Staying warm will cost less this winter

An auto meanders through a graveyard of broken, ice-covered trees Thursday, January 29, 2009, in Sikeston. (Fred Lynch)

WASHINGTON -- Staying warm won't be quite as expensive this winter.

People who heat with natural gas should do especially well, seeing their lowest bills in five years. But no matter what fuel is used, heating costs are expected to take less of a bite out of household budgets in the coming months -- from $20 to as much as $280 lower than last winter depending on what fuel is used, the government said.

An expected milder winter, along with lower fuel costs, should cut average residential heating expenditures by 8 percent from last year, the Energy Information Administration said in its annual winter outlook Tuesday.

The nearly 58 million households that use natural gas stand to save about $105 compared with last year, and propane users will get an even bigger break -- as much as $280. More modest reductions, $20 to $60, are expected for people who use electricity or fuel oil to heat their homes.

The federal agency, which keeps track of energy statistics and trends, cautioned that its projections are overall averages based on broadly expected weather conditions and fuel supply and cost trends. How much a family actually spends also will depend on local weather, the size and energy efficiency of their home and the efficiency of furnaces and other heating equipment.

But generally the news is good for consumers already hammered by the economic downturn and possibly worried about keeping jobs.

According to the EIA, households are expected to pay an average of $783, nearly 12 percent less than last winter, for natural gas, and $1,821 for heating oil, about 2 percent lower. People using electric heat will pay about $933, a decline of 2 percent, and those using propane $1,667, a 14 percent drop.

The report covers the winter period from October through March.