Payson resident Bob Schwenke takes conserving energy seriously. He had to -- it was his job for 40 years to design heating and air conditioning systems for commercial enterprises, including hospitals and universities, and some homes.
He insists that there is plenty you can do to lower your energy usage in your home, which will lead to saving you money in the end.
"The most important thing you can do right from the start is to change the air filters in your home. Air filters cost between $1 and $10, and you get what you pay for. A lot of people don't realize that dirt and dust build up in those filters, and that ends up costing you in the long run," he said.
This recent cold snap may have some people who use propane gas wondering what they can do to cut their costs. According to Energy West, more than half of Payson's population uses propane to heat their homes. A variety of factors drive the cost of propane.
Doug Mann, president of Energy West -- Propane Division for Arizona -- said a few things are driving up prices.
"Probably the biggest problem is the United States hasn't built a refinery for more than 20 years. We are too dependent upon foreign refineries. They charge us much more than U.S. refineries charge," he said.
The cost for imported oil, he said, has nearly doubled. "Currently it's at about $63 a barrel, but two years ago, it was $27," he said.
Not in my back yard
Mann said the consensus among the public and environmental groups seems to be "NIMBY" -- or the not-in-my-back-yard mentality -- has caused considerable trouble for consumers.
"For the last 35 years, every time someone suggests building a refinery in the United States, people have said, ‘not in my backyard, or not in my town.' This has put us in a bad position. We're too dependent upon companies in the Middle East," he said.
Where our fuel comes from
Here's how it works -- in Payson, we get our propane from a refinery in New Mexico. That refinery has many options about what type of fuel it makes, and to whom it will sell the product. The bottom line is, if the New Mexico refinery can make more money selling its product to California for its energy program than by selling it to propane companies in Payson or other Arizona communities, it will do just that.
Countries in the Far East are also bidding on our oil supplies, and helping to drive up costs. Therefore, the supply and demand greatly impacts the cost of propane.
If you have an underground gas line to your home, right now you're paying about $1.64 per gallon for propane. Last year it was $1.40. So, in one year there was a 17 percent increase, according to Mann.
If you have a propane tank, your costs per gallon are about 4-cents a gallon more this year.
Another reason gas prices may be higher this year is that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, people, and some members of the media, assumed the shutdown of the Gulf refineries would drive up costs. Mann said that created a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
"Both hurricanes impacted the actual production capacity, and then the speculation caused by the impact of the hurricanes helped drive up prices even more," Mann said.
Another problem, according to Mann, has to do with the way propane companies store their gas. Energy West buys propane all year round and in the past has saved money by buying more during the summer when consumption is down. Trouble is, gas prices have been steadily increasing, so gas companies haven't been able to save much money either.
What can you do to lower your energy costs? Set your thermostat at 68 degrees during the day, and at the low 60s during the night. If that's a little too chilly for you, then throw on a sweater.
Schwenke advises that you check the belts on your furnace blower. If you can't do it yourself, find a qualified HVAC person to check things over for you. It could save you money over time.
If you have an older furnace, he also recommends you look into buying a more energy efficient one.
According to Mann, if you have a furnace with a standing pilot light, it is only about 60 percent efficient. That means about 40 percent of your heat is not going inside your home, but outside, and you're heating the great outdoors.
If you spend about $1,000 a year on propane, but bought a new furnace that was 80 percent efficient, you could save about $200 in one year in energy costs. A one-stage type furnace costs between $1,400 and $2,300, but over just a couple of years it would be worth it.
Dave North, with North Mechanical of Payson said getting a more efficient furnace makes sense, but even better is a two-stage furnace with at least 80 percent efficiency. North said two-stage units use up to 60 percent less propane than most of the typical new one stage units. He said the two-stage units range in price from $2,600 to $3,600.
"It costs a little more to install a two-stage unit, but many people save a lot of money after just one season," said North.
If you qualify for federal assistance, you may also receive help paying your heating bills through the county. Energy West also offers a set monthly payment plan to help.
Energy West has a Web site you can visit to get ideas on saving money on your gas bill, at www.ewst.com. Also, you can check www.usepropane. com for more consumer tips.
The bottom line in all of this is: this winter, with rising fuel costs, you need to be smarter about making your home energy efficient. Looking at replacing air filters and furnaces is certainly important. At least set your thermostat down, and plan to wear a sweater.