Cold weather can mean more than snow shoveling and ice on your car windows. For most consumers, winter weather brings with it higher energy bills. Not only do you tend to use more energy in colder months, some utilities implement higher rates during the winter.

However, there are a number of simple steps you can take to keep your energy bills in check. Some of these steps cost nothing to implement.

For example, just cleaning or replacing the filter on your heating system on a regular basis can save money. Dirty filters block air flow through your heating and cooling systems, increasing your energy bill and shortening the equipments life.

Activate "sleep" features on computers and office equipment that power down when not in use for a while. Turn off equipment during longer periods of non-use to cut energy costs and improve longevity. For example, if you are going away for a weekend, turn off computers and other equipment before you go.

When cooking, keep the lids on pots. Covering a pot traps the heat inside and cooks the food faster, using less energy. To use even less energy when cooking, use a microwave oven whenever possible. When cooking, speed usually saves energy and money.

A fireplace may be romantic but they can be huge energy wasters, especially in cold weather. If you have glass doors over your fireplace opening, keep them closed. Also, close the fireplace damper when not in use.

About 15 percent of an average home energy bill goes to heating water. To save hot water, take five-minute showers instead of baths. Do only full loads when using the clothes washer or dishwasher. Lower the temperature on your water heater. It should be set at "warm," so that a thermometer held under running water reads no more than 130 degrees.

Small investment

By making a very small investment in energy saving improvements, you can increase savings even more. Consider installing low-flow shower heads and sink aerators to reduce hot water use.

Seal and weatherstrip your windows and doors to ensure that you're not wasting energy on heat or air conditioning that escapes through leaks to the outdoors. Materials for this job are inexpensive, but can yield big savings, while increasing comfort, by reducing drafts.

You can make your hot water tank more efficient by investing about $20 for an insulation that wraps around the tank. Add pre-cut pipe insulation to exposed pipes going into your water heater -- it is cheap and easy to install. If youre starting with an uninsulated tank, the energy savings should pay for the improvements in just a few months.

A lot of heat escapes through leaky windows. Storm windows can reduce heat lost by single-paned windows by 2550 percent during the winter. As an alternative, you can improve your windows temporarily with plastic sheeting installed on the inside.

Remember, a house is as energy efficient as its weakest link. When you begin making improvements, focus first on the biggest energy wasters and take care of the problems with no-cost solutions before you start spending money. You may be surprised at how much money just a little effort can save each month.