COLUMBIA, Mo.-Consumers may take some solace in forecasts for a winter of above-normal temperatures across the Midwest, but also should take steps to offset soaring heating costs, said a University of Missouri Extension housing specialist.

"There are some relatively inexpensive steps you can take to keep your heating bills from going through the roof," said Barbara Buffaloe.

Forecasts from the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center anticipate temperatures this winter to be warmer than normal for much of the U.S., including Missouri. But heating oil users will pay about 36 percent more on average to warm their homes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Homeowners with natural gas will pay almost 24 percent more than they did last year.

In many homes, a lot of heat escapes through the roof, cracks in walls, and gaps around windows, doors and pipes. Homeowners can ease the shock of fuel costs by reclaiming some of that lost heat.

Twelve inches of attic insulation is recommended in Missouri, Buffaloe said. Exposed air ducts in the attic allow heat to dissipate even before it enters the house, making the furnace work harder, so wrap or cover these ducts with insulation.

"Depending on the size of your house, for a couple hundred dollars you can probably save 10 to 15 percent on your winter heating bill," she said.

Weatherstrip your doors and apply caulk around pipes. A few tubes of caulk, which cost $3 or $4 each, could save you several hundred dollars, she said.

Lifestyle can also play a role in reducing heating bills. Open south-facing curtains during sunny days to benefit from free solar heat, Buffaloe said. Set the thermostat a degree or two lower. For each degree you lower the thermostat, you can save an estimated 3 percent in heating fuel costs.

A thermostat setting of 65 to 68 degrees provides enough heat for normal daytime activity, although children and the elderly may need higher temperatures. Because people need less heat when sleeping, Buffaloe recommends a thermostat setting of 60 degrees for nighttime hours.

Have a reputable specialist service your furnace before the heating season; this could reduce your fuel bill as much as 10 percent. If the furnace is fired by oil or gas, make sure the furnace and flue outlets and filters are cleaned or changed and the motor is in working order. Check furnace filters every two months during the heating season.