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Three weeks from Christmas, Greater Columbus residents are most likely starting to get used to the chilling temperatures this time of year brings.
However, their wallets might not be.
The cost of heating a home with natural gas, the most common fuel in Ohio, this winter is expected to increase by 30% compared to last year, according to a report released in October by the Energy Information Administration. Propane and heating oil prices will go up 54% and 43%, respectively, while electricity is expected to see the smallest increase at 6%.
That equates to an increase of $267 this winter — from $551 to $818—– for the typical natural gas customer in the Midwest, the annual winter energy outlook reported.
Surging global demand for natural gas and other energy sources is to blame for much of the increase: Natural gas prices are at their highest levels since 2014.
Add in the fact that the 2022 Old Farmer’s Almanac warns Columbus residents to prepare for a “season of shivers,” and gas bills could be shocking.
Fortunately, there are a number of quick and easy steps homeowners can take during these colder months to keep their heating costs at bay, area experts said.
“There are two main points I coach people on,” said Chuck Nutter, owner of Nutter Handyman Services and the Upper Arlington shop Nutter Hardware. “Make sure the heat being produced in the home is being done in the most efficient way possible … once the heat is in the house, do what you can to keep the heat in and the cold out.”
If there are problems with either aspect, there’s a good chance a resident is paying too much on their heating bill, he said.
Here are some tips Nutter and other area handymen have to assess and correct a home’s energy efficiency:
Practice routine furnace maintenance
One of the simplest ways to improve energy costs can often be one of the most overlooked, said Tracy Cohen of Superior Home Maintenance on the South Side. That’s checking the furnace air filters regularly.
“Change them all the time,” Cohen said. “Your furnace works a lot harder when the filters are clogged and dirty.”
Also, it’s a good idea to have a professional inspect the heating system every few years, especially if it’s an older model, not only for efficiency but also for safety.
Test for leaks around windows and doors
The best way to do this, according to Nutter, is to cut a piece of printer paper into a three-inch strip and slide it under the door and along the sides.
If there’s no resistance when you pull it out, that means there’s likely cold air leaking inside, he said.
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People can also run the backs of their hands along a window to feel for cold air.
Matthew Lust, of Legacy Home Services, said a foggy window can also indicate that a window seal is broken or not working properly.
Fix or block any of those leaks
Nutter said caulking is one way to seal a window, but there is another product — a kit the uses doubled-sided tape and heat-shrink film — that is inexpensive and works wonders.
“You can put it around doors you know you won’t be using or those windows you know you won’t be opening but are leaking,” Nutter said. “It’s a great solution.”
There are other weatherstripping products that work, too, or rubber sweeps that block air from coming in under doors that can be quick fixes until a door or window can be replaced.
Lust said simply updating the glass in a foggy window can make an improvement without having the whole frame replaced, while some doors have a threshold that’s adjustable by moving around some screws.
Assess the insulation in the house
Insulation in the attic is a top thing to look at, Nutter said.
“Most often heat rises,” he said. “You lose a lot of heat going up through the attic and the roof … Attic insulation is very, very important”
The insulation should look light and airy, he continued, uniformly covered and not squished down. If you walk over it, fluff it back up.
Insulation should cover the ceiling joists, Cohen added.
Insulation in the walls can be tougher to discern whether it’s properly installed or in good shape without the help of a professional, Lust said. However, there is one surefire way to tell.
“If one room is really cold versus another, then you might have an insulation problem,” Lust said.
Newer homes, Nutter advised, shouldn’t have many problems with insulation; however, houses built in the 1960s or earlier could.
“Insulation was not as important then,” he said. “Utility costs were much lower in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Plus, they didn’t have some of the materials we do now. Some of it is pretty amazing.”
Install a programmable or smart thermometer
Nutter said this tip generally pays for itself in a year in cost savings.
Products such as Google Nest turn the heat down when the residents aren’t there or are sleeping and turn it back up when residents wake up or arrive home.
Some utility companies will even offer rebates to customers who add these to their homes.
Columbia Gas offers a $75 rebate on these for all customers and for those who do a home-energy audit through the gas company, a programmable thermostat can be installed free of charge.
Have a professional do a home-energy audit
For $50, Columbia Gas will evaluate all these various aspects of a home, including using infrared tools to look for insulation problems, said Sarah Poe, manager of energy efficiency at the company.
They’ll install things such as a programmable thermostat and energy-efficient showerheads as well as provide a list of recommended tasks. (People can get rebates as they complete those.)
Columbia Gas also offers a no-cost weatherization program for low-income customers.
Poe said that while there is a bit of a waiting list for the audit program (January right now), the service can be a huge benefit, especially for those in homes older than 40 years.
“If you do have higher-than-average gas prices or your heating load is increasing, you might want to check it out,” Poe said. “We want to improve the comfort of your home while reducing your energy usage and energy bill.”