Gray power: Take steps to winterize homes

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Natural gas and electric consumers need to brace for significantly higher energy bills this winter.

Unlike the sticker shock experienced at the gasoline pump, consumers are not always aware of higher prices for the natural gas and electricity until they receive their monthly bill.

Prices have spiked since hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the latest estimate, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that homeowners who heat with natural gas could expect to pay as much as 47 percent more for natural gas during the winter than last year.

Before the hurricanes, prices paid by utilities for the purchase of natural gas supply had already started climbing this summer.

Utilities buy gas supplies through competitive wholesale markets and then pass those costs directly to the consumer. The utilities recover this expense through allowed gas rate adjustments.

Normally these adjustments occur quarterly, but when natural gas prices become volatile, the adjustments can occur monthly. As a result, any increase or decrease in the cost of natural gas will quickly appear on a customer&8217;s monthly bill. This is a good time to check natural gas appliances to ensure they are operating efficiently and make home improvements that will help manage your winter energy bills.

Some of these tips are:

-Keep your thermostat at 70 degrees during the heating season.

-Make sure doors and windows are tightly closed.

-Caulk and weather strip to seal any gaps.

-Install storm or thermal windows and doors.

-Close chimney flues and seal unused fireplaces.

-Change or clean your furnace filter to keep your heating system safe and efficient.

-Cover window air conditioning units during the winter.

-Turn off optional or decorative appliances, such as natural gas fireplaces and outdoor lights.

-Install programmable thermostats.

Consumers can also ask their local gas utility about budget billing plans that spread out gas costs over a 12-month period