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Sock away some firewood as a fill-in heating fuel now before the rush, fill up your heating oil tank before prices rise more and give your home the once over to determine how you can save on heating costs. One too many cold snaps this winter could break the budgets of households ill prepared for what it's going to cost to keep the hearth warm by heating with gas or oil this winter.

Crude, the raw material for heating oil, soared above $50 a barrel for the first time ever last week, pushing heating costs to nearly twice what they were a year ago due to unrest in Nigeria, the world's seventh-largest oil exporter.

By Monday, militia seeking more control over Nigeria's oil reserves agreed to disarm, and even with no new forecasts for hurricanes in the U.S.'s Gulf of Mexico oil-producing region, a barrel of crude dropped to only pennies less than $50. Don't expect OPEC to come to the rescue.

Heating oil for November delivery increased to $1.40 per gallon yesterday on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) -- just about twice what it was a year ago.

Natural gas was in good supply last week, but the NYMEX futures contract soared to a new high of $8.20 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas by Thursday. If that wasn't enough, colder-than-normal weather is forecast for some U.S. regions this winter thanks to what appears to be the beginning of a new, weak El Nino weather pattern. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration forecast in it's last long-term outlook that a weak El Nino typically points to cold snaps in the Southeast and Northern Great Plains.

To reduce the cost of heating as much as possible, first check with your local power utility for free energy audit inspections, assistance and referrals for additional energy saving information.

Even if you are strapped for cash because you've budgeted for a big heating bill, power utilities have money-saving ideas that can help you save money you'd otherwise burn in heating costs. Insulating, caulking, weather-stripping and other low-cost measures can save a you bundle and keep you warmer this winter. Major energy-efficient home improvements could increase your home's value and help you quality for an Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM).

For a fee, seek a professional Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Checkup from the Department of Energy's Energy Star program. The affiliated Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) offers a list of certified HERS providers.

A variety of online tools also let you do-it-yourself. They include Energy Star's "Home Energy Advisor," Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's "Home Energy Saver" and the Alliance To Save Energy's "Home Energy Checkup and Audit."

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