Heating Costs Will Break New Records This Winter

If you’re poor, maybe you just shouldn’t have a winter this year. Government energy officials have announced that prices this winter for heating oil, electricity, propane and natural gas will all be at record highs: 28% more for heating oil, 30% more for propane, 7% for electricity, and 5% for natural gas.

In actual dollars, this translates to a hit of around $400 more for average families using heating oil or propane, and around $50 more for those using electricity or natural gas.

The National Energy Assistance Director’s Association, which released the figures, have called on the Bush administration to “immediately release money from the government’s Low Income Home Energy Program, commonly known as LIHEAP, to help poor families pay their heating bills as well as cover past-due high cooling bills from the summer.”

We grew up in a poor household, and trust us, one cold winter can wipe out an already tight budget for half the year. As the article states, “During 2005, energy expenses accounted for 20 percent of the income of households that received LIHEAP assistance, compared to only 3 percent for higher income families.” If you’re the letter-writing type, you might want to contact your representatives and ask that they increase LIHEAP funding.

“Consumers face record winter heating costs” [Reuters]

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www.supportliheap.org
(Photo: The_Gut)

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  1. Cowboys_fan says:

    Geesh, I can’t cut back anymore. As it stands, my heat is only on Jan-Apr, in my living-room and bedrooms only, never going higher than 60, 50 in the bedroom. The girlfriend doesn’t care much for it but what can you do. Heat should be free, or very cheap as it is a necessity, as should A/C in the south.
    Now is it time to get off the oil, or should we wait a few more years and see how it goes!?

  2. Buran says:

    At this point, I think homeowners may want to start talking about converting to a less-expensive system. If you have, say, heating oil (and I have a friend in CT whose house does — tank leaks, no less, they are replacing it), it’s time to talk about natural gas or electricity, depending on what is the best deal in your area with the climate you have.

  3. Buran says:

    @Cowboys_fan: Can you install a programmable digital thermostat? I did when I had my A/C replaced (it was ooooold) with a higher-efficiency unit, and programmed it to cut back on heating/cooling when I’m not home and turn it back on in time for the house to reach the temp I want when I get home. My bills dropped quite a bit from the combo of better thermostat + efficient A/C. Also, see if you can switch to a less pricey system if you can do it in your area. I have natural gas for heat, which costs more than my electricity does even though I use more electricity than gas. Go figure.

    Also see if you can get on a budget billing plan that spreads costs around across the whole year — I did that and I know exactly what my utilities will cost this month as well as next month and so on.

  4. GearheadGeek says:

    @Cowboys_fan: If heat were free in snow country, or AC were free down here on the Texas plains, no one would have incentive to save. I’m *NOT* saying that we should just shut up and give the oil companies our bank account numbers, but if there’s not a cost to waste, people will waste. It’s human nature. I’m rather shocked that my new/old house costs as much more to cool than my previous newer, larger house did. Part of it’s being in a “deregulated” electricity market versus a city-run utility in the previous place, part of it’s a less efficient AC system and an undoubtedly less-well-sealed house. I have some projects to complete before next summer! As much as it sucked to see my electric bills double for maintaining the same temperature in a smaller house, I wouldn’t ask the government to pay for it since they’d just turn around and take it out of my pocket eventually, or borrow us into oblivion and make future generations pay.

  5. technotica says:

    On that note, it is a good time to buy a new furnace unit. We’re looking into replacing our old unit with a very efficient (>95%) furnace. You can get tons of rebates through your local utility as well as some tax write offs. Glad we already started moving on this before it gets cold (grrrr).

  6. UpsetPanda says:

    Question for all of you – is it cheaper to keep a little bit of heat on ALL THE TIME or keep it on at a comfortable temperature only some of the time (like at night when it’s the coldest)?

  7. catnapped says:

    @GearheadGeek: Yeah, that “saving energy” did us a lot of good (we use propane). Use too little and they bump you up a tier and jack up your per gallon price to make up for it.

  8. gorckat says:

    The people who get hammered are the low income families (the ones that NEADA is most interested in).

    Fuel companies give lower rates to people who sign up for automatic delivery programs, but you need decent credit to get on them (because they break payment up over 12 months for the 3-4 months you buy fuel). Low income households have to pay as they go and get stuck paying more based on smaller supply/higher demand when it gets really cold.

    Last spring and summer, pre-election, Congress moved assloads of money into LIHEAP programs…but a good chunk of the money came from the current year’s program, iirc (maybe next years, as well).

  9. lincolnparadox says:

    If you can swing it, it might be a great time to look into solar panels and an electric heating system, or into modifying your house for solar heating.

  10. AcidReign says:

        HEATING costs? Record air-conditioning costs are what we’re dealing with! Hell, you can still fry an egg on our sidewalk outside. It was 93 degrees, yesterday. We haven’t seen a low of less than 68 degrees since April. And, I got to sit at ground zero and watch a tropical storm come ashore last Friday afternoon. Winter? What’s that?

  11. phxman says:

    Why does no one ever talk about the insane difficulty of paying for air conditioning? Here in Phoenix, electric bills for my small townhouse run $250 per month. And that’s keeping it at 85 all day long. It really gets frustrating to hear about how hard its going to be in the winter for people up north, when we are struggling to get by down here. For three months a year, 90 is about as low as it gets, if your lucky. Plenty of nights its still over 100 at 3:00 am.

  12. MercuryPDX says:

    @Buran: Truer words were never spoken. I switched to a programmable thermostat after owning my home for a year and the savings on the bill were dramatic. Make sure you get one that allows for multiple “programs” allowing changes throughout the day and for the weekends.

    The warmest I have mine set to is 68 from 4PM until 10PM; the bulk of my awake time at home during the work week. It doesn’t need to be warm while I’m asleep under blankets, or when I’m not home so then it’s set at 60 (10PM-6AM, 8AM-4PM). I bring it back up to 65 right before I get up in the morning up until I leave for work (6AM to 8AM).

    I’m also on Equal Pay, and that’s way easier to budget for than a cheap summer and expensive winter.

  13. CaptainSemantics says:

    My partner called Georgia Natural Gas to renew his budget plan (You know, where you pay the same amount each month. Probably screws us in the end, but we need to space out the costs.), and our monthly bill is actually going to be lowered. Granted, only a few dollars each month, but hey, I’ll take it. When he told me, I thought he was joking. Anybody else have this good fortune?

  14. bohemian says:

    I’m so jumping on budget in October.
    I still have not seen any predictions for the winter, if it will be a bad one or not.

  15. MercuryPDX says:

    @CaptainSemantics: Yes. Make sure you multiply the “few dollars each month” by twelve. My $5 per month savings over last year is $60… which is about 75% of what my bill is.

  16. FLConsumer says:

    For those looking into new furnaces, look into “dual fuel” systems. This usually means a fossil fuel (gas/oil) furnace coupled with a heat pump. Heat pumps are >100% efficient until the temperature drops down to ~10-15F outside. Even then it’s still putting out useful heat, but probably not enough to cover how much heat is leaking out of your home, so some sort of backup (electric or fossil fuel) is needed. Chances are you’re going to install an air conditioner anyway, so you might as well just spend the extra few bucks to get one with a reversing valve in it.

    Also, when looking at heat pumps, make sure you get one with a DEMAND defrost controller rather than a timer-based defrost controller. No use wasting electricity defrosting a heat pump which isn’t frosted. Quite a bit of energy savings in that.

    For those who still think heat pumps put out barely warm air, look into Carrier/Bryant’s heat pumps w/matching air handlers/furnaces. They’ll gladly put out the hot air like you’re used to with oil/gas/electric.

    @AcidReign: I’m looking at record LOW AC costs this month in Florida. Majorly overcast for the past week. Only used $0.40 worth of electricity per day for the past few days.

  17. FLConsumer says:

    One other thing — only heat the rooms you need to. A small space heater in the bedroom running at night will allow you to turn off the central heating and really save some $$$ by only heating a small room vs. entire house.

  18. Vandon says:

    @lincolnparadox: Yup, because solar panels work GREAT with 8 inches of snow on them.

  19. Buran says:

    @MercuryPDX: The one I got has one program for M-F and one for Sat and one for Sun. I’d personally be OK with M-F and Sat/Sun but of course this one works fine.

    Sure, I had to pay the one time “your A/C died, replace-it time” cost, but I prefer lump sums over higher monthly bills…

  20. AcidReign says:

        @FLConsumer: I’m not surprised. I was kind of amazed at how cool it was in Ft. Walton Beach last week. Nice, but the ocean was even a little cool towards the end of the week. We got back home to Birmingham and the 90s were back…

  21. Myron says:

    The good news is that thanks to global warming you won’t need much heat this winter.

  22. lockdog says:

    Bahh…I’ve super insulated my floors and ceilings, have a heat pump and always follow Jimmy Carter’s sage advice (wear a sweater) and what did I get for it…frozen pipes! Luckily no damage, but now I’ve actually removed insulation in strategic places from my floor so more heat can radiate into the crawl space, but on the coldest nights I run an electric pipe heating cable. Mmm, super efficient resistance heat.

  23. GearheadGeek says:

    @FLConsumer: Slept through Physics and/or Thermo, did we? Nothing, but NOTHING is “> 100% efficient” EVER. There are physical laws against that, not the imaginary sort of laws our government flaunts.

    Air-sourced heat pumps are good enough in the Sun Belt, but for people who actually have winter, to make a heat pump really effective you need a ground- or water-sourced heat pump.

    You’re right that modern heat pumps provide much nicer heat than they used to, but I’ll still take gas heat and high-efficiency AC for sun-belt climes, and if I lived someplace that had real winter I’d go for hydronic heat because you can’t beat the comfort of warm radiant floors in cold country.

  24. FLConsumer says:

    @GearheadGeek: Not true at all.

    You have to remember that a heat pump MOVES heat from location to another, unlike fossil fuel furnaces which must PRODUCE heat via combustion.

    Heat pumps and air conditioners both move more heat than the amount of electricity they consume, therefore do boast actual efficiencies > 100% when compared to other heating methods. This fact actually is the basis of an performance rating used to measure & size heat pumps called coefficient of performance (COP). Electric resistance heating has a COP of 1.0 (100% efficient), while the best gas heating systems run 85-95% efficient.

    For the heat pump system I just had installed in my own home, the COP runs about 2.9-4.36 (290% to 436% more heat moved than power consumed) based on outdoor conditions. It’s an air:air system.

    Straight from the engineering data on my heat pump:
    At 67F outdoor temp: system puts out 48.35MBTU/H, which would require 14.17kWh of straight electric resistance heat to produce. The system only draws 2.98kW (including indoor blower) at this temperature. 14.17/2.98 = 4.75 = 475% more efficient at heating the space than straight electric resistance heat. The chances of turning on your heat at 67F? Pretty unlikely, even for us Floridians.

    Something a little more realistic:
    At 47F:
    System puts out: 35.71MBTU/H (/3.41 = 10.47kWh)
    System consumes: 2.52kWh
    COP: (10.47/2.52) = 4.156, thus 415% more efficient than straight electric resistance.

    At 27F:
    System puts out 25.19 MBTU/H (/3.41 = 7.39kWh)
    System consumes: 2.16 kWh
    COP: (7.39/2.16) = 3.42

    You say it’s not good for cold weather?
    At 17F:
    System puts out: 20.77 MBTU/H (/3.41 = 6.09kWh)
    System consumes: 2.02kWh
    COP (6.09/2.02) = 3.015

    At -3F:
    System puts out: 12.84 MBTU/H (/3.41 = 3.76kW)
    System consumes: 1.77kW
    COP (3.76/1.77) = 2.12.

    Yes, even at -3F, it’s still more efficient. However, at the lower temperatures, unless the unit has been specifically sized to operate at these temperatures, you’re going to want some form of backup heating because your house probably will be losing heat faster than the heat pump can replace it. BUT, you’d still want to run the heat pump WITH the backup heat source since it’s still producing useful heat more efficiently (and less expensively) than fossil fuel sources would be. This is why I’m a strong supporter of dual-fuel systems. You have to use better controls than a garden variety thermostat with these systems, but the comfort and efficiency is well worth it. If the system’s sized right, the heat pump will be enough to maintain indoor heat loss for an average winter day, only relying upon the fossil fuel furnace to kick in when you’re trying to warm the place up fast or on the colder days. This also means that you’ll have more consistent indoor temperatures, as the heat pump will be cranking away most of the time, especially if you have a 2-stage or inverter-driven heat pump.

    I do agree that hydronic is probably the best way to heat (‘though I’m a bit partial to wood stoves. No one ever gathered around the furnace / radiator to enjoy the warmth & ambience). Even for these systems, they do make air:water & water:water heat pumps. I would have loved to have installed a ground-source heat pump here, but the costs were ridiculous.

  25. GearheadGeek says:

    @FLConsumer: What you meant to say seems to be “>100% of the efficiency of electric resistance heating” or “>100% of the efficiency of conventional AC systems” which is true as far as I know. That’s not the same thing as “>100% efficient” which would mean the system actually generates energy. If you have a perpetual-motion machine heating/cooling your house, you’re wasting its potential to make you very wealthy.

  26. GearheadGeek says:

    @FLConsumer: Where you’re going wrong in your assumption of overall efficiency is in saying the heat that’s moved is created, it’s not. Moving/transforming energy != creating it, the laws of thermodynamics still apply.