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Pennsylvanians urged to utilize programs for heat

| Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, 10:42 p.m.

More than 24,000 Pennsylvania homes lack heat-related utility service, and nearly 2,000 of them rely on potentially dangerous sources of warmth such as kerosene or electric space heaters and kitchen ovens, a report released Tuesday showed.

The number of homes without service is down about 5 percent from a year ago but still 22 percent higher than the average in the four years prior, the state Public Utility Commission's Cold Weather Survey report said.

“We urge those residents to take advantage of the numerous programs available to help them restore utility service in order to stay connected, warm and safe this winter,” said PUC Chairwoman Gladys Brown.

The report said 15,006 homes are without natural gas heating because service to them has been terminated, and 1,451 of those homes are using unsafe heating sources instead. Likewise, 9,169 homes are without electric heating because service has been terminated, and 414 of them are using unsafe alternatives.

In Western Pennsylvania, 1,764 homes without heat-related utility service are occupied by Peoples Natural Gas customers, down 19 percent from a year ago; 1,078 by Columbia Gas customers, down 4 percent; 632 by Duquesne Light customers, down 37 percent; 469 by West Penn Power customers, up 18 percent; and 178 by Penn Power customers, up 9 percent.

“We do everything we can to help folks before they reach a termination point,” Columbia Gas spokeswoman Jennifer DuBois said.

DuBois called the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, the “first line of defense.”

Last year, the program provided one-time cash grants to help people in 390,120 homes across Pennsylvania pay their bills, including 33,195 homes in Allegheny County, according to the state Department of Human Services, which administers the LIHEAP program.

A four-person household in Allegheny County with an income in the $15,000s would qualify for $100, the state said.

LIHEAP provided 143,705 crisis grants to help people deal with emergency situations such as broken heating equipment or lack of fuel, including 8,725 in Allegheny County, the state said.

PUC urged customers who are struggling to keep up with their bills to reach out to their utility company and ask about LIHEAP and other programs that might help, such as payment or budget plans that can reduce their bills. Customers can lock in a lower payment when their usage is highest over the winter.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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