Bill giving you a chill? We have answers.

Winter in the Midwest means low temperatures and . . . inevitably high utility bills? Well, certainly an increase isn’t uncommon: Your habits change, and wow does the weather change. In many cases, those elements do add up to more kilowatt hours and a hit to your budget.

How big that hit ends up being isn’t out of your hands, however.

“Don’t be shocked by an increased winter bill,” said NineStar Connect Energy Advisor Darrin Couch. “Heating and cooling make up 50% of overall electric costs. In fact, the cost of providing heat for your home is the single largest expense in most homes.

“If your bill doubles, it’s not about you using more lights or doing more laundry or other activities in the house—those remain fairly consistent. The variable is the weather.”

Can’t do anything about the temperatures. But that doesn’t mean you have no options. The first thing to consider is that innocent-looking, hot-air-blasting contraption at your feet.

“A lot of space heaters sell because they’re labeled as being 100% efficient,” Couch said. “But that doesn’t mean cheap to operate. Your toaster is 100% efficient. Anything that produces heat with electricity gives you a unit of heat for every unit of electricity.”

To compare, a natural gas furnace is approximately 98% efficient because the exhaust process loses energy. A heat pump is 300-400% efficient.

There’s a clear winner there, but even if you’re using a standard furnace, you’re probably better off maintaining a slightly higher set point than you are with using a space heater.

“If you put a space heater in a small room that the whole family is in and set the thermostat to 60 but that one room is 68 because of the space heater, you might be saving some money,” Couch said. “But most people don’t use it like that. They set the thermostat to 68 and use a space heater but aren’t offsetting anything.”

Even if you’re using a highly efficient heat pump, old habits might be getting in the way of your own energy savings. The programmable thermostat so lauded for keeping bills low? Great for standard furnaces and counterproductive for heat pump systems.

“That idea that you can turn down the thermostat while you’re at work to save isn’t the case,” Couch said. “If you set back the temperature five degrees while you’re at work and want to warm back up, it’s going to cause the auxiliary heat to kick on to satisfy the thermostat.

“The auxiliary heat can be four to five times more expensive than your heat pump, so if you’re changing the temperature more than two or three degrees, all the savings you get from the setback are lost to recovery. The best way to use your heat pump is to keep a constant conservative set point: 68 in winter, 74 in summer. If you’re going to be gone for several days, recover the temperature 2 to 3 degrees at a time.”

No matter your heating system, you’re throwing money out the windows and doors if your home isn’t sealed properly.

“A lot of people talk about insulation,” Couch said, “and most homes could benefit from additional insulation, but in most cases that’s not going to be the best investment you can make. Air sealing is a much better investment; use caulk or spray foam around windows, doors, and any penetrations through the walls or ceiling.

“It’s inexpensive compared to the cost of adding eight inches of insulation to your attic. The benefits in savings and comfort make sealing the much better investment.”

Find out more about sealing and other answers for winter here, and your Energy Advisor can help you find the right answers for your home.