Heating costs leave students cold

No one wanted to come to their house. And when they did, they complained. The chill house, with thermostat set at 55 degrees for most of the winter last year, had the effect of an

No one wanted to come to their house. And when they did, they complained. The chill house, with thermostat set at 55 degrees for most of the winter last year, had the effect of an insect repellent on mosquitoes toward Darcy Weinhold and her roommate’s friends.

Weinhold, a junior music education major, is glad the cold weather has been holding off this year. The $500 gas bills at her three-story house on the 1600 block of Diamond Street from previous years had been taxing.

“Last year we kept the thermostat set at 55 degrees and occasionally at 64 degrees, and piled on the layers [of clothing]. We were able to keep the [gas] bill around $300,” Weinhold said. “We’d walk around the house asking each other ‘How many layers are you wearing today?’ and people would always complain it was too cold when they came to our house.”

But it worked for Weinhold and her seven roommates last year. She said the highest bill they received was around $340. They decided together to rough it in order to keep the gas bills from getting up to the $500 mark they were receiving in previous years.

Their house was recently sold to a new landlord who raised the rent a little more than a hundred dollars, Weinhold said, but now includes utilities.

“I don’t know what we would have done if we had to pay the gas bills with the increases. I’m so glad,” Weinhold said.

Heating bills are a big concern for off-campus Temple students and North Philadelphia residents this winter with Philadelphia Gas Works’ recent hike in gas prices.

On Oct. 7, PGW raised its gas rates 29 percent in an interim rate hike because of the rise in oil prices from Hurricane Katrina, PGW spokesperson Peter Hussie said. Hussie added that they will possibly be adjusted in December, at the start of the next quarter.

“We adjust the gas cost quarterly if necessary so that it reflects our cost,” Hussie said. “We asked for an interim adjustment because of the special cases.”

The actual effect on the gas bill will appear as a 19.4 percent increase in gas bills, because they also include the cost of distributing the gas and fees which have not changed.

“This is about a $335 annual increase in an average customer’s gas bill,” Hussie said.

This is on top of the Sept. 1 quarterly adjustment which increased PGW gas bills 4.9 percent, Hussie said. This should add $80 annually to a typical bill.

“The average customer will experience a $415 annual increase,” Hussie said for the two hikes combined.

The continued rise in gas prices is affecting not only renters. Local property owner Michael Davis said he owns several properties around Temple that he rents out and in all the apartments he is currently renovating to rent he is replacing gas heat with electric in anticipation it will be cheaper for tenants. He is hoping this will give him an edge over apartments with gas heat.

Last year Pennsylvania enacted a law which allows PGW to shut off gas to customers who aren’t paying their bill during the winter, something they were previously not allowed to do.

PGW offers several bill assistance programs to customers and gives notice about shutoffs.

“There is a procedure that we follow [for gas shutoffs]. There is a notice built in your bill, then we try and contact the customer, as well as visit the customer, so it’s not going to be a surprise,” Hussie said. “And the shutoff applies to customers who are in a position to pay.”

PGW customers at 150 percent of the poverty level or below qualify for PGW’s Customer Responsibility Program.

“CRP customers are billed according to their income,” Hussie said. “They are responsible for between 8 and 10 percent of their bill. Students who live on their own may qualify for these programs.”

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is a federal grant program that also helps PGW customers pay their gas bill.

“LIHEAP is for customers 135 percent of the poverty level or below,” Hussie said. “PGW is currently helping customers sign up for this.”

PGW also offers a “budget plan” that all customers are eligible for as long as they are not significantly overdue on their bills, Hussie said.

“Budget billing averages out your payments and annualizes it,” Hussie said. “Your bills won’t be as high in the heating season, but you’ll be paying more in the summer.”

The university is also experiencing an increase in the cost of heating fuels from their suppliers this winter.

“The rates from Sonoco and Delphi provide the bulk – 90 percent of the fuel used at [Temple’s] two central steam plants, and the price has risen 67 percent,” said Kurt Bresser, energy manager at Temple’s Office of Facilities Management. The two central steam plants, at 10th and Montgomery streets and Rising Sun and Germantown avenues, provide heat to most of Main Campus and the Health Science Center.

The university takes bids for fuel oil frequently throughout the year to receive the most competitive prices, Bresser said.

For unseen expenditures like dramatic rises in energy costs, the university sets money aside.

“We have contingency funds built into the budget because we can’t be sure everything will be right on,” said William Orr, assistant vice president of budgets.

For students without funds built into their budget to pay this winter’s heating costs, PGW offers several suggestions to minimize the hurt of the increases.

“Because of the increases, we’ve been trying to encourage people to conserve; to be aware what they do on a day-to-day basis can affect their bill,” Hussie said. “Things like turning down their thermostat when they are at class, and keeping it no higher than 68 degrees, and looking for cold air leaks around windows and caulking or covering windows with plastic window sheets. That can take a lot of sting out of the increases.”

Assistance programs

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – LIHEAP
Federal cash grant

Eligibility Guidelines:
-Total household income must be at or below 135 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.
-Applicants who have no income must show how basic living needs are being met.
-Homeowners and renters are both eligible.
-Subsidized housing renters are eligible only if they pay for heat.

Customer Responsibility Program – PGW’s Customer Assistance Program

Eligibility Guidelines:
-Must be 150 percent of the poverty level or below.
-Visit www.PGworks.com for guidelines for current poverty level standards.

Conservation tips

-Turning down bill when away
-Keep thermostat no higher than 68 degrees
-Watch for cold air leaks around windows
-Caulk around drafty windows and use plastic window sheets
-Install storm windows. Use drapes and blinds to reduce loss of heat through glass.
-Keep furnace filters clean and your heater operating efficiently
-Use kitchen and bath ventilating fans sparingly in cold weather. In just one hour, these fans can blow away a houseful of warm air
-Ceiling fans, when the blades are reversed and draw warm air down to living spaces, can cut heating bills by as much as 10 percent a season

– Peter Hussie, PGW spokesperson, www.pgworks.com/customerservice/conserveenergy/index.html

Josh Chamberlain can be reached at Joshch@temple.edu.

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