Q: After last winter, I’m determined to reducing my heating hosts without sacrificing comfort. How can I lower my heating bills and still stay warm? — Charlie B, Littleton

A. As the weather turns colder, the cost of heating homes is on the minds of many in the state. Fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take to lower your heating costs this winter.

Lower your thermostat

Every degree you lower the thermostat reduces your fuel costs by about 2 percent. Adjusting your thermostat from 73 to 68 degrees in the winter will typically save about 10 percent in fuel bills. If you continually forget to lower the temperature, a programmable thermostat can help. They cost about $50 but will pay for themselves in the first year.

There's a common misconception that it takes more energy to raise the temperature of a previously unoccupied home to a comfortable range than it does to maintain a comfortable temperature consistently, regardless of whether the home is occupied. This simply isn't true. If no one is going to be home, turn the heat down; you'll save.

Keep up with regular maintenance

Having your heating system professionally serviced can reduce your fuel costs by 10 percent of more. As a general rule, oil systems should be cleaned and serviced annually, while gas systems should be serviced every other year. Have the technician check that the pilot light and thermostat are working properly, check for cracks in the ventilation system and heat exchanger, and test the system’s efficiency. This basically tells you how well your system is converting fuel to heat.

Consider replacing your heating system

If your furnace or boiler is more than 15 years old, consider replacing it with a new Energy Star-qualified heating system. These models use 6 percent to 15 percent less fuel than non-Energy Star systems. Visit the Energy Star web site for a list of retailers and qualifying models. There are also ongoing state and federal incentive programs to make improvements more affordable.

Seal air leaks

Many small air leaks around windows, doors, piping, lighting fixtures, fireplace dampers, attic hatches, bulkhead doors and the like can add up to significant heat loss. Seal up these leaks with caulking, weather stripping, insulation and plastic film.

Fireplaces with dampers that don’t seal tightly can contribute significantly to heat loss. Warm air naturally rises, and your fireplace flue may be allowing large amounts of heat to escape. Foam board insulation cut to fit snugly in the opening while the fireplace is not in use will reduce heat loss. There are also special fireplace balloons available that can be placed in the chimney just above the firebox and inflated to tightly seal any air leaks.

Another significant source of air leaks is ductwork. Several studies have indicated that sealing ductwork alone can result in an average annual savings of 17 percent. Seal ductwork joints with high-quality foil tape or mastic paste. Despite the name, duct tape doesn't work well, so avoid it.

While sealing you home’s leaks, remember that your home also needs to "breathe." Harmful flue gases from the heating system and mold can accumulate in homes without adequate ventilation. A blower-door test can determine if you have sufficient ventilation. To learn more about energy audits, which generally include blower door testing, visit New Hampshire Saves.

Stay safe and warm

According to the National Fire Protection Association, around 18 percent of all reported home fires are caused by heating equipment. The majority of those fires could have been prevented by following manufacturers’ instructions and maintaining equipment properly. Two great resources to ensure your safety this season are Safe, Efficient Wood Burning from UNH Cooperative Extension and Home Heating Safety from UMaine Extension.

Finally, for those looking to take action this year to save money while staying safe and warm, consider attending one of the Button Up NH Home Weatherization Workshops offered throughout the state. The next one is Dec. 14 in Bow. For additional resources, visit the Natural Resources Energy section of the UNH Extension website.

Jeremy Delisle is program coordinator for the UNH Cooperative Extension Education Center. The center answers questions about gardening and more at answers@unh.edu, or call (877) 398-4769 between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.