Keep a wary eye on your thermostat 

With the recent cold spell on the wane, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers are being warned to turn down the heat fast if they want to avoid a colossal bill next month.

In late November, PG&E announced that natural gas bills were expected to drop by 15 percent this month compared with a year ago, when hurricane damage to the Gulf Coast and lower-than-normal supplies sent prices through the roof. This week’s colder-than-expected weather, however, could change all of that.

"Now with our cold weather, as of Monday, forecasted natural gas demand was 37 percent higher than what is typically forecasted for a day in December," PG&E spokeswoman Melissa Mooney said. "Sunday’s usage was 23 percent above what it typically is for this time of year," she said.

And that means this month’s bill could be higher than expected, even though gas prices are down a few cents this week compared with the week before and on a slight but steady decline, according to California Energy Commission spokesman Rob Schlichting.

"Weather is themost potent variable," Mooney said. "If we anticipated gas bills being lower because of natural gas prices, that’s with usage being the same from year-to-year. But this week, because of the arctic cold front, our natural gas usage is higher."

Gas bills in California typically spike in winter, according to the energy commission, as about 30 percent of all the energy used in a home goes for heating and cooling. Last winter, households averaged $88 per month, and $78 per month the prior winter, according to PG&E.

The National Weather Service predicts temperatures will continue increasing after hitting lows in the 30s in San Francisco and the Peninsula earlier this week, NWS spokesman Bob Benjamin said. So now is the time to turn off the heat, make your home energy-efficient and save some cash, Mooney said.

Customers can start taking advantage now of PG&E’s January and February customer credit program, she said. The 10/20 plan compares customers’ monthly gas usage with their own record low over the past three years, and for every 1 percent decrease in usage, customers will get a 1 percent credit. For a 10 percent usage decrease, a customer will receive a 20 percent bill credit.

The best ways to save? PG&E and the nonprofit public interest group CALPIRG recommend sealing holes in walls and ceilings with caulk, placing weather stripping around doors and windows and keeping the thermostat below 68 degrees.

Tips to save money

Here are some ways to conserve:

» Thermostat: Keep it set at 68 degrees or lower at night and when you’re away from home for more than four hours.

» Water heater: Turn it down to 120 degrees and make sure it’s wrapped in a water-heating blanket. Heating water can suck up as much as 25 percent of a residential gas bill.

» Appliances: Those labeled as having "Energy Star" technology use 10 percent to 50 percent less energy than standard models.

» Windows and doors: Gaps let cold air in. Use caulk to close holes in walls and ceilings and use weather-stripping adhesives to keep windows and doors in place. Open your blinds on sunny days.

-Sources: CALPIRG and PG&E

eholt@examiner.com

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