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5 Ways to Keep Your Heating Bills Low This Winter

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- As if consumers don't have enough problems with a sputtering economy, heath care bills and a wheezing jobs market, winter and its bigger heating bills are around the corner.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 90% of American households will see higher energy bills this winter. The EIA says the total cost for natural gas heat this year will climb 13%, to $679. Homes with electric heat (38% of the total housing stock) will fare better, as prices will climb by only 2%.

Either way, homeowners and renters who handle their own utility bills should take steps to keep heating costs down -- even before the weather really turns cold.

"Consumers should be spending more for holiday presents, not for energy bills," said David Holt, president of the Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance. "With a proper federal energy policy, these harsh weather forecasts that are being predicted for many parts of the country should not also pinch American families by increasing heating costs."

"For a family on a fixed budget, increased energy costs are no small matter," he says. "The good news is there are steps consumers can take to offset high heating costs":

Take full advantage of the sun. Open the shades on the windows facing the sun in your home. That allows "natural heating" to take place. At night, close them to keep that natural heat inside.

Seal drafty windows. The CEA says open, drafty windows are a real wallet-drainer in cold weather. "Use a heavy-duty, clear plastic sheet on a frame or tape clear plastic film to the inside of your window frames during the cold winter months," the group says. "Make sure the plastic is sealed tightly to the frame to help reduce cold air from getting in."

Take care of your air filter. A clogged air filter can hurt your home's heating unit. Change it every three months to ensure maximum heat flows into your home.

Save 10% by shutting off the heat. If you're out of the house for eight hours at work, or even when you're sleeping, turn the thermostat down 10 degrees and save on your heating bill.

Manage your water heater. The CEA advises turning your water heater's temperature down to the warm setting -- 120 degrees. Since water heating can account for up to 25% of your heating bill, that saves you more money.

The group also says that any water heater older than a dozen years old and any furnace older than 15 years should be replaced.