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Higher heating bills possible

A cold winter is coming, and the government says that means heating costs are going to rise -- at least a little. A new report by the federal Energy Information Agency shows natural gas heating bills could rise nationally 22 percent compared to l...

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A cold winter is coming, and the government says that means heating costs are going to rise - at least a little.

A new report by the federal Energy Information Agency shows natural gas heating bills could rise nationally 22 percent compared to last year, with electric heating costs up 5 percent.

Much of that rise is based on a warmer-than-average winter last year. But if it's even 10 percent colder than anticipated between October and March, natural gas costs could be up 31 percent and electric up 9 percent compared with last year, the report said.

Still, the EIA wrote, "Forecast average expenditures of households heating with natural gas this winter will be comparable to those in the five winters prior to last winter," showing again how much of an outlier last year was.

Almost half of United States households use natural gas as their primary heating fuel, according to the EIA. Superior Water, Light & Power has approximately 12,500 customers within Superior and Douglas County who use natural gas to heat their homes.

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About 26,000 households in Duluth use natural gas to heat their homes, more than the average of all Midwestern homes. But local officials expect the rising costs to be less dramatic than the federal report might make it seem.

"I don't see us being in for a double-digit rise for gas - maybe a single-digit rise," said Pete Upton, Duluth's chief gas controller. "I don't see it going through the roof unless we have one of those crazy winters we had a few years ago."

Those that may need assistance with rising utility bills need to contact their provider in order to be covered by the state's cold-weather rule, which prevents utility disconnection. In Wisconsin, the rule goes into place Nov. 1 through April 15; in Minnesota, it started Oct. 15 and runs through April 15.

"Superior Water, Light and Power does require a payment plan to avoid disconnection, even during the heating moratorium period," said Rob Sandstrom, manager of electric operations, customer service and dispatch for Superior, Water, Light & Power.

The utility also offers a budget billing plan that normalizes monthly utility bills, keeping them at an equal amount.

Even with a colder winter, residents have the power to keep their power bills down. A recent WalletHub study found Wisconsin ranked sixth out of 48 U.S. States in home energy efficiency, while Minnesota ranked second. So there's still room for improvement.

Superior Water Light & Power offers a home energy analysis for customers. Those interested can call 715-394-2200. Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program works with eligible residents to install cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. More information can be found at www.focusonenergy.com .

Beyond blanket burrowing and sweater layering, there are many ways to improve the heat efficiency of a home.

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"We recommend having your heating system checked annually by a qualified technician," Sandstrom said. "We'd also like to remind customers to keep up on your home maintenance - check caulking and weather stripping around exterior windows and doors, replace your furnace filter and add insulation."

Sandstrom said people can save energy by setting the water heater to 120 degrees, using programmable thermostats, low-flow faucets and high-efficiency lighting, and cleaning refrigerator coils and clothes dryer vents.

Even small changes can lead to savings.

"Every degree you lower your thermostat you'll save approximately 2 percent on your heating costs," Sandstrom said. He also asked customers to keep access to meters open during winter months so meter readers can get actual amounts and avoid estimations.

Local resources are available to help those struggling to pay their utility bills. The Lake United Way, 211 or 218-726-4777, can provide information about them. Superior and Douglas County residents can also contact the following agencies:

* Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program - Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services, 715-395-1651 or www.homeenergyplus.wi.gov .

* Salvation Army, 715-394-7001

* Good Samaritan Fund, 218-310-9049

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* St. Vincent De Paul, 715-398-4039

Related Topics: SUPERIORDOUGLAS COUNTY
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