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As heating costs loom, consumers make plans

Cindy Workman isn't waiting until the snow starts falling to prepare for the winter heating season.

When a friend told her recently that he was clearing land on his farm, Workman happily agreed to take wood from the felled trees. She'll burn it in the cast-iron stove in her living room so she can cut down on the amount of natural gas needed to heat her Omaha home.

''I dread seeing what the heating bills are going to be," said Workman, a media coordinator for Creighton University in Omaha.

The run-up in crude oil prices already has sent gasoline prices to record levels nationwide and will likely lead to a spike in home heating costs. So many consumers like Workman are seeking ways to control soaring heating bills.

A recent report from the US Department of Energy indicates that home heating fuel prices could rise as much as 21 percent this winter.

A mild winter could help hold down fuel use and thus its cost. But consumers still may want to consider strategies to limit the bite that heating costs take out of their budgets. These include:

Ordering fuel oil and propane tank deliveries in late summer and early fall, when prices generally are lower.

Negotiating fuel delivery contracts for the entire season, although some heating oil companies no longer offer fixed-price deals because crude oil markets are too volatile.

Checking with gas utilities to determine if they have ''customer choice options," which allow homeowners to buy fuel from competing companies.

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