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How much dialing it back can save on high heating bills

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Get ready for a wallet-chilling envelope from your utility company following the bitter blast of winter. Time magazine warns heating costs could hit hit all-time highs this month.

USA Today reported that the price of natural gas has risen to its highest level since 2010, jumping nearly 30 percent this month alone. Propane prices are also soaring. As a result, millions of consumers should expect another spike in their bills as January wraps up and February begins.

Locally, WCCO reports that CenterPoint Energy is notifying customers this month’s bill will be 35-50 percent higher than last month's. Xcel Energy tells the station that its customers are expected to use 14 percent more natural gas this January compared to 2013 to keep furnaces cranked – and their bills will reflect it.

The station reported that an adjustment of few degrees on a home thermostat can make a difference on the bottom line of a monthly heating bill. The story quoted the U.S Department of Energy, which notes that 1 percent is saved with every degree that is reduced. Energy Star advises setting the thermostat to 68 degrees, and dropping it another 6-7 degrees at night. CenterPoint Energy said dropping from 68 degrees to 58 degrees for at least four hours can save an average of 10 percent.

It makes sense to reduce the thermostat's reading when family members are gone for the day or overnight, and many thrifty – and chilly – consumers use programmable thermostats to keep readings consistent. But be careful about frequent flips. Wayne Jensen, master service technician with CenterPoint Energy, told the station that the temperature should be adjusted when it can remain at a lower level for at least six to eight hours.

“If you set back for a short time, you’re going to be using quite a bit of energy to warm your house back up,” he said.

Analysts worry that rising utility bills could pinch consumer spending as the shaky recovery continues.

"Those furnaces working around the clock have increased demand for natural gas, contributing to price spikes," said Sue Tierney, energy and environmental economist at Analysis Group. "That's a tough combination for households on fixed budgets. Some of the numbers, especially for low-income people, could be staggering.''

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