Friday, December 29, 2017

PUC Report: Continued Improvement In Households Starting Winter Without Heat-Related Utilities, Help Available

The Public Utility Commission Friday released the results of its annual Cold Weather Survey, which showed that more than 19,000 households across the state who had their utility service terminated this year are entering the winter season without heat-related utility service or using unsafe heating sources.
That figure is approximately 12-percent lower than last year’s survey (2,730 fewer households starting the winter without heat), and 20-percent lower (4,880 fewer households) than the winter of 2015-- with improvements noted by nearly all the state’s major electric and natural gas distribution companies.
The annual Cold Weather Survey, along with a mid-winter resurvey, serve as “snapshots” to help gauge utility and PUC outreach about heating assistance programs.
The survey tracks the number of households whose heat-related utility service was terminated during the year, and who remain without service at the start of the winter and at the mid-way point of the heating season.
More extensive data about utility service – including terminations; reconnections; the number of low-income and payment-troubled customers; and the size and scope of various customer assistance programs is available in the PUC’s annual Universal Service Report.
“For the third year in a row, we have seen a notable decrease in the number of Pennsylvania families who had their utility service terminated this year and are starting the winter without heat-related electric or natural gas service, or depending on potentially unsafe heating sources,” said PUC Chairman Gladys M. Brown. “Additionally, the direct contact that occurs between utilities and consumers during the survey process resulted in over 33,000 households receiving payment arrangements and being reconnected to service while the survey was still underway – which is the driving purpose of this effort.”
Despite the results of the Cold Weather Survey and the number of pre-winter reconnections, the PUC remains concerned about the thousands of households who struggle stay warm and safe during the winter.
Residents experiencing financial difficulties are encouraged to contact their utilities and/or the PUC for information about numerous programs available to help them restore and maintain their utility service.
The 2017 Cold Weather Survey showed the following (as of December 15):
-- 6,351 residences whose utility service was terminated this year are without safe electric heating, including 6,057 households without electric service and 294 households that are heating with potentially unsafe heating sources.
-- 12,944 residences whose utility service was terminated this year are without safe natural gas heating, including 12,125 households without natural gas service and 819 households that are heating with potentially unsafe heating sources.
-- Additionally, 11,173 residences where electric service was terminated this year and 4,096 residences where natural gas service was terminated this year now appear to be vacant.
-- Note: Some households may be without both electric and natural gas service, resulting in a double-counting of some households.
According to the survey data, the number of families whose electric utility service was terminated this year and remain without service is 9-percent lower than last winter.
The number of homes where electric utility service was terminated this year, and who are now depending on potentially unsafe heating sources, dropped by 23-percent compared to last winter-- while the number of natural gas customers whose utility service was terminated this year and are now depending on potentially unsafe heating sources, dropped by 28-percent.
Across the state, six of Pennsylvania’s eight major electric distribution companies reported improvements in their Cold Weather Survey data, as did eight of the state’s nine natural gas distribution companies.
The utilities conducting the Cold Weather Survey provide service to more than 5 million residential electric customers and nearly 2.3 million residential natural gas customers.
As part of the Cold Weather Service process, utility representatives attempted to contact approximately 31,000 households using electric heating and approximately 39,000 households using natural gas heating, whose service was terminated this year.
Help Available
“There are a variety of options available to low-income households who are struggling to maintain their heat-related service,” said Chairman Brown. “We encourage anyone experiencing difficulties to call their utilities as soon as possible about a variety of PUC-required assistance programs to help heat their homes or pay their energy bills – such as Customer Assistance Programs (CAPs) and Low-Income Usage Reduction Programs (LIURP).”
According to the PUC’s most recent Universal Service Report, those assistance programs impact more than 474,500 households and are valued at over $397 million per year.
As part of the annual “Prepare Now” campaign, the Commission continues to appeal to utilities to increase their efforts to educate consumers about other available resources that may be available, such as grants under the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)-- which is administered by the Department of Human Services (DHS) – with information available through local County Assistance Offices or via the LIHEAP hotline at 1-866-857-7095.
The PUC emphasized that consumers without utility service should understand their rights and responsibilities, including additional options that may be available for those who are seriously ill or are facing other unique circumstances, such as a protection from abuse order.
Consumers should call their utility first to make arrangements to pay their bill. If they are unable to reach an agreement with the utility, the PUC may be able to provide assistance. The PUC can be reached toll-free at 1-800-692-7380.
Every year, the state’s electric and natural gas distribution companies under the PUC’s jurisdiction are required to survey residential properties where service has been terminated and has not been reconnected during this calendar year. Every December, the PUC releases those survey results.
As part of the survey, the utility or its representative makes four attempts to contact consumers who are known to be without heat-related utility service. The attempts may include telephone calls, letters and personal visits to the residence and are done on different days of the week and at different times of the day. If the first three contacts are unsuccessful, the PUC requests that the fourth attempt be an in-person visit to the residence.
Homes using potentially unsafe heating sources are reported separately in the survey because of additional risks in those situations. 
According to the National Fire Protection Association, potentially unsafe sources of heat include kerosene heaters, kitchen stoves or ovens, electric space heaters, fireplaces and connecting extension cords to neighbors’ homes.
For more information on help with winter heating bills, visit the PUC’s Prepare Now webpage.

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