seal crevices. Use weather stripping between doors and frames, caulking between the window frames and wall.
If you need new windows, look for those with the government's Energy Star label. The alliance estimates that such windows - featuring double panes and coatings - can cut heating bills by 34 percent.
A furnace in good working condition also lowers bills. Make sure yours is cleaned and working properly before cold weather arrives and technicians are scrambling on emergencies.
Insulation is another crucial weapon in battling house leaks and the subsequent higher energy bills.
Experts estimate that more than 60 percent of American homes are underinsulated, based on current residential building standards, according to the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association, citing a 2003 study by Harvard University's School of Public Health.
Insulation in your attic, crawl spaces, walls and ceilings will make your home warmer in winter and cooler in summer. But, if you already have some insulation, there's no need to remove the old before adding the new, according to the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association.
Another easy tip? Keep blinds and drapes open when you leave the house this winter, allowing sunlight in during the day to warm the place (there's a reason cats and dogs look to recline in the sun).
With energy demand soaring in the developing world, it's unlikely that prices will fall. Taking prudent measures to become an efficient consumer is the surest way to spend less money on heat this winter.