Homeowners can expect to pay 30 percent more for their heating oil this winter, according to a energy outlook released by the Department of Energy. DOE economist David Costello blamed the higher prices largely on a rise in crude oil prices, which reached $19 a barrel last August - an increase of as much as $9 a barrel since last winter.

Consumers got treated to unusually low heating costs during the last two winters because of depressed oil prices and mild weather.

Crude oil prices were as low as $10 a barrel at the beginning of last winter.

"I don't think the price of oil is that much more than it was just a couple of years ago," adds Alan Levi, OSI, an oil dealer and contractor based in Long Island, N.Y. "It's just that it collapsed to a ridiculously low price."

In addition to higher crude prices, the DOE report also predicts the return of "normal" weather. Hence, the demand for more heating oil will only push up the price of oil even more. Costello figures the price will go over $21 before next spring.

Interestingly enough, the report also says Y2K concerns may also contribute to higher heating prices as customer stock up to avert any computer glitches. Levi for one, however, says he's seen no evidence of his customers building their own private reserves.

Meanwhile, natural gas prices at the producer level have also increased and Costello says homeowners should expect to see their residential gas bills increase 17 percent this winter.