Heating and cooling accounts for about 30 percent of electricity consumption and about 70 percent of gas consumption, according to a UC Berkeley study. As much as people grumble in the summer months about high energy bills, wait until old man winter rolls in this year!

Natural gas (NG) prices are projected to rise in the winter months (aren’t they always?) to unprecedented levels. Sometimes the prices for NG and fuel oil do go through the roof as demand peaks in the winter, and sometimes the “old man” takes it easy on us. This year, The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts some major cold weather beginning as early as Thanksgiving in much of the North and severe cold in early December. After that, it’s up and down through early March 2009.

So, how much does it really cost to operate a furnace? To make this easy, let’s just use the Berkeley stats and say my furnace is the low efficient 78 AFUE. The average cost for a 78 percent AFUE furnace is $1,043, the average cost for a 93 percent AFUE furnace is $1,412.

I know my winter bills have hit $300 per month regularly in the past, and given the Berkeley study, that can mean $210 is heating my house, and even more if the water heating is counted.

The simple annual cost of heating my house in Cleveland is going to be about $210 x 6 (mths) = $1,260. Therefore, my total cost is really $1,043 + $1,260 = $2,303.

Over 10 years, the installed and energy costs are actually $13,643.

If I had a 93 AFUE furnace, here is what would happen. My heating costs would be about 15 percent less. My total annual cost would now be the more expensive furnace and the lower monthly bills: $1,412 + $1,071 = $2,483.

Over 10 years, the installed and energy costs of the more efficient system are $12,122.

If the cost of NG didn’t change over 10 years then my investment in high efficiency is worth $1,521. Would most customers be willing to pay a little more up front for about $1,500? Ask them if they are willing to bet that NG prices hold steady for the next 10 years.