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Keeping lid on winter heating bills

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Each time my electric company raises rates, I feel a little more pleased about the time and money I have spent making my house more energy-efficient, because the return on my investment keeps increasing.

In the Lowcountry, October is a great time to think home energy efficiency, particularly for SCE&G customers, because the company's rates are going up again Oct. 30.

Residential customers will see a 2.9 percent increase. Since 2009, SCE&G rates have gone up nearly 24 percent, which goes to the point about return on investment.

If you can permanently reduce how much power your home consumes, the savings will be greater each year, as power prices rise. There are many ways, large and small, to reduce the big bills you know will be coming in the brief winter heating season.

As locals know, and people who move here from the Northeast learn, HVAC systems used in Lowcountry homes are built for efficient summer cooling - not so much for winter heating - and those with electric systems can expect their highest bills of the year in the late winter months.

Even if you don't want to take steps to improve your home's efficiency, you can ease the sting of winter electric bills by signing up for budget billing with your power company.

If you use electricity for heating and cooling, some of your lowest bills of the year will probably be the ones you get in October and November. The highest ones will probably arrive in January and February.

If you sign up for budget billing in, say, November, all of your bills for the next year will be the same, based on your average use in the prior year.

That doesn't mean you'll pay less overall, but you'll avoid having really high bills in January and February. Of course, you also won't enjoy the low bills that typically arrive in April and May, but at least you'll know what to expect each month.

After a year, the billing is adjusted based on actual use. Most utility companies require people to have been customers for at least 12 months, and be current on bills, in order to sign up for budget billing.

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While budget billing can smooth out the charges, taking some steps to improve efficiency can permanently lower them. For do-it-yourself types, this is a great time of year to take on some weekend projects.

One that can really make a difference, if your house has an attic space, is insulating the access panel or drop-down stairs. That opening is like a chimney, and the heat you're paying for in the winter goes whooshing right through there.

You can buy insulating covers for those openings, but they typically cost more than $100. Or, you can cheaply and easily make one yourself. Just go online and search for terms such as "insulating attic pull down stairs" and you'll find instructions, how-to videos and so on.

That's a small project that makes a big difference and will save power and money essentially forever. And this is the season when it's relatively comfortable to work in the attic.

While you're up there, inspect any HVAC ductwork and make sure it's properly connected and sealed. No sense paying for hot or cold air and then blowing it into your attic.

Next, if you don't have one, get yourself a programmable thermo-stat. Mine cost about $50 and I in- stalled it. Programmable thermostats are particularly helpful if your home is empty at regular times - maybe weekdays when people are at work or school, for example - and you don't need the house to be the same temperature as when occupied.

Add equipment tune-ups to the project list as well.

Seriously, when was the last time you flushed your water heater? That's generally recommended every six months to get rid of sediment and keep it operating efficiently.

A tune-up for the HVAC system not a bad idea, if you can't remember when the last one was (look for advertised specials in the paper), and don't forget to check the filters.

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