Staying warm as heating costs rise

LIMA — Inflation has impacted nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives from grocery bills to housing costs, and energy costs are no exception.

According to the Consumer Price Index released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, electricity has gone up 14% since October of last year. Natural gas has increased by 20%.

The U.S. households who use natural gas to heat their homes should expect to spend 28% more than last year when the cold hits, according to the Energy Information Administration. Those who use heating oil should expect a 27% increase from last winter, while homes that primarily use electricity and propane may pay 10% and 5% more, respectively.

As utility rates rise across the U.S., consumers can struggle to afford those bills. It is no surprise that many Americans are tightening their belts and cutting their spending. Usually when this happens, it is purchases of non-essential items that are reduced — perhaps trips to the movies, dining out and gym memberships. It appears, however, that millions of Americans will also be cutting back on essential things in life such as heating, medicine and food in order to save some money.

A recent Lending Tree survey on late bill payments found that consumers struggle to afford their utility expenses the second most behind rent and mortgage. Lending Tree analyzed U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data to determine the percentage of consumers sacrificing necessities like food and medicine to pay for their energy costs.

Left in the cold

More than one-third (33.9%) of U.S. households say they reduced or skipped basic expenses, such as medicine or food, to pay an energy bill in the past 12 months. Nearly one-quarter (23.1%) of U.S. households report being unable to pay at least part of their energy bill in the past year. In Ohio 34.1% have skimped on medicines and food to pay bills.

Data from the Federal Reserve reveals that on average, Black and Latino households earn about half as much as white households. Families of other ethnic and racial backgrounds — which include Asian families — have lower wealth than white families but higher wealth than Black and Latino families. Black households are most likely to report being unable to pay at least part of their energy bill. By race, 40.0% of Black households report they couldn’t pay at least part of their energy bill in the past 12 months. They’re followed by Latino households at 35.9%. Meanwhile, 17.7% of white households and 12.1% of Asian households say similarly.

Income disparity plays the largest role here. When inflation is rising, however, it makes things far worse and requires additional sacrifices to make ends meet. 38.1% of U.S. households earning less than $50,000 say they can’t pay at least part of an energy bill. That’s compared with 16.1% of U.S. households with an income between $50,00 and $149,999 who reported the same.

Meanwhile, some households tried reducing their home energy use to make ends meet, even if it meant risking their health. In fact, just over 1 in 5 (20.8%) households say they kept their homes at temperatures that felt unsafe or unhealthy.

Regardless of what they’ve done to keep costs down, though, nearly one-quarter (23.1%) of U.S. households report they’ve been unable to pay at least part of their energy bill in the past year. Service Master Restoration by Zaba, located in Chicago, surveyed 3,000 respondents to find out how many say they only plan on turning on their heating when average temperatures reach freezing. The survey revealed that 1.6 million Ohioans (18%) will only turn their heating on when average outdoor temperatures reach 32°F which was determined to be December 3rd, but as we know freezing has arrived a bit earlier.

Stay warm and safe

As winter approaches, here’s how you can combat high energy costs. Extremely cold, winter weather can send furnaces into overtime, causing energy usage and electric bills to go up. There are some steps you can take to help corral the utility bills.

— Service your appliances to make sure they are working effectively.

— Clean your heating system to ensure nothing is blocked and/or there are no leaks cleaning or replacing system filters.

— Install weather stripping sealing all potential leaks/openings against drafts coming into the house.

— Keep windows covered by curtains – about 30% of a home’s heating energy is lost via windows.

— Lower your thermostat by a few degrees – this can help save up to 10% on your energy bill.

— Run a humidifier at 35% to 40% during the winter.

— Keep the heating on at the lowest bearable level at night, while out at work to avoid pipes freezing, thawing and flooding your home.

— Insulate pipes beforehand, if possible.

Extra tools to fight against the cold means extra safety precautions, as well, including the following:

— If using a space heater, make sure to place it on a hard, level surface at least three feet away from anything flammable such as curtains and bedding and out of high-traffic areas.

— Make sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are installed and functioning properly throughout your home and never leave the heater running when a room is unoccupied.

— Don’t block space heaters or heating vents so warm air can circulate effectively. This also prevents fires from starting. In extreme cold periods, supplementing a normal heating system with portable 1500 watt electric space heater can cost more than $4 a day, or $30 a week and $130 a month.

There are a number of programs to help customers manage bills this winter with various company payment plans and government energy assistance programs.

Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Special Reconnect Order: The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s annual Special Reconnect Order took effect October 17. All residential customers, regardless of income, may restore gas service or avoid a shutoff once during the heating season, between October 17, 2022, through April 14, 2023 by paying the lesser of the entire past-due balance on your gas bill; the past-due payments if you are on a special payment plan; or $175.

Dominion Energy offers a number of programs for billing assistance. short term payment extensions and long-term payment plans to help residential and commercial customers manage their balances are offered. Dominion also offers Energy Assistance and have home weatherization programs to help customers save energy.

Budget Billing allows customers to avoid seasonal fluctuations and pay a fixed budget amount each month, based on annual gas usage. Also offered are a Budget Plus Plan, a Current Plus Plan, a One-Ninth Plan, a One-Third Plan and Short-Term Extensions. Extended payment plans may include installments on past due balances, plus a calculated budgeted amount or the current usage.

Direct help through the EnergyShare® program is for customers who have exhausted all other forms of energy assistance. It’s funded with company contributions and donations from customers and employees. Customers may apply for EnergyShare® assistance between December 1, 2022, and May 31, 2023, or until funds run out, to receive a maximum payment of $300. Customers can see if they meet yearly income requirements by contacting the administrator of the program, The Salvation Army, at: https://easternusa.salvationarmy.org/.

Dominion’s Home Performance with ENERGY STAR Program through CLEAResult helps our residential customers improve their homes’ energy efficiency. It all starts with a home energy assessment. Rebates up to $1,250 are available for eligible improvements.

Government assistance programs are available for income-eligible customers. Customers can apply for all programs with one application at www.energyhelp.ohio.gov, which provides income guidelines as well. Applications also are available at libraries, some banks and your local home energy assistance provider, or by calling the Ohio Development Services Agency at 1-800-282-0880.

To qualify for the Percentage of Income Payment Plan Plus special payment plan, developed by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, a customer’s yearly gross household income can be up to 175 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Under PIPP Plus, participating customers may maintain their natural gas service by paying 5 percent of their total gross monthly household income, or $10, whichever is greater.

Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) provides a one-time heating bill credit during the winter heating season. HEAP is available to customers whose yearly gross household income is up to 175 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

The Winter Crisis Program (WCP) provides a one-time grant to help avoid a shutoff or to restore service once between November 1, 2022, and March 31, 2023. Local community action agencies can assist with emergency payments to help avoid disconnection.

Home Weatherization Assistance Program (HWAP) is a federally funded program that provides grants for home weatherization projects to customers whose incomes are no more than 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

If having problems paying an electric bill, reach out to American Electric Power by calling 800-672-2231 or visiting AEPOhio.com/Assistance. Customers who may not be able to afford their gas heating bills are urged to contact Dominion Energy Ohio immediately at, 1-800-362-7557 to inquire about payment plans and energy assistance programs. Customers who are having problems paying a bill may also contact WOCAP at 419 227 2586 and ask for the Winter Assistance Program.

Dean Brown joined The Lima News in 2022 as a reporter. Prior to The Lima News, Brown was an English teacher in Allen County for 38 years, with stops at Perry, Shawnee, Spencerville and Heir Force Community School. So they figured he could throw a few sentences together about education and business in the area. An award-winning photographer, Brown likes watching old black and white movies, his dog, his wife and kids, and the four grandkids - not necessarily in that order. Reach him at [email protected] or 567-242-0409.