Shocking utility bill?

With record cold in Dec., here are 5 ways to lower your bill, understand how to read it


Chris Bass, of Gainesville Regional Utilities, reads the meter of a southeast Gainesville, Fla. home, Tuesday, June 30, 2009. Gainesville Regional Utilities apparently set a record last week for electricity usage during the near-record heat that settled over the area.

Erica Brough/ Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, January 30, 2011 at 9:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 30, 2011 at 9:48 p.m.

Karonda Allen was expecting it: the little slip of paper telling her how much it cost to stay warm in the record cold last month.

Facts

5 ways to manage your utility bill

1. Set thermostats at 68 degrees or lower when heating. Bills increase up to 4 percent for each degree above that.

2. With a furnace or standard electric heating, turn the system off or down when away from home for longer than two hours.

3. Dress for the weather — sweaters, slippers and afghans can keep you comfortable.

4. Check heating system's filters once a month and clean or replace as needed.

5. Weatherize homes. Heating bills can be reduced by 10 percent to 25 percent by caulking, sealing and weather-stripping around windows, outside doors or where plumbing, duct work and electrical wiring penetrate exterior walls, floors or ceilings.

SOURCE: Gainesville Regional Utilities

"It kind of wasn't a surprise," Allen said of her $475 utility bill. "I just have to brace myself for those months."



In December, electricity usage was up 17 percent from 2009, compared with a 9 percent drop for November, according to Gainesville Regional Utilities. In fact, using the standard utility measurement of the electricity needed to heat buildings, it was the coldest December since 1989.

James Booth II, an art teacher at Rawlings Elementary School, said he spent most of the month at his mother's home across town and his bill was still $300. "It's cold, so you've got to pay if you want to stay warm," Booth said.

Allen, Booth and others felt the added weight of their bills as clear as the sting of the icy air but were able to get by.

But there are others here who struggle ever year, every month, every day.

What about them, in this economy? In this cold?

***

For years, Michael Wright watched as people aging into seniority gave monthly donations to the Gainesville Community Ministry.

Recently, Wright, the executive director of the organization, which distributes money to help people pay their utility bills, has watched some of those same people come in asking for donations themselves.

"That's never happened in the 10 years that I have been here," Wright said. "There's always been a gap between the people that have and the people that don't have."

Lately, that gap has disappeared for some.

A wave of newly poor or unemployed has put strains on GCM and other groups that help area residents keep on their lights — and, in the wintertime, their heat. "We just can't handle the demands," Wright said, "and of course that demand is much higher than in the past."

In December, his organization helped 12 people pay their bills. He said he counted 224 who came in looking for assistance, nearly double what it was when he started a decade ago.

***

Gainesville Regional Utilities also has seen a rise in people who need help.

In December 2007, 2,327 customers were granted payment extensions. By December 2009, that number had more than doubled to 6,003. Last month, 5,411 extensions were granted.

GRU spokesman Dan Jesse said the city-owned utility started to give more customers extensions because of the "toughness of the economy."

Sherry Ramkellwan knows firsthand the deep hole of poverty.

Since mid-November, she and her three children have lived in their rented house on Northwest 34th Street without electricity or heat, using candles and a fireplace for light and warmth.

Owing money from a previous address, Ramkellwan had a cousin turn on the utilities in her name but also racked up a debt at the new residence, said Cindy Andrade, GRU's customer operations director.

Ramkellwan and her cousin decided to shut off the utilities for a few days to reach an agreement with the utility.

She thought it would be for only a few days. She said she didn't envision being well into January and having to go to relatives' houses to shower.

Getting government income assistance because of a learning disability, she said she also is struggling because she recently started breast cancer treatment at North Florida Regional Medical Center.

She said her utility bills started going up and up because of an undetected leak that has since been fixed. The roughly $3,000 debt, though, remains.

"We're struggling now," Ramkellwan said on a chilly night last month, "but I would make a way to pay."

***

In 2006, the utility started a program to make energy-efficiency home improvements for low-income residents, helping them to save on utility bills.

Starting with 40 homeowners that year, the program now is poised to help more than 300 this year.

In older, modest homes around the city, energy is being wasted through aging appliances, duct leaks and open eave vents, and because of a lack of insulation.

Theresa Spurling-Wood, the residential efficiency program coordinator for GRU, said a big part of her mission through the program is empowering homeowners to do things on their own to cut down on their bills — for example, caulking around their windows, installing compact-fluorescent light bulbs and regularly replacing air-conditioning filters.

Spurling-Wood said she has seen more and more people apply for the program.

With money from the federal stimulus package, the program will spend more than $1 million on the improvements this year, averaging about $3,000 per home.

Frewoini Ghebreghergish's home on Northeast 18th Drive was one of the 181 to get upgrades last year.

GRU started making the upgrades in February, around the time her husband found out he was suffering from pancreatic cancer.

The new appliances and upgrades amount to, on average, a savings of 13 percent.

While a seemingly small decrease, it was huge for Ghebreghergish, a teacher at a day care center, and her four children, who range in age from 6 to 15. With a new air-conditioning unit and water heater, her bills have gone from about $250 a month to as low as about $150 some months.

They also meant a great deal to her husband, who had worked as a welder but knew he didn't have long to live — or long to provide for his family.

"It's a big relief," Ghebreghergish, who will mark the anniversary of her husband's death on April 29, said of the savings. "He was happy. He was thankful for that."

Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or chad.smith@gvillesun.com.

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