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A Helping Hand With Heating Bills

Take a deep breath if you’re dreading this winter’s heating bills

If you’re dreading this winter’s heating bills, take a deep breath. There’s good news.

The average cost of heating a home this winter is expected to be less than last year, except for homes using heating oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And if your budget still won’t stretch far enough, a lot of financial assistance is available from the government, utilities and nonprofit organizations. Plus, eligibility rules have changed to help people who lost jobs in the recession.

LIHEAP, prime source of assistance

The federal Low-Income Household Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, is the Godzilla of winter heating assistance. Money for LIHEAP originates with the federal government and is distributed to the states through grants. States often add additional funding, and they distribute the dollars.

For 2010, Congress allocated about $5.1 billion to LIHEAP, including $590 million in emergency funds that the program plans to tap soon. That “can serve about 7.5 million households,” says Mark Wolfe, the director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. Because of the weak economy and relaxed eligibility, he says, “millions of families that don’t normally ask for assistance could apply.”

Previously, assistance was available only to applicants whose income was no more than 60 percent of the median in their states, and that calculation was based on the applicant’s income over the past 12 months. This year, applicants are eligible if their income does not exceed 75 percent of the state median income or 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, whichever is higher. Many sources of assistance will look at only the past three months of applicants’ income. Allowable deductions from income could help people who have recently lost jobs or income to qualify for heating help.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides a median-income chart to help you figure out if you are likely to be eligible.

HHS also can point you to your state’s LIHEAP program, including the director’s name and contact information and the program’s website. On your state’s site, you can find an application for LIHEAP aid or instructions on obtaining one. See the end of this article for advice on filling it out.

Households with incomes up to twice the federal poverty guidelines may also be eligible to have their homes weatherized to reduce heating bills. The U.S. Department of Energy, working with the states, will send an energy auditor to decide if insulation, weather stripping or other measures will pay for themselves in energy savings.

If the answer is yes, the government pays service providers to complete the repairs or improvements.

For information on your state’s weatherization program, go the LIHEAP Clearinghouse’s page on state profiles and click on your state.

Utilities can often help

Although you may feel that calling your utility company about your payment problems is the last thing you’d ever want to do, these companies are familiar with such problems and offer many forms of help. It may surprise you to know that utilities really don’t want to disconnect your service.

“Disconnection is the least efficient way of dealing with a credit problem,” says Bill Crawford, manager of credit policy for American Electric Power, which serves customers in 11 states. “We encourage customers to contact us as soon as they are having trouble.”

Since the recession began in December 2007, “we’ve been talking to people who’ve always paid their bills on time, and now are having difficulty paying on time,” says Pat Boland, manager of credit policy and compliance for Xcel Energy, which operates in eight states. “So we shifted from credit guidelines indicating how much customers should pay. Now we interact with them on a more flexible basis.”

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