Last year, the Pittsburgh area got a little bit of a break during one of the warmest winter seasons to date. This year, the forecast isn’t looking so compassionate — it’s predicted to be colder. On average, Pittsburgh has more than 100 freezing days and has been ranked among the coldest cities in the United States.

On top of digging out your gloves and hats, you might also be thinking about how to keep warm and safe at home throughout the winter season.

This can be even more challenging when prices appear to be going up on heat and other necessities.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that winter natural gas bills in the Northeast will be about 18% higher than last year. Nationwide, nearly half of homes rely on natural gas, and people in the region are expected to spend an average of $865 for the season. 

Bills for propane and heating oil are expected to rise even more sharply, driven by factors like lower global crude oil inventory.

With residents already facing an economic crunch from the pandemic, there are ways to save money on heating, including small adjustments to behavior and programs for low-income households who need to repair or replace heating systems.

Tips to keep your heating costs low

Setting your thermostat to a lower temperature when you are asleep or away from home can save your household as much as 10% a year on heating costs. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends setting your thermostat at 68 degrees during the day and as low as you are comfortable with at night.

Keep thermostats on an interior wall and away from direct sunlight, drafts, doorways, skylights and windows to improve the performance and efficiency. Installation instructions will include methods to prevent ghost readings that cause the unnecessary heater use.

The Department of Energy advises against using programmable thermostats for heat pumps. To save on costs, it’s better to set them at a moderate setting.

Consumer Reports compiled a list of steps to keep your heating costs low, including things like lowering your thermostat and sealing air leaks in doors and windows and making sure air filters are replaced when needed.

Insulation is also important. According to the Energy Department, insulating your house can save up to 20% on heating and cooling costs. Professional home energy assessments are a good way to determine what parts of your home are using the most energy and how to remedy that. 

It is possible to assess your home’s energy efficiency without a professional by conducting a thorough inspection. If you discover that insulation is a major issue, find out three things for yourself: where your home is and is not properly insulated; what type of insulation you have; and the R-value and the thickness (or depth in inches) of the insulation you have. Some people might be able to contact the home builder to answer some of these questions, while others can look at structural elements.

Before you insulate, be sure that your home is air sealed to prevent any leakage. If an assessment leads you to the decision to add insulation to your home, you must decide where to insulate and what kind of insulation to use. Many kinds of insulation can be installed without hiring a professional. 

Are you ready for a Pittsburgh winter?

  • Waterproof your home with caulk or weather strips and insulate water lines to prevent freezing.
  • Salt your walkways and driveway to prevent accidents and injury.
  • Fix any roof looks and trim tree branches that could fall on your home and cause damage.
  • Check your chimney, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, especially if you plan to use a fireplace or kerosene heater.
  • Winter weather can cause power outages, so stock food, batteries and first-aid kits in the home. 
  • Avoid traveling in harsh weather but, if it is necessary, be sure to prepare your car and create an emergency car kit.

Need help with heating costs?

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program [LIHEAP] offers cash grants to help cover heating bills for families in need. Crisis grants are also offered to households in urgent need. You can determine if you are eligible and apply for benefits online here, or in person at the county assistance office.

Households experiencing  hardships may also qualify for utility assistance from the state. Budget billing is a good option that can be requested by any residential customer, and the CARES program is available specifically for households going through temporary hardships such as family emergencies. 

Low-income households (those at or below 200% of the federal poverty level) are eligible for Pennsylvania’s Weatherization Assistance Program, with priority given to high-risk residents. Energy audits are conducted in the home to determine the best ways to increase efficiency. ACTION-Housing is one of Pennsylvania’s largest weatherization providers and operates Allegheny County’s assistance program. Eligible residents can apply here.

Replacing your heating system can be costly, but waiting until it fails can end up costing even more. There are signs, including the age of your unit or excessive noise, that suggest it may be time to replace your heating equipment. 

If the cost of an upgrade seems daunting, you may be able to pay for it through an “energy efficient mortgage,” which can help finance energy efficient upgrades or be used for the purchase of an energy-efficient home. Federal tax credits are also available through Dec. 31 and are offered to those whose residential heating equipment qualify as energy efficient.

Practicing safe heating methods

Central heating is not always an option. If used safely, other sources such as space heaters and fireplaces could be options to heat a room. However, you should never use appliances like your oven or stove for heat. Not only is it dangerous, but it can also raise your gas or electric bills. When using a space heater, it’s important to keep it away from anything that can burn and be sure that the space is well ventilated.

According to the National Fire Protections Association, heating equipment fires accounted for 14% of all reported home fires from 2014 to 2018. The risk of carbon monoxide exposure often increases in the winter and is associated with faulty furnaces or other heating methods. More information on the risks of alternative heating methods is available here.

An important part of keeping costs low and staying safe is understanding which heating method is right for your home. HVAC contractors can advise you on your HVAC system, and if cost is a barrier, resources like the Pennsylvania Weatherization Assistance Program can help you stay safely warm as the temperature drops.

There are regulations in Allegheny County that your house must meet to establish safe and sanitary standards for residents. If where you are living violates any of these regulations, you may want to contact the landlord or health department. If there is trouble reaching these contacts and seeing results quickly, you can file a complaint or property concern here.

Complaints regarding utilities can also be filed here if you have already contacted your utility provider and they have not resolved the issue. 

Elizabeth Prall is a PublicSource editorial and engagement intern. She can be reached at elizabeth@publicsource.org.

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Elizabeth Prall is a PublicSource editorial and engagement intern. She is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, double majoring in creative writing and public and professional writing. With a unique...