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Rising costs put heat on consumers

Expect much higher bills for gas and electric this winter

Expect to pay more — and in some instances, much more — this winter to heat your home, whether it’s by natural gas, heating oil or electricity.

Higher prices combined with higher consumption in what’s forecast to be a colder winter this year than last is driving the anticipated rise, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Across the U.S., home heating on average is estimated to increase by 17.8 percent from last winter to $1,208, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which also reports between the 2020-21 and the 2022-23 winter heating seasons, the cost of home energy has jumped 36 percent.

Adding to the problem, arrearages haven’t come down, according to the directors’ association.

As of August, the directors’ association estimates the national arrearage balance is almost $16.1 billion, which is nearly unchanged since August 2021. That means 1 in 6 households — about 20 million households — in the U.S. are behind on their heating utility bills, according to the association.

The rise in home energy costs, Mark Wolfe, executive director of the directors’ association, said in a news release “will put millions of lower-income families at risk of falling behind on their energy bills and having no choice but to make difficult decisions between paying for food, medicine and rent.”

One outlier is Midwest consumers of propane. They can expect to pay about what they did last year.

BY THE NUMBERS

The most recent short-term outlook from the EIA contains some bone-chilling numbers for the winter heating season, which runs October through March.

According to the latest data, those who rely on natural gas — which heats nearly half of all U.S. households — will spend about $900 this season, an increase of 25 percent from 2021-22.

In the Midwest, natural gas users can expect to pay about $995 for their seasonal bill. That’s up 31 percent from last year, according to the U.S. agency, largely due to low inventories.

The approximately 4 percent of U.S. households that use heating oil as their No. 1 heating fuel can expect a seasonal bill of about $2,694.

That’s an increase of 45 percent over last year, and the greatest percentage jump among the four main heating sources.

At Newton Falls-based diesel and heating oil suppliers Falls Home Oil Co., some customers already are feeling the pinch, owner Evaline Cutlip said.

“But come the middle of the winter I really worry a lot about my customers,” who, if they don’t have extra help might be faced with choosing between heating their home and other vital needs like food or medicine, she said.

To ease the pain, Falls Home Oil Co. allows customers to enroll in a 10-month budget program. It’s made a big difference, Cutlip said.

The program allows customers to start paying in June for heating oil deliveries that start in late October or early November. Their tank would be filled and then topped off every month for as long as their balance will allow, but she expects “that budget money will start to run out quick” with the increased price.

Also, customers can sign up for automatic delivery. Doing so helps keeps the tanks full and helps customers avoid a minimum delivery fee is the supply runs too low. A minimum delivery is 150 gallons, she said.

The business also is feeling the squeeze. Her delivery trucks run on diesel fuel, which has gone up in price, and has caused her expenses to increase.

ELECTRIC HEATING

Meanwhile, households that heat primarily with electricity will spend $1,366 for the season, an 11 percent increase from last year. Midwest electric users will spend 8 percent more for a bill of about $1,440.

The estimated bill for users of propane, which heats about 5 percent of all U.S. households, in the Midwest is about $1,565 for the season, according to the agency. That is about the same bill amount in 2021-22.

Households will spend even more if the weather is colder than expected.

“Forecasting months-long weather and energy trends is not an exact science, but it’s highly likely that global dynamics affecting energy commodities will lead to higher U.S. prices for heat this winter,” Joe DeCarolis, EIA administrator, said.

An estimated 1.7 million U.S. households, or only 1.3 percent, will use cord wood or wood pellets as the primary fuel for heating this season. It’s estimated another 7 percent of households will use wood as a secondary source of heat, second to electricity.

Wood is more widely used in rural areas, with 22 percent of rural households using it as the No. 1 or No. 2 source of heat. In comparison, about 6 percent of urban households use wood as the first or second heat source, according to the agency’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey.

HELP IS AVAILABLE

Earlier this month, the White House announced it was making $4.5 billion available through a low-income home energy assistance program to help with heating costs.

The funding through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will be provided to state, local and tribal governments to help more than 5 million families pay heating and utility bills. It also can be used to make home energy repairs.

The program served more than 5.3 million households last year, and a similar number is expected to participate this year.

A wide range of other programs are available to low-income Ohioans to help manage their heating bills, from home weatherization to cash grants.

“There is really no reason for anyone to be cold or in fear that their service will be disconnected,” Stephanie Moore, spokeswoman for Dominion Energy Ohio, siad.

The programs include PIPP Plus (Percentage of Income Payment Plan) and HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program).

PIPP Plus is a special payment program developed by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio that allows eligible Ohioans to maintain their natural gas and electric by paying a set percentage of their yearly household income toward their utility bills.

HEAP provides a one-time heating bill credit during the winter heating season.

Assistance available through both are based on U.S. poverty guidelines.

Other programs are the Winter Crisis Program, which provides a one-time grant to help avoid a gas shutoff or to restore service, and the Home Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps with grants for home weatherization projects.

:Also, Dominion offers its gas customers budget billing and payment arrangements, and direct help through its EnergyShare program for customers who have exhausted all other forms of help. The program is funded with company contributions and donations from customers and employees.

The gas supplier also has a weatherization program, and PUCO has a special reconnect orders for residential customers, regardless of income. Customers may restore their gas service or avoid it from being turned off once during the heating season by paying the lesser of the full past-due balance on their gas bill, the past-due payments if the person is on a special payment plan or $175.

At Ohio Edison is Project Reach, an emergency hardship fund designed to help residential customers restore or maintain electric service, according to Lauren Siburkis, spokeswoman for the power provider.

“The program funding is provided by Ohio Edison customers and employees, and the distribution of funds is administered by Salvation Army offices located throughout Ohio Edison’s service area,” Siburkis wrote in an email.

Sarah Edmonds is client services supervisor / HEAP coordinator at the Trumbull Community Action Program. The agency in Warren helps residents enrolled in the government savings programs.

The agency also helps through the winter crisis program.

Clients can make arrangements for the help in a small amount of time.

“It’s kind of like one stop shopping. We can do all of that for the client,” Edmonds said. “If they have all of their information when they come or can get the information to us, we can finish that in a day.”

Alesia A. Scott, who lives on Deerfield Avenue SW in the Palmyra Heights neighborhood of Warren, recently enrolled in PIPP for her natural gas and electricity through TCAP.

The program helps her stabilize her budget. She knows exactly how much she’ll pay every month.

“I don’t have any surprises,” Scott, who receives disability income, said.

There are simple ways to save energy and cut down the heating bill, from making sure your system is working efficiently to lowering the thermostat.

“Make sure your furnace is maintained, keep the filter changed. I would say try to get into purchasing yours in an aggregate, weatherize your windows,” said Walt Shevel, owner of Best Furnace in Champion.

He recommends checking your furnace’s air filter at least once a month. A clean filter helps with efficient air flow.

“As far as it needing changed, that all depends on how cold it is out, whether you have pets or someone in the house who smokes, there are a lot of factors,” Shevel said. “But what I would at least say is check it at least once a month. Pull it out and look at it.”

If you can see through the filter, it’s likely in good shape. If the filter “looks like carpet,” is time for a new one, he said.

As far keeping the internal furnace mechanisms in top working order, Shevel said it’s best to call a trained professional for expertise and safety reasons. He recommends a yearly service call, at least.

He also suggests to vacuum the grills that cover the return air ducts. Dust, hair, debris or other obstructions can lessen efficiency.

Siburkis also gave some tips the electric company recommends to save energy in the winter, including setting thermostats as low as comfort will allow. Every degree a customer can decrease the temperature will result in about 3 percent less energy used during the winter.

Other suggestions include closing the fireplace damper when it’s not in use, closing the drapes at night and dressing for the weather. An extra layer of clothing or a blanket can provide some warmth without raising the thermostat.

Save on energy costs

Energy-saving tips for winter:

• Set thermostats as low as comfort will allow. Every degree a customer can decrease the temperature in their home will result in using about 3 percent less energy during the winter.

• Seal leaks around windows and door frames with caulk or weather stripping.

• Dress for the weather. Wearing an extra layer or wrapping up in a blanket while you’re relaxing can help you feel more comfortable without turning up the thermostat.

• Close the fireplace damper when it is not in use.

• Close the drapes at night. During the day, only open those that receive direct sunlight.

• Turn off lights when you aren’t using them, and use a timer for outdoor lighting.

• Change furnace filters regularly to make sure the heating system is working efficiently.

• Keep registers for supply or return air free of obstructions.

• Wrap exposed pipes and water heaters that are in unconditioned spaces.

• Make sure your home is properly insulated.

•Locate your thermostat on an inside wall and away from windows and doors. Cold drafts can cause the thermostat to keep the system running unnecessarily.

SOURCE: Ohio Edison

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