PEORIA — Don't say they didn't warn us. The colder temperatures that socked central Illinois — and the northern United States — this week were forecast this winter.

Expected colder weather and higher energy costs are expected to raise average household expenditures for all major home heating fuels, the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted in its Winter Fuels Outlook, released in October.

Temperatures across the United States are expected to be 13 percent colder than last winter, which was much warmer than normal, the agency noted.

The cold snap that hit the Peoria area this week has done more than close the outdoor ice rink in Downtown Peoria on Wednesday, when temperatures dropped to 8 degrees below zero. The below-freezing temperatures have also sent heating contractors into high gear.

"When it gets cold like this, our business skyrockets," said Chris Baumann, one of the owners of AAA-Northgate Heating, Air Conditioning & Insulation, 719 Sabrina Drive, East Peoria.

On a typical winter day, Northgate's eight technicians will make between 20 and 30 calls, he said. But when temperatures drop like they have this week — with the expectation of single-digit temperatures running until next week — the number of calls "more than doubles," said Baumann.

Problems on home heaters are "all over the board," he said, adding that many of the calls result from homeowners who haven't had their furnaces checked on an annual basis.

"We go into some homes that have been without heat for a day or two. People fire up space heaters to get by. When it's 40 degrees out, you can go awhile, but when it's this cold, you can't wait," said Baumann.

Sometimes it makes more sense to replace an old unit outright rather than spend $500 on an old furnace, he said. "In the last decade, advances in heating efficiency have gone through the roof. Ninety percent of the furnaces we install now are 96 percent efficient or better," he said.

The efficiency rating represents the percentage of fuel consumed by a furnace that contributes to useable heat vs. what's lost in the combustion process. Furnaces rated at 90 percent or above are considered high-efficiency models. 

Mark Sceggel, general manager at Meister Heating & Air Conditioning, 711 S. Kickapoo Road, said advanced furnace technology is one reason why the downturn in temperatures hasn't proved to be even more of a problem. "Pilot lights being out on furnaces used to be a problem. Now you've got self-diagnostics out there. Some of the modern furnaces will wait and try again if something isn't right. Homeowners never knew they had a problem," he said.

Homeowners need to make sure furnace filters are clean, said Sceggel. "If the filter is plugged, the furnace can trip out," he said.

Joseph Milton, vice president at Fritch Heating and Cooling Inc., 1004 NE Adams St., said the winter routine has changed for the company's 25 technicians.

"When it's mild, we're primarily involved with maintenance and checkups. When it's cold like it is now, what we call 'demand weather,' it's all hands on deck," he said.

"Cold weather exacerbates the problem. When the furnace is forced to run 75 to 100 percent of the time — instead of just 30 to 40 percent, a breakdown is more likely," said Milton.

The city of Peoria offers an emergency repair program for qualifying homeowners with faulty furnaces. To be eligible, homeowners must have homeowners insurance, pass income qualifications, be up to date on property taxes and not owe any fees or fines to the city. Their mortgage payments must also be up to date. For more information, contact the city's Justin Mishler at 494-8652.

City codes require that landlords must provide enough heat for tenants to maintain a room temperature of no less than 65 degrees between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. and no less than 60 degrees during other hours. Renters who aren't receiving adequate heat should call the city's Community Development Department at 494-8654.

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.