Get Help Paying Your Heating Bill - A Guide to Energy Assistance Programs
Home heating isn't a luxury. When the weather turns cold and winter winds rattle the roof, keeping our homes warm isn't just a matter of personal comfort - it's necessary for survival. Statistics show that mortality rates increase significantly in the wintertime, from direct exposure to freezing temperatures as well as from health conditions that are aggravated by cold weather.
But as energy costs rise, more and more people find their budgets stretched too thin to cover all their expenses. Forced to choose between essentials, heat is too frequently sacrificed in favor of food or health care.
Fortunately, there are many options available to you if you find yourself unable to pay your home heating costs. From government energy assistance programs to charitable fuel programs, here are the resources you can turn to when you need help.
Your Local Utility
Before going anywhere else, contact your local heating company to discuss payment options. Most will be willing to work with you to establish a schedule that will let you spread out your payments over the whole year, so you avoid higher bills in the winter months. Other options might include payment deferral and late-fee cancellation, depending upon the circumstances of your need.
Be prepared to discuss the reasons why you cannot pay your heating bill - you're on a fixed income, high healthcare costs, unexpected expenses, etc. If you're honest about your circumstances and express a sincere intent to pay, most utilities will help you find a workable solution. The utility will also be able to refer you to local energy assistance programs that can help.
State and Local Utility Assistance Resources
Every state and most counties and municipalities offer referral assistance to those who need help paying their heating bills. Call the local health and human services department in your area and ask to speak with an assistance worker and inquire about heating assistance programs.
Relief programs offered by state and local governments will vary, but might include alternative energy rates, rebate programs, weatherization and home improvement services, and fuel (oil, gas, coal) grants.
LIHEAP - Federal Energy Assistance Program
The Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is funded by the federal government and is designated to help pay heating bills for low-income households. The income limits for LIHEAP assistance vary from state to state, but generally speaking if you receive food stamps or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) then you're probably eligible for LIHEAP.
There are two types of assistance grants available from LIHEAP, the Cash grand and the Crisis grant.
- The Cash grant provides ongoing assistance to pay heating bills for low-income households throughout the year. Applications are due in September for the following fiscal year.
- The Crisis grant provides immediate assistance in emergency situations where there is not enough money to prevent service termination or if equipment is broken or malfunctioning and needs repairs. You can apply for Crisis grants more than once per year (up to a certain limit).
To find the community action agency responsible for processing LIHEAP applications in your area, contact the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) hotline by calling 1-866-674-6327, or by emailing mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charity Fuel Assistance Programs
Aside from government-funded heating assistance programs, charitable organizations across the country exist to provide assistance to low income households in need of help with heating costs. National groups such as United Way, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services and the Salvation Army all have localized programs to assist low-income households meet their heating costs. Other organizations exist just for the sake of helping with the rising cost of fuel, like the Citizen's Energy Oil Heat Program which provides heating fuel to struggling families in 23 states.
Your local health and human services department or even your local utility should be able to inform you of the charity organizations in your area that can help provide heating assistance.
Reducing Heating Bills
While you are considering your alternatives for heating assistance, there are some quick, low-cost steps you can take to reduce heating expenses each month.
- Weatherize doors and windows with caulk, putty and weather-stripping. Don't forget holes around telephone wires, sinks, pipes, etc. Larger cracks can be stuffed with cloth or newspaper in extreme situations, until more permanent repairs can be made.
- If you can't afford storm widows, there is an inexpensive plastic coating or film that can be installed over your windows to help curb drafts. A $5 - $10 insulation kit will cover up to five windows in your home.
- Regulate your thermostat. Keep it set below 70F to maximize savings. If possible, install a programmable thermostat with a timer, to avoid heating your house when no one is home.
- Use an electric space heater to supplement the heat in your home, adding extra warmth to the room you are actually using while reducing the central heat in the rest of the house. (Be sure to follow all safety guidelines when using a space heater indoors!)