Heat is an amenity most Americans take for granted. On cold, wintry days, people expect to return to a warm house after work.

However, that amenity can be an expensive one, and although energy costs nationwide actually are on a downward trend, that trend may not translate to a cheaper heating bill for homeowners this winter.

Craig Clough, Harvey County appraiser, said the most common method used to heat homes in Harvey County is a natural gas furnace. Other methods, such as electric heaters and propane heat, also are used. Less common are steam heating systems and "zone heating," which allows homeowners to control the temperatures in each part of the home.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's 2013 outlook on energy prices, increasing natural gas production will keep natural gas prices low. Electricity costs also are expected to drop, thanks to the decline in natural gas prices.

However, Westar Energy's electricity rates will be going up in 2013 — a paradox explained by Jeff Martin, executive director of regulatory affairs at Westar.

As federal environmental regulations become stricter, he said costs to meet those guidelines go up, and, in turn, so do Westar's costs of doing business.

"All utilities are facing similar regulations," he said.

Other operating expenses — such as labor costs, materials, and health-care for employees — also factor into the rates Westar charges customers for electricity.

Martin said Westar tries to keep costs as low as possible and draws on a variety of fuels to generate energy — including wind, natural gas, coal and nuclear power.

"That gives us that balanced portfolio that we can be flexible with," he said.

Martin said electricity rates in Kansas still are below national averages, and customers probably will continue to see minor rate increases the next few years, depending on changes in federal regulations.

Westar currently serves about 700,000 customers in Kansas, including the Wichita metro area. Martin invites customers who would like to learn more about Westar's operations and reasons for rate increases to visit www.westarenergy.com.