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As Chris Herb notes, when it comes to that cold-cash calculation of heating your home as the frosts set in, in the end there’s no beating Old Man Winter. But if you are relying on a heating system that’s older than the hills, the CEO of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association notes there are things you can do now to slow the sawbucks going up the flue — not to mention after the spring thaw in preparation for next winter.

If your house was built more than 20 years ago, chances are you are accustomed to the beeps of a heating oil truck backing up your driveway from October to April. If so, you are in for a winter dividend this year to offset those punishing electric bills last summer; U.S. inventories were nearly a quarter higher than in September 2019, helping push prices below $2 a gallon on average for about 30 percent discount from a year earlier.

If your home is of newer vintage, odds are better there’s an underground pipeline running up the drive. Over the past decade-plus, Connecticut has pushed rebates for furnace conversions, with better than one in every three dwellings now on natural gas. As a monopoly service, natural gas prices are set by the state — you can’t shop around for a replacement pipeline operator — but supplier prices can pop, at times severely as Northeast denizens discovered in the polar vortex seven years ago. Avangrid spokesperson Ed Crowder points out that customers of subsidiaries Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas can enroll in a budget billing program to smooth out payments from seasonal spikes, however, as is the case with the state’s other major supplier, Eversource.

Whether your furnace produces heat from natural gas, oil, electricity, logs, pellets or propane, you can save a bundle by better bundling up your home. 

While the Energize CT furnace rebate program focuses on those fired by natural gas, Herb’s Connecticut Energy Marketers Association matches it for the most-efficient oil furnaces. But as Herb points out, savings start with the basics — maintenance, with a service contract something you should consider asking about in addition to prices as you shop around for oil service. The state Department of Consumer Protection offers tips for doing so online at portal.ct.gov/dcp, including the usual caveats on variable rates versus “price protection” programs.

And whether your furnace produces heat from natural gas, oil, electricity, logs, pellets or propane, you can save a bundle by better bundling up your home. Add it up, and Herb says you can eliminate one or two truck rolls to your home each winter, depending on the current state of your budget coming off the pandemic; whether for a major investment like a more efficient furnace, or a more modest outlay like smart thermostats tethered to Wi-Fi to dial down the heat on sunny days or when you are away.

A few more tips from Herb:

Best advice to save on winter heating bills?

“Probably the first and best thing a homeowner can do is to get the annual [furnace] service and tune-up done. You can save 10 percent over the heating season if you have your heating system in top operating condition.

“Consumers always benefit from a price standpoint by having a service contract. Most family-owned retailers of heating oil and bioheat are offering those services — the tune-up, any emergency work that might have to be done — at a steeply discounted price compared to the one-off, ‘Hey, I just need you to come and do a tune-up.’ Once the season starts, the operation shifts into delivery mode and responding to any emergencies. It prioritizes you as a customer — it’s like the Disney Fast Pass, it moves you to the head of the line.”

Best investment to save down the road?

“You can save 30 percent, easily, by moving into a high-efficiency system. A lot of heating systems have been in the home for 30, 40 years and sometimes longer. A lot of systems in the old days were oversized for the house, and now they are right-sized, so there’s an efficiency right there. If you have a 1,500-square-foot house and you have a heating system that can heat a 5,000-square-foot house, you are much better served to have a better-sized system. It’s sort of like the difference between driving a V-8 truck and a four-cylinder — you’re going to get a lot better mileage if it’s appropriate for the size of the car.

“Get a home energy solutions audit and have an expert come in. It doesn’t take a lot of money to do and has tremendous savings benefits. They are looking at windows, attic insulation, doors that may not be properly insulated. It’s probably one of the best-kept secrets, from an energy-savings perspective.”

What determinants go into pricing?

“Unlike utility fuels like gas or electricity where they follow one pipeline or one electric line and when it goes down lots of people go without, we get [heating oil] in lots of different ways. We get it over the water via barge, we get it over the road via truck, we get it over the rail via train, and we get it by pipeline. So we have multiple points of supply.

“Buy consistently — and what I mean by that is if you are a contract customer, you should always be a contract customer. The year that you think you are going to beat the market, you will probably be wrong. Don’t think you know more than the commodities market; don’t think you know what OPEC’s going to do, or the next shale breakthrough in the United States, or bust. You should be thinking, what is in the best interest of my family? Do I need budget certainty? If you do, lock in with the contract.”

Time for a home energy audit?

Like everything else, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the Energize CT Home Energy Solutions program, through which homeowners can get an audit of their energy consumption and possibly qualify for discounts on insulation and other upgrades — including thousands of dollars off underground geothermal heat pump systems that can cost as much as $30,000 to install. The initial pre-assessment is now virtual via phone or online conference, including photos you might be asked to send of your home. But Energize CT has resumed in-home services after that initial conference, with technicians observing safety guidelines.

Phone: 877-947-3873 (877-WISE-USE)

Web: energizect.com

Eligibility: Customers of Avangrid and Eversource

Applicability: Insulation, gas furnaces/boilers, AC, appliances

Average investment: $1,000

Average annual savings: $200–250

This article appears in the November 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.