After a few months of winter and two major snowstorms pounding much of the eastern U.S. in January, many Americans may be realizing they're in for elevated heating costs.
For some, that will put an additional strain on budgets already hit by rising inflation.
About 20% of Americans struggled to pay their energy bill in full at least once in 2021, according to a December study by HelpAdvisor.
Those who weren't able to pay their bills often put off paying for necessities such as energy, potentially putting themselves and their families at risk. In the last 12 months, at least 18% of Americans kept their house at a temperature that was either unhealthy or unsafe, and 28% skipped a basic expense such as food or medicine to pay an energy bill.
"It's absolutely startling," said Christian Worstell, a senior writer at HelpAdvisor.
In addition, the households most vulnerable to not being able to pay bills or skipping other essentials to do so tend to be those with children under the age of 18, people of color and folks who already struggle to live on the lowest incomes, he added.
"It does appear the problem has been accelerating slightly, but this is nothing new," he said.
Nearly half of U.S. households that heat with natural gas are projected to spend 30% more than they did last winter on average, according to the Winter Fuels Outlook 2021 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The 41% that heat with electricity are expected to spend 6% more.
The smaller number that heat with propane or heating oil — 5% and 4% of households, respectively — could see even bigger leaps in cost. Propane users will spend 54% more this winter, while heating oil users could see bills go up 43%, according to the report.
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Inflation is the culprit. Energy prices were up 29.3%, according to the December consumer price index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fuel oil is roughly 40% more expensive than last year, electricity is up 6.3%, and natural gas rose by more than 24%.
Those increases could crush household budgets if families aren't prepared.
"It's important for homeowners, renters and businesses alike to keep costs down as best they can, especially as we head into these colder winter months," said Kelly Speakes-Backman, principal deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
How to keep bills in check
There are a few things people can do to help keep heating costs lower this winter.
One is to check your windows for any leaks, something you can do on your own or with the help of a home energy audit, where a professional will come and assess the energy efficiency of your home and make suggestions for updates.
"Windows do represent a really significant portion of that energy bill," said Steve Hoffins, vice president of marketing U.S. windows at Cornerstone Building Brands. "Depending on the climate and the size of the house and everything else, it could be 15% to 20% of your heat that goes out through the windows."
You can combat leaking windows by sealing them with removable caulk, films or even spray foam, he said. A permanent fix may be updating your home with new, energy-efficient windows, which could save you hundreds of dollars per year in utilities, depending on the size of your house, Hoffins said.
You can also do things such as lower your water heater temperature, make sure the damper on your fireplace, if you have one, is closed when there isn't a fire burning and even turn your thermostat down a few degrees at night.
Some utility companies, such as electricity and gas, may give you a grade that compares your energy use with that of your neighbors, said Speakes-Backman. If you notice that you're always using more energy than those around you, it may be time to pay for a home energy audit. In some states, utility companies may even offer the service for free, so it's a good idea to check.
"Figure out what are the first and cheapest ways you can make a difference and then look at some of the longer-term fixes," said Speakes-Backman.
In addition to temporary fixes, renters should check their lease and speak with their landlords to see what changes they're allowed to make, said Speakes-Backman.
Renters can also ask their landlord to tune up the heating system. They can make sure that air vents or radiators aren't blocked by furniture and remove any window air conditioner units they use in the summer.
Plan for the future
This winter could be warmer than last year, which may mean people use less heat. And, some states regulate utilities, which means that prices can't be increased without approval.
In addition, natural gas futures have plummeted roughly 40% from their October high due to forecasts of warmer weather.
But that doesn't mean that consumers can breathe easy — the price of natural gas is still up more than 50% on the year.
Those who are looking to make permanent upgrades to their homes should look to resources such as the Energy Star home upgrade and weatherization programs that are available for many low-income households across the U.S.
An Energy Star home upgrade will address more than just heating and help people have a more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly home. The average household can save $500 per year if they undergo such an upgrade, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Federal tax credit and utility rebates are available for many energy-efficient improvements that can help offset costs, says the EPA.
"There are also utility-run programs in certain parts of the country that allow low-income families to access energy-saving upgrades at no up-front cost to them," the agency said.
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