Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Feb 03 2006, 08:32pm

It's been an unusually mild winter in many parts of the country

It's been an unusually mild winter in many parts of the country. But heating costs have gone up so much that lots of people are paying more this year even though they're using less energy! As far as I'm concerned, power bills are a boring thing to spend money on. Here are a few do-it-yourself tips and power company perks that will save you energy –and money.

Beware estimated meter readings:
You should know that power companies don't always read your meter to determine your bill. Some power companies alternate between manual readings and "estimated" readings. Others won't read your meter if it's blocked by shrubs or snow. Sometimes power companies do read your meter, but then estimate your bill anyway, if the reading seems abnormally high or low. Did you hear that? Abnormally low!
That's right. It happened to me. When I bought my condo, the first month's heating bill was huge. I was floored because I had waited a month to move in and during that month the heat wasn't on and nobody used any appliances. Sure enough, the power company had estimated my bill based on the former owner's usage the previous year. I demanded a real reading and the power company adjusted my bill.

Apply for energy-efficiency rebates:
There are lots of other instances, though, where the power company is your friend. A rich friend! For example, did you know many power companies have programs to reimburse you if you buy an energy-efficient air conditioner or heat pump? It's free money that you won't get unless you ask. If you repair your ductwork, your power company may split the bill with you. If you are building a new home, you may be able to get rebates for installing double pane windows or insulator wrap. In other words, the power company will pay you for things that also save you money later!

Get a free home energy audit:
Many utilities also offer home energy audits. For little or no money, a power company expert will walk through your home and identify ways to save energy and money. They may suggest you caulk around your windows or turn down your hot water heater or add extra insulation to your attic or basement. Other common mistakes: letting cold air seep in from your garage and placing lamps near your thermostat, which then gives false readings.
Join kilowatchers:

If your power company offers a "kilowatchers" program, that's another source of savings you can put in place before the summer heat comes around again. You agree to let the power company cycle your air conditioner unit off for short intervals during times of peak usage. This saves the power company's grid and saves you money. The power company attaches a little radio receiver to your air conditioning unit to control it. You probably won't even notice the difference, but you will notice the $35 to $135 refund you get on your summer energy bill.

Compact fluorescent lightbulbs:
If you're not ready to let big brother take charge of your AC, try these do-it-yourself steps to save. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs in place of regular bulbs. They cost $10 or $20 each, but they last ten times as long and use 75% less power. The weird color these bulbs throw off is masked by nice lampshades. I like to use compact fluorescent bulbs in ceiling fixtures that are hard to open. That way I only have to change them once every few years.

Install a programmable thermostat:
Buy a programmable thermostat. They have several settings. You can arrange for the heater to kick on an hour before you get up, so your house is nice and toasty while you eat breakfast. Then let the house cool down during the time you're at work. Next, crank up the heat again before you get home. Programmable thermostats even let you set a different schedule on weekends. For every degree you reduce the temperature, you save three percent on your energy bill over the course of the winter season.

Clean your dryer duct:
Don't just clean the lint trap inside your dryer. Clean the air duct that leads to the outside. This can dramatically reduce drying time and energy bills. Plus clogged air ducts are a fire and carbon monoxide hazard.

And, yes, change your filters…
I apologize in advance, because this last tip is as repetitive as the dentist who nags you to floss your teeth. CHANGE YOUR FILTERS! AC and heating filters only cost a dollar, but dirty ones can drive your energy bills up by twenty dollars a month.

Where to complain:
Finally, if you're convinced that your power company is overcharging you in some way, usually it's your state public service commission that regulates power companies. File a complaint and get your government working for you!