Although they had prior warning, consumers are now experiencing some sticker shock from their first gas bills of the winter.
"I had to have a seat when I got the first bill," recalled Sikeston resident Tim Wall, who also owns Taekwondo Advantage. "This year was about 20 percent more than the same time last year."
The bills consumers are seeing reflect the cost of gas that went up Dec. 1, said Steve Green, manager of public affairs for Atmos Energy. "It went up about 55 percent over what it was last year."
He stressed the number people see on their bills is the price of gas itself. "What Atmos wants is the same thing the customer wants - reliable costs and predictable and affordable prices," he said.
What a consumer will ultimately pay for his or her natural gas is the result of several factors, including weather, crude oil prices and general economic conditions.
"There's plenty of supply, but the demand has increased faster than the supply," Green said.
Hot summer temperatures kept the demand for natural gas up earlier this year. "A lot of the electric companies burn natural gas to generate electricity," Green said.
Cooler temperatures nationwide are also partially to blame for the high bills, he said.
Wholesale natural gas prices were driven even higher following the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to natural gas production and processing in the Gulf of Mexico. "The hurricanes did have a real effect on it," Green said. "It interrupted the supply."
But some aren't being hit so hard by the higher prices. "My gas bill wasn't a shocker this year," laughed Mark Hensley, who lives in an older home. "But in past years I could have really cried with you."
After paying $500 gas bills last winter and hearing higher prices were to come, Hensley had electric heaters installed in his home. "Economically, I figured it would pay for itself," he said.
Hensley isn't the only one making the transition from gas to electric heat. "We've had a lot of calls regarding that," said Billy Freeland, a service coordinator at Rick Leonard Heating and Air Conditioning, adding that customers are also inquiring about high-efficiency furnaces. "The concern is definitely greater."
But those who use natural gas for heating are coming up with their own ways to conserve energy.
"This year we've used the fireplace a lot more," said Sikeston resident Betty Johns. Her home, which was built in 1916 and 1917, has three floors, over 80 windows, and is about 6,000 square feet. However, they only heat the first two floors - about 3,600 square feet, she said.
Her gas bill jumped from $138.91 to $669.29 for the Nov. 21 to Dec. 22 billing period. The prior year's bill for the same period was $389 - but the 2004 bill was for 378 ccf, or units of gas, while the 2005 was for 447 ccf, she pointed out.
Johns said she keeps the temperature set around 67 degrees. And on cold nights, she shuts the door between her sun room and kitchen. "I plug in an electric heater (to warm the sun room up) if it is really cold in the mornings," Johns said.
Before Wall leaves his house in the morning, he turns the heat down to about 60 degrees. He has been taking extra precautions at the taekwondo school, too.
"I don't even run the back heater and I turn off all the heat at night," Wall said.
They are also doing smaller things, like keeping the blinds shut during the day, since heat easily transfers through the windows, he said.
Green also offered some tips for consumers to keep their bills lower.
First, consumers should change their furnace filter often, since clean filters use less gas than clogged ones. Those with natural gas water heaters should also turn the heat down to about 120 degrees, which will use less energy than one turned up all the way, but still keep the water hot, Green said.
"Keep the thermostat turned down just a little bit lower than usual," he suggested. "At my house, we're wearing sweatshirts."
Additionally, Green recommended fixing leaking water faucets, ensuring there is plenty of insulation in the attic, installing storm and insulated windows, and putting good weather seal in place on all doors.
For those consumers who are hit hard by the increase in bills over the winter months, Green recommended budget billing, which has no qualifications.
"It levels it where they pay less in the winter and more in the summer," he explained. "It's more predictable."