NEW YORK (AP) -- In these waning days of summer, it may seem premature to start thinking about keeping your house warm this winter.
But with crude oil prices near 10-year highs and the nation's energy stockpiles low, the costs of heating oil and natural gas are up sharply. Energy experts advise that steps taken now can help hold down your winter heating bills -- and make it easier to pay them without busting your budget.
Just how much fuel costs are going to rise remains to be seen. The Department of Energy expects heating oil prices nationally to average about $1.30 a gallon this winter, up 30 percent from last year. Natural gas prices are expected to hit about $8.60 per 1,000 cubic feet, a 25 percent rise.
But some consumers, especially in the Northeast, already are seeing deliveries of heating oil at prices 50 percent higher than a year ago. And experts warn that if the winter is harsh, fuel demand could rise significantly and push prices up even more.
''Fuel prices are rising now and are going to be high into the future,'' warned Wenonah Hauter, director of the energy and environment program for the Washington lobby group Public Citizen. ''Consumers should be girding themselves (for higher bills) and making their homes more energy efficient.''
There are a number of steps families can take to try to contain the price damage. A major one is trying to ensure that the fuel you pay for isn't wasted.
''Now is a good time for homeowners to look at sealing their houses a lot better,'' advised Rozanne Weissman of the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington. ''You don't want to lose that expensive heating through leaks around doors and windows.''
She added that families also should improve insulation in walls and attics as well as consider investing in such fuel savers as double-paned windows and modern furnaces.
Even small home improvements can produce big savings.
Weather-stripping around windows and doors can cut fuel bills by 10 percent to 15 percent, energy experts estimate. And turning down a thermostat just one degree can save 3 percent, they say.
There are a number of possible strategies to deal with higher heating fuel prices.
''People should be talking with their (fuel) dealers now about fixed-price contracts that will guarantee a price through the season,'' said Thomas Collins, an official with the New York Energy Research and Development Authority. ''They can also ask about spreading their payments out over a longer period of time.''
Collins suggests homeowners get their fuel tanks filled now ''because the odds are that prices are going to go even higher.''
Natural gas customers, meanwhile, might consider talking with local utilities about so-called level payment plans, or budget plans, that help even out the ups and downs of fuel costs.
David Fantle, spokesman for Wisconsin Gas in Milwaukee, said his gas bill typically averaged about $15 to $20 in summer months but could shoot as high as $120 a month at the height of the winter heating season. With the company's ''budget billing,'' he pays $55 a month year round.
Fantle said about 20 percent of the company's 540,000 customers already are on the budget plan and said that ''with prices rising, we'll probably see a lot more sign up'' this year.
There's help available for low income families, regardless of the fuel they use. The federal government makes funds available through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, to help needy families cover heating costs. State energy commissions and local social service agencies can advise people on how to apply.
On the Net:
Department of Energy: www.doe.gov
Alliance to Save Energy: www.ase.org
National Association of State Energy Officials: www.naseo.org
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