As the winter chill sets in, an unsettling reminder: Heating your home almost certainly will be a lot more expensive this season. And with the price of food and other necessities also surging, many households may feel their budgets stretched.
But there are steps you can take to reduce your heating costs by adding efficiencies or simply lowering your thermostat. There’s also assistance paying your heating bills if you need it.
Here’s what you should know as temperatures fall and heating costs rise:
Q. How much more expensive will it be to heat my house?
A. It depends on whether you use oil, natural gas, or electricity. The biggest impact is likely to be on the one-quarter of households in Massachusetts that use oil. The US Energy Information Administration is forecasting a 43 percent increase in the cost of heating oil compared to last winter. For many, that could mean hundreds of dollars more to heat their homes this winter.
Q. How much more will it cost to heat my home by natural gas?
A. EIA is forecasting an 18 percent increase for the more than half of households in Massachusetts that use natural gas.
Q. And what about electric heat?
A. The forecasted increase for electric heat is slightly less than 10 percent. But the impact on electric customers’ wallets may be about the same as for those using natural gas, even though the percent increase for electric is significantly lower, because heating with electricity is more expensive overall than it is with natural gas.
Q. Why are heating costs expected to rise?
A. Supply and demand. Supply has been diminished by lower production during the pandemic, plus adverse weather events like the freeze in Texas last spring. And demand is surging as economies around the world rev up in response to lower COVID infection rates.
Q. What can I do to lower my heating costs?
A. In the short term, put on a sweater, or two sweaters. “Small adjustments to your thermostat can help you save,” Eversource, New England’s largest utility, says on its website.
To drive home the point, Eversource recently introduced a heating “cost calculator.” It allows you personalize the cost of heat by putting in the kind of heat you use, the size of your home, the efficiency of your heating system (based on its age), and whether you set your thermostat at 75 degrees, 70 degrees, or 65 degrees.
For example, if your natural gas heating system has “standard efficiency” (meaning it’s five to 15 years old) and you set the thermostat at 75 degrees, it will cost almost $3,700 to heat a 1,800-square-foot home for the winter, according to the calculator.
But if you set the thermostat five degrees lower, you will save $1,500. And if you set it even lower, at 65 degrees, you will save another $700.
That’s a 60 percent savings — $2,200 — by lowering the thermostat 10 degrees.
Q. How much would I save by turning down the thermostat by 10 degrees on my electric heating system?
A. The cost calculator says you will save about 60 percent — about $3,100 for the winter.
(The calculator is not available for oil heat.)
Q. What else can I do?
A. Use a programmable thermostat. The US Department of Energy recommends setting your thermostat at 68 degrees or lower when you’re home and awake, and 60 degrees when nobody is home or you are asleep. That alone could save you 10 percent, the DOE says.
Q. Other steps I can take?
A. Stop the leaks. A recent report from Consumer Reports says you should check for drafts around doors and windows, which can be plugged with weather-stripping, caulking, or expandable foam. But you should also check the attic, especially “where the walls meet the attic floor, the access hatch, and around plumbing and electrical fixtures.”
The same goes for the basement, with special attention to “where the foundation meets the framing of the house and where wiring conduits and plumbing enter through the foundation,” Consumer Reports says.
You can also consider adding insulation to your home or upgrading your heating system to a smaller, more efficient unit.
Q. That all sounds complicated. How do I know where to begin?
A. Get a no-cost home energy assessment from MassSave, which is sponsored by the state’s utility companies and funded with surcharges on utility bills. You can connect with an “energy specialist” remotely by live-streaming on your phone while walking around your house, or by having a specialist come to your home.
MassSave also offers rebates or zero percent financing on a wide range of upgrades for those who qualify.
Q. What about assistance?
A. Help is available, but it requires awareness and time to navigate the system, which isn’t always easy. If you or someone you know needs help, one good source to begin with is the networks of community action agencies arrayed across the state. Here’s a list that includes every city and town in the state. Other good resources: the agency that provides free legal services and the National Consumer Law Center. And here’s a state website for information on assistance.
Q. What kind of assistance is available?
A. The “low income home energy assistance program,” commonly known as “fuel assistance,” is available to homeowners and renters, including renters who don’t get separately billed for heat. Eligibility is based on household size and income. For example, a household of four qualifies with an income up to about $78,000.
Households that get fuel assistance also qualify for weatherization and energy efficiency help.
A program created during the pandemic called the “emergency rental assistance program,” known as ERAP, also helps eligible households by paying off overdue utility bills.
Q. Will electric and gas utilities offer assistance?
A. Companies including Eversource and National Grid offer partial forgiveness of past-due balances and discounted rates for low-income families. And every household, regardless of income, can reach out to the utilities and set up a 12-month payment plan. As long as the agreed-upon payments are made, their services won’t be cut off.
Q. What are the rules on shutting off electric or gas?
A. The moratorium on service cutoffs, imposed by executive order by the Baker administration at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, expired in July. But low-income families remain protected against shutoffs if they are seriously ill or have a baby under 12 months old at home. Elders also are protected against shutoff.