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You know it is coming: The chilly weather hits, and now the next utility bill is on its way. Will you cringe when you receive it? Do you even want to know? The answer is yes. The more you know about your home’s current energy consumption, the easier it will be to make a plan to improve energy efficiency and cut down on your expenses. Saving money, even with a colder-than-average winter predicted to arrive, is well within your grasp.

How Much Do People Spend on Utilities?

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) collects data on consumption, which it publishes in the State Energy Data Systems (SEDS). According to the most recent SEDS reports, the average American spends $3,052 on energy for a full year, but given the geography of the United States, there tends to be a great deal of variation in average energy consumption from state-to-state. Kentucky and Indiana are #4 and #5 on the SEDS list of top per capita consumers by state, so it’s not surprising that residents of Kentucky spend $3,585 per person for energy over the course of the year — more than $500 above the average. Indiana also comes in above the average at $3,246 per person, while Ohioans pay a bit below the national average at $3,044 per capita.

What Accounts for Regional Differences in Energy Expenditures?

Consumption is driven by a number of factors — weather, population density, fuel type. It makes perfect sense that a state with a relatively moderate climate will generally consume less energy. In fact, Hawaii is consistently the state with the least amount of energy consumption, according to the EIA. The density of a state’s population also matters. States with a higher population density, where there is a great deal of multi-family housing, tend to spend less on energy as well. Fuel type also makes a difference. Of the most common fuel types — heating oil, natural gas and electricity — natural gas is consistently the least expensive.

How Do I Analyze My Energy Consumption?

Creating a personal estimate of your home energy efficiency is not as difficult as it may sound. You just need to take a closer look at your energy bills for each month. Your utility may allow you to look at your usage from the past year or two. Compare last months’ consumption to your energy usage in similar months of the previous year. Take note of dramatic increases or decreases from year to year. Remember that energy consumption varies throughout the year, and you may use much more (or less) in the summer than you do in the winter. Your utility may also give you averages for your neighborhood or city, which are useful in helping you to determine if you are running more or less efficient than the median for your area.

How Much Should I Spend on Utilities?

Your bill for the same month last year is a useful way to plan for future energy expenses, but you should bear two extra things in mind:

  1. The EIA is predicting a colder winter for 2016-2017, based on information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The EIA argues that winter in the Northeast and Midwest may be 17 percent colder than last year.
  2. Prices for natural gas are expected to rise 11 percent over last year, due to a decrease in natural gas production. Heating oil prices have also gone up 20 percent, along with rising crude oil prices.

As a result of these increases and the colder winter, the EIA predicts that homes running on natural gas should expect to spend 22 percent more than last year, and those with heating oil may pay a possible 38 percent increase in total winter fuel costs.

How Can I Increase My Energy Efficiency?

With increases in overall energy costs on the horizon, decreasing your energy consumption is a practical decision. If you look for ways to cut back, you will save money, or at least take the sting out of surging costs this coming winter. In addition, you will take some pressure off your local energy supplier, minimizing the likelihood of blackouts.

Here are a few things you can do that will make a noticeable impact on your utility bills:

  • Minimize Heat Loss. The process of heated air escaping out of your home is called “heat loss.” In winter, you want to slow this process as much as you can. Your insulation is your best bet. Confirm that your insulation matches the R-value for your area. If the insulation is old or damaged, you may need to replace it or add more. While you are at it, ask your HVAC technician to look at your ductwork. In many systems, as much as 35 percent of a home’s heated air never reaches the intended rooms. If you seal leaks in your ductwork and seal air leaks around your windows and doors, you help to keep the heated air in the home longer.
  • Utilize Solar Heat. Your windows are a major source of heat loss, for the very simple reason that they are made of glass and do not contain inches of insulation between the panes. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends that you purchase double-glazed windows that are verified to have a lower rate of non-solar heat flow. If you are considering adding new windows to your home, aim for south-facing windows. For your existing windows, think about installing heavier window treatments during winter. They help to keep drafts out of the room. Open the blinds and curtains when the light is best, and close them once the sun’s position has moved away.
  • Invest in Energy-Efficient Appliances. You do not need to buy all new heating equipment, but a few upgrades would not be amiss. If you have a manual thermostat, purchase a programmable thermostat and learn how to use it effectively. Maintain your existing HVAC system, and be sure to request professional service at least once a year. If your equipment is old or needs significant repairs, consider upgrading to newer, more energy-efficient models.
  • Use Energy Reasonably. You can look at your energy consumption as a goal to remain comfortable, without feeling like you need to crank up the heat all the time. Remember when your dad always got annoyed at anyone turning up the thermostat? Now it is your turn. Try keeping your heat at a more moderate temperature and putting on a sweater rather than turning up the thermostat when you get cold. Install a ceiling fan that can be turned both directions, and reverse it for winter use. It will force the rising hot air back toward the floor, where you can feel it.

These tasks may require only a little of your time, but they will increase your overall comfort and often lead to quite a drop in your energy bills.
Paying more for heating is no fun, but knowing is half the battle. By taking your home energy efficiency in hand, you can figure out how you are doing compared to the average and try options to trim back your energy usage.