When it comes to home heating, most people use good old natural gas or some other type of fuel.
And while gas prices did actually come back down this winter, there is still concern that they will skyrocket in the future.
With that in mind, there are ways to save on heating your home.
We have been following three choices since last fall, and now we are going to find out which one saves the most money.
The bad news for our heating bills this winter was that it was very cold. There were some shocking numbers for many of you, I'm sure.
We can do many cheaper things to save on heat, but eventually you might want to look at your actual heating system.
Since October, we have been following three homes. One was my family's home in South Bend, where we put in a high-efficiency gas furnace. Another was the Riggs family home in Granger, where they had a heat pump installed. The third home belongs to the Sherrick family near Rolling Prairie. They installed a geothermal system.
All three saved money this winter, but just how much?
To keep this as scientific as possible, in our home -- and the others, for that matter -- we kept everything the same. In other words, we didn't add any insulation in the walls or the ceiling, we didn't change the windows to try to save energy, and we kept the thermostat the same as last winter.
In order to compare this winter with the past one, I had to factor in the difference in temperature, electricity, and fuel in order to come up with a close estimate of savings.
We were very happy with our new high-efficiency gas furnace, which squeezes about as much heat from the natural gas as possible.
Besides saving us money, it warmed things up much more quickly in the mornings after we lowered the thermostat at night.
We are heating a 2,400-square-foot old home with no insulation in the walls and steel windows, so it's still not going to be cheap.
We spent $1,631 for heat overall, but it would have been at least $500 more with the old furnace. We could pay off the system in just over seven years at this rate.
The advantages are the energy savings, the faster warm-up, and that natural gas is easily available.
The disadvantages are the initial cost and the fact that you are still dependent on the cost of natural gas.
"While it was a cold winter, it seemed to work real well in the times where we got those warm-up periods which, after it hits above freezing, the heat pump kicks in," explains Dean Riggs. "But more importantly, it was more comfortable with the heat pump this year."
That is because a heat pump runs a lot, only slowly taking the heat from the outside air. Because of that, you don't get the temperature ups and downs of a normal system.
Dean and Peg Riggs were also happy when NIPSCO dropped their monthly budget amount by $50. That definitely helped.
The Riggs family spent just under $1,200 to heat their 2,700-square-foot home, which is not bad for a cold winter. They saved about $100 overall. At that rate of savings, they would be able to pay off their system in 21 years.
However, this was not an ideal winter for a heat pump. It was very cold, so they would probably save twice this amount during a normal winter.
The advantages are the comfort of the steady temperature, and the fact that it uses electricity, which is not as volatile on the price as a fuel.
The disadvantages are that it is not as efficient in really cold weather, and it would probably take longer to pay back.
"[With the] initial investment, the large cost that we had, we were very skeptical, very hesitant, very reluctant," John Sherrick admits. "But after this winter -- and as you know this was a very cold winter -- we were very pleasantly surprised. The unit itself exceeded our expectations."
John and Mandi Sherrick had huge savings from their geothermal system. By using free ground heat, one really only pays for the electricity to pump it inside.
They also switched from a propane furnace, and since propane shot up 24 percent this past winter, their savings increased even more.
The Sherricks only spent about $560 to heat their 2,200-square-foot home. With propane it would have been over $2,500. They even set their thermostat two degrees higher.
They saved a minimum of $2,000, which would pay off the system -- after tax credits -- in only six years. And the tax credits from the government are now even higher.
The advantages are the even heating, the fact that electricity is used -- which is less volatile on the price -- and the year-round savings from hot water and air-conditioning.
The disadvantages are the huge initial cost and the fact that country settings work better than city settings.
In conclusion, new systems cost a lot of money and you have to decide whether it's worth the six to 10 years to make your money back. Of course, after that, you continue to save.
And if your system needs to be replaced anyway, the extra cost for an efficient system is probably worth it.