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By Laura T. Coffey
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/15/2007 7:26:00 PM ET 2007-01-16T00:26:00

High home-heating bills pack a real punch into household budgets across the United States each winter. They consistently pose a special challenge for people who rely on fixed incomes or live paycheck to paycheck.

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At least there’s a little bit of good news this year: Many families are likely to see slight price breaks on their heating bills, especially if they use natural gas to heat their homes. The Energy Information Administration reported that this winter’s heating fuel costs should be $928 for the average household, down from $947 last winter.

But let’s face it: $928 is still a lot of money. If you’d like to reduce your heating bills even further this season, consider giving some of these free or low-cost tips a try.

1. Learn to love socks. If your feet are cold, your whole body will feel cold, so make a point of wearing socks around the house in the winter. The next step if you’re still feeling cold: Bundle up in a sweater or a blanket rather than cranking up the heat.

2. Tap heat that’s there anyway. There are plenty of activities you do around the house that generate warmth, such as cooking a meal or taking a shower. When you shower, keep the bathroom door open so steam spreads to other rooms, and don’t turn a ventilation fan on; it will rapidly remove the warm air you’re hoping to keep around.

3. Lower your thermostat. You likely won’t notice a huge difference if you turn it down just a few degrees, a move that can shave 5 percent to 10 percent off your heating bill. It’s especially wise to turn down the heat whenever you leave your home for several hours.

4. Watch that water heater. It’s also not likely to be noticeable if you turn down the thermostat on your water heater to, say, 120 degrees from about 140 degrees.

5. Consider a programmable thermostat. They cost between $30 and $100, but that’s money you’re sure to make back over the course of a year because your heating bills will drop. A programmable thermostat allows you to adjust the heat on a predetermined schedule, so you can lower the heat when you’re not home or when you’re sleeping.

6. Don’t let heat escape unnecessarily. Keep your doors and windows shut when the heat is on. If your home has a fireplace that you aren’t using, be sure the flue is closed and glass doors are in place to minimize heat loss. In addition to those bathroom ventilation fans, turn kitchen ventilation fans off when they aren’t needed.

7. Call for a checkup. Proper maintenance will help your heating unit run more efficiently. Electric and oil heaters should get professional attention at least once a year and gas heaters every other year. Also, here’s a step you can take all on your own: Remember to check the filters in your heating system and make sure they’re clean and clear. Dirty filters lead to higher heating costs.

8. Keep windows covered when it’s dark outside. This will help you reduce heat loss and keep cold air at bay, especially if you have older windows. But be sure to let in the light during the daytime — those rays of sun will help heat your home.

9. Explore outside. Check the exterior of your heating unit. Avoid stacking anything against the heat pump or draping anything over it. Hose the outside unit down to clear it of dirt, leaves and grass clippings. If your indoor unit appears to have excess water around it, see whether the condensate drain and pan are blocked.

10. Light a candle. Not for warmth, but for the purpose of doing a little sleuth work. Hold the flame near windows, doors and light fixtures and look for smoke moving in a horizontal direction. If you see it, that means you’ve spotted an air leak, and it likely means heat is escaping your home easily. To solve that problem, install some low-cost caulking or weather-stripping, or consider adding some insulating material.

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