A Winter of Giant Gas Bills Is Coming. Are You Ready?

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US households projected to spend more on heating in several years

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According to the report, the cost increase will be estimated at $746 on the average natural-gas home-heating bill from October 1 to March 31, compared to about $573 during the same period last year.

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part of the forecast EIA’s Winter Fuels Approach, which projects that American households will spend more on energy this winter than they will in many years. The agency attributed its forecast to rising energy prices — natural-gas futures hit a seven-year high this year — and the prospect of a colder winter than most of the country last year.

Rising growth, on top of rising prices for many consumer goods and commodities, is likely to create stress for Americans across multiple income levels. Economists have warned that large utility bills are most likely to hit homes that are still hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A paper published this summer Journal of Public Economics, which studied five million electric-utility customers in Illinois, found that disconnects had doubled during the pandemic. In 2018-2019, customers with most Black and Hispanic zip codes were nearly four times more likely than less-diverse neighborhoods to be disconnected for nonpayment.

“We are very concerned about summer affordability this winter for all customers, but especially those who struggle every day to afford their utility services,” said Karen, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. Luson, a nonprofit organization. Consumer issues for low-income communities.

What can consumers do to prepare for what is to come? Here’s what business groups, energy professionals, financial planners and others have to say.

Get an Energy-Efficiency Tuneup

The first thing you can do is make sure your home’s heating system is operating correctly, says Barton James, president and chief executive of Air Conditioning Contractors of America, a trade group.

According to National Institute of Standards and TechnologyImproper installation of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems can result in a 30% increase in energy use.

“Now more than ever, I think it pens well for anyone to stay on top of service and maintenance with their equipment,” says Mr. James.

He says consumers should ask their contractors to perform a process called manual J, which calculates the required heating and cooling output for your home. The cost of this procedure can range from $100 to about $1,000, depending on the size of the building. According to Ms. Luson, some utility customers pay through their regular bills into the programs, which allows them to call a company representative to conduct an energy-efficiency assessment and make recommendations.

There are relatively inexpensive ways consumers can make their living spaces more energy-efficient, says Vivek Shandas, a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, who studies the effects of climate change on cities and homes. Steps include covering windows with plastic to prevent drafts and purchasing “door pillows” to seal off the space under doors.

“That’s what is generally considered about tightening the envelope of the house,” says Mr. Shandas. “How can I weather-proof my home so that I reduce the risk of getting that cold?”

Check Your Monthly Budget

Some parts of the country may be more sensitive than others to rising natural gas prices. For consumers who can bear the brunt of the price hike, Mr. Shandas recommends looking at actionable methods to help you navigate the cold-weather months.

“What are the places where I can get similar results, but with a little bit of compromise?” He says. Those ideas might include using less gas for cooking, working through carpooling and mass transit instead of riding alone in your car, or keeping the thermostat at a tolerable level — as opposed to the ideal level — when It is cold outside.

Angela Moore, a certified financial planner and founder of Modern Money Education, a platform that offers personal-finance courses for women, advises consumers to look for other budget items that can accommodate high natural-gas bills. can be extended back. She recommends checking for expenses humming in the background—a membership or gym membership you’re not using—which could pay for an increase in the bill if suspended for a few months.

“Many people forget about some of these things because it’s so automatic and we’re like autopilot,” says Ms. Moore.

Mr Shandas acknowledged that for high-income Americans, rising natural gas prices would be a drop in the bucket.

Apply for Federal Aid Programs

Ms. Luson at the National Consumer Law Center points to several federal programs that consumers can tap to get help with utility bills if they meet income requirements. The most famous of these, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, requires that recipients’ incomes do not exceed 60% of their state’s median income.

In addition, some states have discount-rate programs, such as percentage-income payment plans, Ms. Luson says. If the applicant pays the discounted rate on time for a year, he or she can keep program bills economical and have past dues waived.

She says consumers should visit their local community-action committees for information about programs they may qualify for. “So many people who were not low-income before became low-income during Covid,” she says.

JJ McCorvey at [email protected]

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