-- When cold winds blow this winter, consumers are going to have to pay more to keep their homes warm. That makes energy conservation an important goal.

Crude oil prices have climbed to more than $50 a barrel, making heating oil, natural gas and propane more expensive this year.

The Energy Information Administration, a division of the Energy Department, estimates that home heating oil users face an average bill of $1,223 for this year's winter season, up 28 percent from $953 last year. Natural gas customers and propane users will also be paying 15 to 20 percent more, the agency said.

The only way to combat the higher prices is to try to use fuel as efficiently as possible, said Jack Sullivan, executive director of the New England Fuel Institute, an association of retail oil dealers based in Watertown, Mass.

"Consumers have to start thinking differently than they have been," Sullivan said. "We think at some point prices will come off these levels . . . but they're not going to drop dramatically."

There are many things homeowners and renters can do to conserve energy that don't cost a lot, said Rozanne Weissman of the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy in Washington.

"We're urging consumers to take steps now to prepare their homes for winter so they don't suffer price shocks in January and February, when the highest bills come in," she said. "They can do it in a smart way -- be comfortable, but bring down their [energy] usage and the cost."

The first step is to do everything possible to keep heat from escaping from your home. That can save 10 percent or more on your energy bill, Weissman said.

"On a windy day, hold a lit candle next to windows, doors, electrical outlets and light fixtures," she said. "If the smoke travels horizontally, you've found an air leak."

The solution is caulking, weather-stripping or additional insulating material.

If you've got a southern exposure, keep your curtains open during the day to take advantage of warming sun rays. If you've got a fireplace, keep the damper closed when it's not in use.

Turning down your thermostat by just a few degrees can cut 5 to 10 percent off a heating bill, Weissman said.

It's also important for consumers to make sure their furnaces or heat pumps are in good working order. That often requires professional maintenance, Weissman said. But she added that "just replacing filters can help make the system work more efficiently."

Another energy-saving tip is to turn the thermostat on the water heater down to 120 degrees from the more-typical 140 degrees. "Most people won't notice the difference," Weissman said.

The alliance this year launched Powerful Savings, a campaign developed with the Energy Department to help consumers lower energy bills and the nation reduce energy consumption. Energy-saving tips can be found on its Web site at www.ase.org/consumers.

Another good source of energy efficiency ideas can be found at www.energysavers.gov, a site maintained by the Energy Department's office of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

There are also steps that consumers can take that may cost a little now, but will be rewarded with energy savings later.

One of the best investments is a programmable thermostat, which can cut fuel bills by as much as 10 percent, said Wendy Reed, a spokeswoman for the government's Energy Star program.

Programmable thermostats let families adopt a preset schedule for adjusting the heat. A family could, for example, set it for lower temperatures when no one is at home and when everyone is asleep.

Such programmable thermostats cost $30 to $100, Reed said. "You'll get it back quickly," she said of the return on investment. "We estimate the average homeowner could save about $100 a year."

When it comes to investing in new storm windows or a new furnace or other energy-consuming appliances, Reed recommends consumers look for the "energy star" on products they're considering. To earn an energy star, a product must meet strict energy-efficiency guidelines set by the Energy Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Information can be found at www.energystar.gov.

Reed added that even the more energy-efficient products need to be used wisely.

"We tell people, for example, 'Only run the dishwasher with a full load,' " Reed said. "The same goes for the clothes washer and dryer."