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How to pare down home energy bills

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With winter's first cold snap on the way, homeowners from Salem, Mass., to Salem, Ore., are searching for ways to keep their houses warm this winter without paying a fortune on energy.

In New England and the Midwest, forecasters predict oil and gas heating bills will be anywhere from 15 to 70 percent higher than last winter. Even cordwood and wood-pellet fuel prices are climbing because of rising transportation costs and an increased demand for wood stoves.

"We're fielding scores of calls from consumers who are very concerned about the rising costs," says Michael Ferrante, president of the Massachusetts Oil Heat Council. "Right now we're telling consumers to expect to pay 15 to 20 percent over last year's bill. But as everybody knows, energy prices are almost impossible to predict."

So what would a 50 percent jump in heating-fuel cost mean for the bottom line? Over five chilly months from November through March, a family that paid $1,000 for heat last winter will now face bills totaling $1,500.

While no single strategy can cut energy bills in half, combining a number of options can help improve your home's efficiency. And it doesn't have to cost a fortune up front; some solutions are as cheap as a $5 tube of caulk. For example:

• Replace air filters. These generally cost less than $15 and will make your furnace considerably more efficient. Experts also recommend getting your heating system serviced at the beginning of the winter.

• Apply insulating foam, weather stripping, or caulk to seal spaces around doors and windows or any other cracks where heat can escape. Areas around air and electrical ducts and pipe entrances are also prime suspects for heat loss. A leaky home is the equivalent of having a three-foot-square window open, experts say. But beware: If you seal your home too tight and refuse to open a window once in a while, your home's air quality could suffer.

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