For people who live in cold-weather climates, the heating bills that arrive during the winter months can often be cause for consternation. Experts estimate that heating costs account for 35 percent to 50 percent of home energy expenditures for people who live in the northern United States.

But this winter has been a bear for just about everyone, and residents in cities such as Dallas that rarely see snow have experienced a winter wonderland.

So high efficiency heating is something many people need to know about. And heating one’s home efficiently is also smart for the planet.

There are a number of ways you can make sure you’re heating your home efficiently. And there are some issues to be aware of when tackling high efficiency heating. So let’s get started.

Big changes and small ones, too

When you’re talking about high-efficiency heating, there are big and small ways to get the job done.

And the first item to tackle is whether your boiler or furnace needs to be replaced.

It’s no small proposition buying a new heater. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, some older furnace and boiler systems have efficiency rates of between 56 percent and 70 percent. Meanwhile, newer, more modern heaters can have an efficiency rate of as much as 97 percent.

An old furnace.What does that mean? It means some high efficiency heating systems convert as much as 97 percent of the fuel spent into useful heat for a residence or space. And as a bonus, upgrading an old furnace or boiler to a new model with a 90 percent efficiency rate or higher can save 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year if you heat with gas (or 2.5 tons if you heat with oil), according to the DOE.

So how do you know if you should replace your heater? If the furnace or boiler is more than 20 years old, it’s probably a safe bet to replace it, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. It’s also wise to replace an old coal burning unit that at some point was converted to oil or gas.

If you have a newer furnace but are still concerned you’re not achieving high efficiency heating, you can consider retrofitting.

For gas-fired boilers and furnaces, the most common mode of retrofitting is adding a vent or flue vent damper. This modification prevents chimney losses by closing a boiler’s vent when it isn’t firing. According to the DOE, a damper works best with steam boilers, and with larger units.

There are also smaller ways to achieve high efficiency heating. Everyone should consider installing a programmable thermostat. In fact, you can save about 10 percent on heating and cooling costs every year by turning the thermostat down 10 to 15 degrees during the day when most people are away from home. Upgrading ductwork in forced-air systems is another way to improve efficiency. Poor insulation and leakage can cause duct systems to lose a lot of energy.

Space heaters

Portable space heaters can sometimes be efficient if you want to heat only one room, for example, and don’t want to turn up the heat for the whole house. They can also provide supplementary warmth in rooms that are hard to heat.

There are a few things to look for when buying a space heater. Consumers should only buy newer models that have all the current safety features and an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) label. Experts recommend a thermostatically-controlled heater since they will eliminate the waste of overheating a room.

Don’t go overboard

While it’s wise to turn down the thermostat during nonpeak usage times, experts say it’s possible to go overboard and cause damage to your home.

For example, some people turn off the heater when they go on vacation. Unfortunately, that can lead to frozen pipes, which will in turn lead to costly repairs, not home heating savings.

Homeowners should also be aware that the temperature near a home’s pipes is often lower than the temperature in various rooms of the house. It’s helpful to know where your pipes are.

Watch out for scams

Everyone is trying to lower heating costs and curb waste. But you do need to be careful because some companies are ready to exploit these trends and cost you money.

For example, many home heating companies offer fixed rate heating plans that are designed to protect customers from spikes in oil prices. But by opting for one of these plans, you only win if the price of oil goes up steeply. If it falls, you probably won’t enjoy any of the savings.

For more information on high efficiency heating, check out the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Savers website or the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy website.