By Garren Shipley -- firstname.lastname@example.org
With daytime temperatures still climbing into the 70s, it's easy to forget that winter is just around the corner.
But with some simple, inexpensive work around the house, cold weather can take a smaller bite out of the household budget.
Now is the time to get ready, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
"Last year we had just the one big storm [in March], but we're long overdue for a typical winter that brings several snows as well as ice storms," said Michael Cline, the state coordinator for the agency.
"It's really important for everyone to get ready for winter," he said.
About 44 percent of homes in Shenandoah County use electricity for heat, while 22 percent use fuel oil and 17 percent use propane.
A little common sense can go a long way in saving on winter heating bills, regardless of the heat source, said Mark Nitowski, a spokesman for Allegheny Power.
For example, don't heat areas that aren't occupied, like closets or unused rooms on upper or lower floors. Simply closing off vents in those rooms and keeping doors closed effectively reduces the size of the home that has to be kept warm. That doesn't apply to heat-pump owners, though. Closing off vents on those systems can actually make them less efficient.
Also, "make sure draperies and furniture aren't blocking the registers in your house," he said. Long drapes can keep hot air from a vent surprisingly well isolated from the rest of a room.
Use exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens only when needed. Those "fans draw heated air out of your home," he said.
Windows are a major source of heat loss in homes. Plug up drafts with weather stripping or caulk.
Kevin Purdy, of LifeHacker.com, said his readers have come up with some very unique ways to save money -- including placing Bubble Wrap on windows.
Windows lose heat to the outside air through contact -- warm air on the inside of a home touches the glass, which is cold from contact with the outside air.
A number of manufacturers produce foil-backed bubble insulation with values of R-17 or better. R-values indicate insulation's resistance to heat flow, and the higher the R-value, the better. But for those who still want to let light into a room, plain old, garden-variety Bubble Wrap -- or similar packaging material -- from any department store will do the job nicely.
The wrap -- which is placed with the bubbles against the window -- will stick to windows with just a mist of water. It adds a layer of still air between the room and the window, similar to the way double-pane windows use a layer of air to cut down on the contact between heated air and glass, Purdy said.
Plain Bubble Wrap can double the insulation value of single-pane windows, according to the manufacturer.
A slightly more expensive option for reducing heating costs is to install a programmable thermostat that will turn heat on and off in connection with a household's schedule. Most of the thermostats have settings for weekdays and weekends. The system changes heat and air conditioner settings to hit set temperatures during the course of a day. Programmable thermostats can drop the temperature inside a home that's vacant during the workday, then bring it back up shortly before homeowners return. They can also lower the temperature at night, then automatically raise it in the morning before everyone starts their day.
Any time the heater doesn't have to be on, consumers save money.
"Each degree over 68 degrees can add 3 percent to the amount of energy needed for heating," Nitowski said. "Each degree below 68 can save about the same amount of energy."
Moving the temperature 10 to 15 degrees from its usual setting for eight hours a day can save anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent on a heating bill over the course of one heating season, he said.
Programmable thermostats can be purchased online for as little as $60, or at most major home-improvement stores.
Got a fireplace? Don't forget to close the damper or replace a loose-fitting one with a new, more airtight model.
"When dampers are open, they allow the natural draft of chimneys to pull heated air from inside your home in winter and draw cool air from inside your home in summer," Nitowski said.
For more energy-saving tips, visit www.energysavers.gov or alleghenypower.com and click on the Watt Watchers logo.