SIKESTON -- Southeast Missouri residents can expect to pay more to heat their homes this winter, but the good news is there are ways to offset the costs.
"The cost of the gas portion of a customer's bill is going to be between 10 and 15 percent greater than last year, and that's strictly due to the cost of gas," said Steve Green, manager public affairs for Atmos Energy.
Green said he expects the Purchased Gas Adjustment, which reflects the cost of gas, to hold steady.
"As far as cost, we don't expect to be adjusting the PGA this winter so it won't go up," Green said.
Ameren UE customers can expect about a 10 percent increase to heat their homes this year.
Green said Atmos, like most other natural gas companies, purchases natural gas in the summer and stores it for winter use.
"We were paying double compared to what we were paying last summer," Green said. "Fortunately, that only lasted one month."
Like individuals, gas companies also benefit when the gas prices start going down.
"We have 'hedging' programs where we blend different costs of gas to try to get the cheapest we can," Green said. "We have some longer term contracts (more than a year), and those prices are a little better than what some of them have been. We also buy gas daily on the current market.
Both Atmos and Ameren have payment and budget billing programs. With that plan, users pay less in the winter, but more in the summer, according to Green.
While current temperatures have been below the average for November, it's typically the end of January to February when the coldest period of the season hits, Green said.
Ultimately, the only thing that can control the amount used is the customer, Green said.
"Be very diligent. If you're going to be away from the home for more than two hours, turn the furnace down," Green suggested.
When hot water heaters are installed, they're usually turned up high, Green noted. Turn it down to a mid-range temperature -- about 120 degrees.
"You can still have hot water but are not using as much gas," Green said.
Set back thermostats, Green suggested. By using programmable thermostats, consumers can set temperatures to fluctuate even when they aren't home, he said.
"In the winter, when it's sunny, open the curtains and let the sun come in and close the curtains when it's getting dark," Green said.
Green also noted the government released more funds for heating assistance programs this year.
Through a contract with the the Missouri Department of Social Services, local community action agencies, such as Delta Area Economic Opportunity Corporation, are accepting applications for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. The federally funded program is designed to provide financial assistance to help pay heating bills for Missourians from October through March.
Eligibility requirements for EA are based on income, family size, available resources and responsibility for payment of home heating costs. More than 100,000 families were able to keep warm last year because of the program.
"Missouri's heating assistance program was created to be a safety net for the elderly, disabled and low-income families in the winter season to supplement the cost of energy to heat homes and apartments," Gov. Matt Blunt said in a recent news release. "No Missourian should have to make the difficult decision between heating their home or the necessities of life."
-- An annual inspection is recommended of the home heating system by a qualified heating contractor. Checks should be made of the furnace or boiler, and its electrical and mechanical components, thermostat controls and automatic safety switches. Make sure the furnace filter is clean. Ask that the heating contractor check the venting system for blockages such as birds'nests, mortar and other materials which may have dislodged and could block toxic gases which can cause carbon monoxide poisoning from escaping.
-- A chimney sweep should be done to clean the chimney if the inspection reveals an accumulation of soot on chimney walls.
-- Clean the gutters and the ridge vents on the house.
-- Make sure smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detectors are working in order. Check the batteries in the device regularly. If alarms or detectors emit a light to signal they are working, make sure the light is on.
-- If in the market for a new heating system, for the home, always check the Energy Guide labels to compare the energy use or efficiency of the appliance. Purchasing a high-efficiency system, despite its higher cost, may save you money in time with its lower operating costs.
-- If you live in an area which allows you to choose your natural gas provider, shop around for the best prices on heating oil and gas. Ask the utility company about a budget billing plan to protect against sudden or unexpected price increases.
-- Check the caulking around doors and windows.
-- Closing the doors to rooms you do not use can decrease energy usage.
-- Set the thermostat a little lower. For each degree it is lowered, you can save 2 to 3 percent on heating costs. For maximum efficiency, experts generally recommend a setting of 68 degrees during the day and 60 degrees overnight (but don't set the thermostat too low, or pipes in exterior walls could freeze). Programmable thermostats can help reduce heating costs by allowing better control of the settings.
-- Use ceiling fans -- especially in homes with high ceilings -- to push warm air down and keep it from being wasted near the ceiling. Fans should be set to run counterclockwise during the heating season.
Source: Better Business Bureau and Ameren UE