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Heating Bills Set to Soar This Winter

Low-income households may struggle to get by, as natural gas and heating oil are both expected to increase by one-third

Just when gasoline prices have plummeted precipitously, Arlington residents can expect a new source of anxiety and consternation in the coming weeks: the escalating cost of winter heating bills.

The average price of natural gas in the metropolitan region is predicted to be up to 32 percent higher than last year, according to Washington Gas, and the cost of heating oil in Virginia will also rise by 32 percent compared to last year, officials for the state’s energy division said.

Because of a combination of high demand, weak production and service disruption due to the Gulf Coast hurricanes, county residents can expect to see their heating bills increase by hundreds of dollars over the next four months. This means low-income households and elderly Arlingtonians on a tight budget may be forced to curtail their expenditures this winter and make difficult decisions between heating their homes, buying holiday presents and paying rent.

“More dollars for energy will mean fewer dollars for other activities,” said John Morrill, Arlington’s energy manager. “People will really need to pay attention to their finances and be aware of the increased heating costs.”

The primary reason for the sharp increase in prices is because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which shut down production in the Gulf for both heating oil and natural gas and damaged infrastructure.

As of last week, oil refinery in the Gulf had only reached 60 percent of its pre-hurricane capacity and natural gas production is still down by one-third, said John Warren, director of Virginia’s department of mines, minerals and energy. Most of the natural gas used in the state comes from the Gulf.

The robust performance of the nation’s economy in 2005 and a warmer than usual summer, has led to strong demand for natural gas at the year’s end. Another factor is the declining amount of natural gas production, which decreased by 0.6 percent in 2004, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Production in the county is down to its lowest level since 1999 and is expected to decrease by another 3 percent this year.

Though Arlington residents will certainly feel a pinch in their wallets this winter, it could be a lot worse: the Energy Information Administration is predicting the national average price of natural gas will be 43 percent higher than last year, with customers in the Midwest seeing even greater increases.

ARLINGTON’S LOW-INCOME families will be challenged this year, as they struggle to balance rising energy costs with other bills and have less income to spend on food and clothing.

“People are going to have to set their priorities and may have to divert money that could be used for food and medicine,” said Walter Zaumseil, the chief bureau assistant for programs with the county’s Department of Human Services. “They are certainly going to have to make sacrifices.”

Senior citizens who live on a fixed income will also be affected by increased heating expenses. Terri Lynch, director of Arlington’s agency on aging, is concerned elderly residents may jeopardize their health by lowering the heat in their homes in order to save money.

“This is not a safe option because it lowers body temperature and older people are less able to withstand these changes,” she said. “If they lower their thermostat they are at a greater risk for hypothermia.”

The county runs several winter energy assistance programs to help mitigate the costs of heating bills. Low-income residents can apply for federal grants through Arlington’s Fuel Assistance Program, to help defray installation charges, heating expenses or furnace check-ups. Last year more than 400 grants were awarded to Arlington residents.

To qualify an individual or family must earn 130 percent of the federal poverty income level, which is approximately $2,100 a month for a family of four. Zaumseil does not anticipate any change in the eligibility standards this year but does believe that the amount of money given to grant recipients may grow.

The county runs a Crisis Assistance Program, which offers a one-time grant for those whose furnace breaks, are in danger of having their utilities cut off or missed the deadline on other federal, state or county programs.

The Arlington County Board is monitoring heating costs but at this time does not have any plans to allocate additional funding to low-income households, said Vice Chairman Chris Zimmerman. If such a need does arise in the coming months, the board has contingency funds to draw from to aid families in need, Zimmerman added.

UTILITY COMPANIES also orchestrate programs to help individuals pay their heating bills. Washington Gas possesses a “budget plan” to spread out heating payments over the course of the entire year, said company spokesman Tim Sargeant. It also contributes to the Washington Area Fuel Fund, run by the Salvation Army, for households who either do not qualify for government subsidies or have exhausted their grants.

“If people are having trouble paying their bills they should call us now to make payment arrangements,” Sargeant said.

There are a number of steps residents can take to decrease their heating bills and ensure their home is heated efficiently. First, it is important to have a seasonal check from a trained technician to clean and tune a house’s heating system.

“Get someone to check it out now,” Sargeant said. “The last think you want is for your furnace to break down during winter.”

It is recommended that people change their heating filters once a month and check the insulation levels in their house, especially in attics. Morrill, the county’s energy manager, said storm windows can prevent heat loss, which will keep down heating bills.

The easiest way for Arlington residents to save money this winter is to use their heat prudently.

“If your house is empty during the day, turn the thermostat down a few degrees to avoid unnecessary heating,” Morrill said.