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Americans keep the home fires burning -- and use less fuel to do it

Americans' efforts to beef up their attic insulation and dial down their thermostats are paying off in significantly lower home energy use, new government data show.

But this winter, the recession will make consumers more cautious about additional major investments in energy-saving equipment or materials, experts say.

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Home energy consumption fell 17 percent between 1978 and 1980 ''and accounted for more than half'' the 2.3 quadrillion Btu (British thermal unit) drop in the nation's energy use during that period, notes J. Erich Evered, head of the US Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.

These savings are especially notable because homes buy only one quarter of the fuel burned in the US. The remainer goes up commerical and industrial smokestacks.

However, lowered thermostats and thicker weather stripping were not enough to keep household energy costs from rising in the face of climbing energy prices. The average household fuel bill rose to $917 in 1980, up 12.5 percent from the previous year.

While rising energy prices make additional conservation efforts attractive, high unemployment and other effects of the recession are expected to make consumers nervous about investing in costly efforts to save Btus.

''I would not be surprised if this year (reinsulation of existing homes) is flat-to-down somewhat,'' says Jonathan Goldfarb, vice-president and housing analyst with Merrill Lynch, the brokerage firm. To counter buyers' reluctance, major insulation producers like Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation are offering rebates.

The outlook for wood stove makers also is not red hot. ''Sales will be about the same this year as last,'' or 2.1 million stoves, says John Florian, editor of Alternatve Energy Retailer magazine. The Waterbury, Conn.-based publication conducts a monthly survey of wood and coal stove dealers.

One reason wood stove sales have flattened out is that kerosene space heater sales are blazing. Wood stove ''dealers are noticing that some of their sales are being taken away by kerosene heaters,'' admits Susan O'Rourke, communications director for the Wood Heating Alliance in Chicago. She notes that wood stoves cost from $400 to $1,000 or more and require installation, while kerosene heaters, although illegal in several states, may be purchased for $100 to $300 and do not require installation.

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Fueled by relatively affordable prices, kerosene heater sales this year are expected to rise 72 percent to 5.5 million units, according to a spokesman at the National Kerosene Heater Association. Manufacturers are worried that sales may be dampened by a story in Consumer Reports magazine charging that some kerosene heaters can emit excessive levels of hazardous exhaust fumes. The association is slated to release a study today (Dec. 3) by a professor at the California Institute of Technology who found heater emission levels substantially lower than those published by Consumer Reports.

Although wood stove dealers are nervously watching kerosene heater sales, wood as a home heating fuel has enjoyed rapid growth, the Energy Department study reports. The number of households using wood as the main heating fuel increased from 1.9 million in 1978 to 4.7 million in 1980.

As a result, wood replaced liquid petroleum gas as the fourth most common fuel (after natural gas, electricity, and fuel oil). In fact, in 1980 there were an estimated 14.2 million households that used at least a third of a cord of wood for heating.

The most popular home energy saving strategies are those that cost the least, the government found. In 1980, caulking was the most frequently used energy saving device, followed by weather stripping, storm doors, and storm windows. Avg. household energy expenditures for 1980 US average $917 Northeast $1,268 North Central $910 South $877 West $604 Source: Department of Energy.

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