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More Pennsylvania households left out in the cold this winter

| Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, 12:18 a.m.

More Pennsylvanians don't have heat for their homes for the winter season this year than last year, according to the annual Cold Weather Survey by the state Public Utility Commission.

About 23 percent more homes — from nearly 16,000 in 2012 to more than 19,600 this year — have gone into the winter season without heat provided by a utility, according to the PUC's Cold Weather Survey.

Here in the Alle-Kiski Valley, some providers have an expanding number of customers without heat from public utilities while one is cutting down on the number of those sites.

The PUC study is derived from information from the natural gas and electric providers who must, by state law, survey residential properties where service has been terminated and not reconnected during the course of the calendar year.

Because their service has been terminated, some homeowners use potentially unsafe heating sources and are counted separately because the home is not relying on a central-heating system.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, potentially unsafe sources of heat include kerosene heaters, kitchen stoves or ovens, electric space heaters, fireplaces and connecting extension cords to neighbors' homes.

An additional 1,628 residences are using potentially unsafe heating sources, bringing the total homes not using a central-heating system to just under 21,300, according to the 2013 survey. The total number was about 18,100 in 2012.

“We're thinking that many of those people whose services were cut might not be aware of the organizations out there to help maintain their level of service or to get their service turned back on,” said Jennifer Kocher, PUC press secretary.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Dollar Energy Fund and financial programs at the utilities can provide help with paying for home heating.

“Also at play here are the lingering effects of the economic downturn that has caused hardships for people who aren't used to facing the economic challenges out there,” Kocher said.

For West Penn Power, the number of customers without a utility heating due to termination of services has increased to 345 households in 2013, up from 259 in 2012.

“These are not the best of times, but we don't want people to go without electricity or heat,” said Todd Meyers, West Penn spokesman.

“We have 750,000 customers at West Penn Power, and I don't have a specific reason why the numbers are up,” he said.

“Other than the fact it has been a tough economic environment,” he said. “It's been difficult for some to find work. Then there's those who are under-employed. So it stands to reason that some people who have a difficult time paying their electric bills.”

The number of residents without service has declined for Peoples Natural Gas from a four-year average from 2008 to 2011 of about 900, to 712 in 2012 and 714 in 2013.

“We've reached out to people more trying to get them on payment plans and to get them some help,” said Barry Kukovich, spokesman for Peoples Natural Gas.

“We've been very active in promoting LIHEAP and maybe more people are becoming aware and getting funding.”

According to Kukovich, the company has run more promotions informing customers about financial help for paying utility bills.

“Part of the success is due to the fact that we're local and regional so we're doing a better job of getting the word out,” he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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