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Act now to save on winter heating bills

We may be enjoying a spate of warm fall weather, but don't kid yourself. Winter will be here soon enough, and with it, high heating bills.

With that in mind, there are some steps you can take now to prepare for the coming frigid temperatures and all the problems they can bring, from sky-high heating bills to frozen pipes:

- Conduct a "candle" test around doors and windows.

If the flame flickers and, even worse, blows out, you have a heat-loss problem, with cold air pouring in through the gaps around the doors and windows.

You can sharply reduce this heat loss with easy-to-install weather-stripping and plastic window sheeting and, under doors, new thresholds with rubber inserts. Caulking around a window's interior frame may be useful, too. Note that silicone caulk may work better than water-based acrylic caulk, which can shrink.

And check for heat loss around light switches and electric sockets - you can get special draft-stopping gaskets specially made to fit behind light switch plates and electric sockets.

- Insulate and save on taxes.

There should be insulation in the attic, of course, but also between floor joists, even in basements, and particularly if bedrooms are above. Because basements are the coldest part of the house, insulation keeps cold air from seeping into the rest of the house.

If you put in new insulation, remember that the higher the so-called R-value, the better it is at blocking. Contractors recommend attics have insulation with a minimum value of R-30.

And remember that a federal tax credit for up to 10 percent of the cost, up to $500, is available through the end of the year.

- Protect those pipes.

When you've finished outside yard work for the season, disconnect garden hoses and, if possible, shut off the water valve to outside spigots, open the spigots to drain the water, then close the spigots. The most common form of frozen pipes are those caused by freezing that starts on outside spigots, and frozen pipes are among the most destructive cold-weather troubles.

You also can protect water pipes with insulation, particularly if they are exposed in crawl spaces or run along outside walls. Most hardware stores carry insulating tape and snap-on tube insulation that can fit around pipes.

And make sure to insulate the hot water pipes as well as the cold water pipes - while there is much debate about the following, many believe hot water pipes tend to freeze faster than colder water pipes.

- Show your furnace some love.

Have your furnace inspected. Issues such as carbon buildup on the burner and flame sensor can undermine the air-to-gas mixture, causing the furnace to work less efficiently.

Consider annual maintenance checkups to keep the furnace working at top efficiency. And change your furnace filter monthly - dirty filters make your furnace work harder.

If your furnace is really old, consider a new model. They tend to be much more efficient. And, as with insulation, a federal tax credit is available for a new high efficiency furnace - up to $150 toward the purchase price.

- Give your water heater some attention, too.

Wrap your water heater with an insulating water heater blanket to minimize heat loss and turn down the thermostat.

Many manufacturers set the thermostats at 140 degrees, but 120 degrees is usually hot enough for all hot water needs.

If your water gets so hot that you have to mix it with cold water to use it, you are wasting money.