In a sweat over heat bill

Forecasts of soaring energy costs this winter are driving demand for geothermal units, pellet stoves, caulk and plastic sheeting


Fed up with paying nearly $500 a month for electricity and wood to heat his Joppa home, Jim Noonkester cut his heating bill in half when he installed a geothermal heat pump a decade ago.

When he sold his 5,000- square-foot English Tudor house last year to buy a smaller home in Bel Air, he refused to go back to electric.

"I told the Realtor, don't take me to a house unless it's got geothermal," said Noonkester, 62, a retired supermarket employee.

Most people don't want to spend more than $20,000 to install geothermal systems, which use the Earth's interior heat to warm a home at about half the annual cost of oil or natural gas. But with the gulf hurricanes pushing up this year's already higher prices, the looming winter heating season takes on added urgency.

The winter heating forecast contains only bad news.

The federal government anticipates natural gas in the region will cost 46 percent more than last year, and heating oil prices will jump 29 percent from last year.

A colder-than-normal winter could push prices up even further, said Jonathan Cogan, information specialist at the Energy Information Administration. The current forecast factored in Hurricane Katrina's impact on the Gulf Coast, but an update due out Oct. 12 will also assess the condition of offshore oil platforms, sea-floor pipelines and refineries on land. Those haven't been fully assessed, Cogan said.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers can expect natural gas bills as much as 33 percent higher than last winter. That will add as much as $214 to last year's average bill of $646. The utility blames the hurricanes for elevating already higher prices.

Heating oil users last winter paid an average of $1,337 in the Northeast.

"This winter is going to be quite brutal in terms of prices," said Mel Hall-Crawford, energy projects manager at the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Still, there are some things homeowners and buyers can do to fight back.

Several easy steps will make a home more heat efficient. Many people know the usual tips: caulk leaky windows and doors, shop around for oil and lock in a fixed price, get your heating system checked and install a programmable thermostat.

For about $70, a programmable thermostat will save 10 percent on heating bills, experts say. It can also save wear and tear on your marriage - no more arguing about who's getting out of bed to turn the thermostat up or down.

And hiring a property inspector to check the heating system now - during the early fall - could clue in homeowners who didn't know what to ask before they bought.

Even Uncle Sam is willing to help. The energy law passed earlier this year offers tax credits of up to $500 for upgrading thermostats, caulking leaks or stopping energy waste. A credit of up to $200 is available for installation of new exterior windows. Most of the incentives take effect next year.

If energy-efficient windows are too expensive, the U.S. Energy Department recommends installing storm windows to cut heating costs. They reduce air movement in and out of existing windows. An even cheaper alternative is to place heavy-duty clear plastic across the window frame.

The current mild weather makes winter seems distant, but tuning up or replacing a heating system should happen before cold weather hits. "People should be thinking about that now," Hall-Crawford said.

Other homeowners have taken more drastic measures.

Tom Yuhas of Pasadena ditched his oil-burning furnace this year. Using $30,000 worth of solar panels on the roof of his 50-year-old brick ranch-style house, now he heats his house with a $5,500 high-efficiency heat pump.

A small-business consultant, Yuhas still pays for electricity to run his heat pump at night. Sometimes, he generates enough electricity to sell some back to BGE.

"I'm feeling good now," Yuhas said, "especially as fuel prices keep climbing up."

Noonkester, too, is wedded to alternative heating. His geothermal system needs electricity to run, but it usually keeps his bills below $100 a month for heat and hot water.

Some homeowners are supplementing their heating system, installing pellet stoves or fireplace inserts, which are the fastest-growing segment of heating appliances.

Pellet stove shipments jumped 50 percent in the second quarter from last year, according to the Arlington, Va.-based Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. Traditional wood stoves still outsell them 16 to 1.

Pellet stoves burn compressed wood scraps that look like rabbit food, kept in a hopper that needs refilling as little as twice a week. Homeowners using pellet stoves as their main heat source use two to three tons of pellets a year at up to $200 a ton, the Energy Department said.

They can vent directly outside - no need for a chimney. And fancier models use a computer and a thermostat to regulate heat.

They're cheaper than traditional wood stoves, costing $1,700 to $3,000 to install, but they don't heat adjacent rooms well, according to the department's Web site.

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