With federal energy-efficiency tax credits set to expire by year's end, now is the perfect time to explore home improvements that would save money on monthly electric and natural-gas bills.

With federal energy-efficiency tax credits set to expire by year's end, now is the perfect time to explore home improvements that would save money on monthly electric and natural-gas bills.

The tax credit began in 2009 and expires in December 2010. It will cover 30 percent of project costs up to $1,500. Multiple projects are eligible, so several home improvements made over the two years can apply for the $1,500 tax credit.

Rental properties and the new construction of homes do not qualify, and only a customer's primary residence is eligible.

Eligible project categories include:

Windows and doors, including sliding glass doors;, garage doors, storm doors and storm windows

Insulation

Metal and asphalt roofs

HVAC equipment, such as central air conditioners, air source heat pumps, furnaces and boilers

Water heaters

Biomass stoves

More details can be found through the "Tax Credits for Energy Efficiency" link at www.energystar.gov.

Often, homeowners identify needed energy efficiency projects through either a do-it-yourself or a professionally-conducted audit.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel has worked to encourage Ohio's utility companies to offer energy-efficiency programs to Ohio consumers.

Professional audits at a reduced cost are available in some areas.

For example, Columbia Gas of Ohio's Home Performance Solutions program offers audits at a significant discount to customers. Depending on income levels, customers pay $20 or $50, which is applied to any audit-based energy-efficient measures the customer installs.

A contractor will evaluate the home and make cost-effective recommendations for insulation, air sealing or furnace replacement.

Customers who take advantage of the recommendations receive significant discounts for making the suggested home improvements.

To find out which programs are available with their local electric or natural-gas utility, consumers can visit www.pickocc.org/savings, call 1-877-742-5622 or contact their utility.

A do-it-yourself room-by-room energy audit can help you identify the best and most economical ways to reduce your energy bills.

For more information about home energy audits, contact the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse toll free at 1-800-363-3732 or at www.eere. energy.gov/consumer.

When major projects are completed, a long-term investment is made that will continue to provide consumers with the benefit of lower utility bills month after month.

Janine Migden Ostrander is Ohio Consumers' Counsel.