Welcome to shut-off season

Switching off the poewr

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: With average gas prices north of four bucks a gallon, here's a sure fire way to save money: Just don't leave the house.

Well, actually, that's not as cheap as it used to be either, especially if you have to turn on the air conditioner and you're still trying to pay off the heating bills from last winter.

Luckily, there are ways to avoid having your utilities shut off if you're behind. Jeremy Hobson has that story from Washington.


Jeremy Hobson: Sure, air conditioning can drive up your electric bill, but the average heating bill this year is going up a lot faster -- it's expected to rise by almost 15 percent -- and Mark Wolfe, who runs the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, says the effects of last winter's sky-high costs are just kicking in now.

Mark Wolfe: In a lot of the cold weather states, you have shut-off moratoriums. What that means is that during the winter, you can't be shut off. So the bill gradually increases every month and then a family finds they owe $1,000. They might not be able to pay that and that's what's leading to the shut-off problem.

In other words, welcome to shut-off season. Shut-offs are up by 15 percent in some states.

But it doesn't have to get to that point says Donna Mann at the Mid-Atlantic Electric Company Pepco. She says you can cut costs significantly by adjusting your thermostat or caulking your windows, or...

Donna Mann: Call into our call center. We want to talk to you and we want to work with you, because the last thing we want is to see customers disconnected. That's not what they want to see. That's not what we want to see either.

Utility companies can put struggling customers on payment plans or grant extensions and, says Mark Wolfe:

Wolfe: If they're not helpful, call your public service commission. Call your local community action agency. If you make those kinds of calls, you can usually work something out.

A long standing $2.5 billion government program helps low-income families pay their utility bills, but this year, Wolfe says, people who've never needed assistance before are using it.

[Computer Voice]: Now serving E-0-2-1 at counter number 11.

At the energy assistance office here in Washington, there's a steady trickle of needy residents, even in the summer.

John Sturdivant is here getting help with his mother's $1,800 gas bill.

John Sturdivant: You know you have to get help from somewhere. The prices are going up and your pocket's not getting any fatter.

And 71-year-old Agnes Westbrooks is here for the first time.

Agnes Westbrooks: I'm not able to pay my electric bill. It got outta hand and it's going up rocket high, every day.

Westbrooks says she turns off her AC and sweats through the night just to save money.

Mark Wolfe, who works with government energy assistance programs, says more and more families are facing the same squeeze.

Wolfe: And what we're very worried about is what happens when prices get to be $3,000 to heat your home? We've never had that situation before and our programs aren't really set up to help families who need that much money.

In fact, the D.C. energy assistance office, said to be one of the nation's best-funded, expects to run out of money a full month before the new fiscal year starts on October 1st.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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