September 21, 2018
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High energy bills this winter? These tips could help you stay warm and save money

Bridget Brown | BDN
Bridget Brown | BDN
In this 2010 photo, Paul Shepherd with Penobscot Home Performance sets up a blower door at the Bangor home of Keith and Beth Bisson to measure air leakage while performing a home energy audit.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Updated:

Between the extreme cold snap of early winter and increasing energy costs, chances are pretty good that this winter has been tough on your pocketbook.

And if that’s the case, you’re not alone — and there are some things you can do to help decrease the pain the next time you open up a utility bill. Many folks have been reaching out to energy auditors to find and plug holes in their homes that are letting heat leak out. And scores of Mainers, galvanized by sticker shock, have been jumping on social media sites to compare high bills, share their tales of financial woe and brainstorm possible short or long-term solutions to the problem.

Take the case of Patti Clark, who has found solidarity in a Facebook group for people reeling from their electric bills. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles employee said she is very conscientious about conserving heat and power in the Camden home she shares with her husband, a truck driver who spends most of his time on the road.

“We’ve done everything to keep our power bills low,” she said.

[Customer complaints about skyrocketing electric bills prompt state review]

That includes winterizing the house, closing off rooms that they’re not using, switching out a decrepit water heater for a new geothermal one and replacing aging appliances with new, energy-efficient ones. The $193 power bill they got in December felt surprisingly expensive. But it was their January Central Maine Power bill that pushed her over the edge. It was for $500, and that, she felt, could not be right.

“I just absolutely was in shock and horror,” she said. “$500 is a whole week’s check for me. It’s terrifying to get a bill like that.”

Clark is doing what she can to dispute a utility bill she believes cannot be correct, including speaking to a CMP representative, the Maine Public Utilities Commission and her local state representative. But while she anxiously awaits her next bill, she is looking into further changes she can make that will help to untie her from the power grid.

“I said to my husband, ‘I wonder what it would cost to get solar panels?’ We’ve got to do something,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to me to feel this helpless. I’ve always been self-reliant.”

A Belfast woman, Kristy Pottle, had the same instinct when her family’s January CMP bill totaled $653, or more than $200 over their winter average. Pottle and her husband, Denis Howard II, use heat pumps to heat their small cape house, so they are used to getting higher electric bills in the wintertime. But they’re not used to bills that are this high.

“It certainly makes us want to switch to solar,” Pottle said. “It made me inquire if other people in Belfast want to switch to a solar farm.”

Earlier this week, the Maine Public Utilities Commission said they would look into customer complaints about skyrocketing bills and poor customer service from CMP.

Gail Rice, a spokesperson for CMP, told the BDN last week that it’s not uncommon for people to call the utility this time of year about their high bills. However, some atypical factors that are in play this winter include an 18 percent jump in the standard offer energy supply price for CMP that went into effect on Jan. 1, and higher-than-normal usage because of the cold snap.

“Customer bills naturally go up when temperatures go down,” she said. “This includes people with heat pumps and geothermal systems, propane Rinnai and Monitor heaters. A combination of those can cause your usage to go up considerably.”

People who see sudden changes in their bills might want to check their appliances, she added.

[Regulators to scrutinize high CMP bills, customer service complaints]

“A sudden spike in usage could be the sign of a malfunctioning appliance or piece of equipment,” she said.

The electric utility is offering a number of programs to help customers understand and better manage their bills and payment arrangements, such as budget billing, to average their usage over the entire year and even out their payments. Rice also said that is is important for customers to understand that CMP has no control over the electricity supply portion of their bills, which are subject to market condition.

“The delivery fees, we do have control over, and our delivery prices haven’t changed since July of last year,” Rice said.

Emera Maine, which provides electric delivery service to northern and eastern Maine, typically receives more calls about high bills during the colder months, according to Judy Long, a spokesperson for the utility.

“We have not received an atypical number of bill questions or complaints recently,” she said.

Energy audits can help

Amy Smart of Affordable Home, a Bangor-based company that provides energy audits and other services, said that they have been busy this winter with calls from anxious Mainers.

“Some homeowners we’ve spoken to recently are in a place where they don’t know how to pay for the next month’s bill,” she said. “We’re happy to help.”

An energy audit helps determine where a home is losing energy, and companies that do such audits usually do so by performing a blower door test. That means mounting a powerful fan into an outside door that pulls air out of the home and lowers the air pressure inside, which allows technicians to measure where outside air flows in through unsealed cracks and openings. The next step is finding and sealing gaps and cracks in the basement or attic using expanding foam or caulking.

Other steps homeowners can take to hopefully reduce their energy bills include insulating hot water pipes and heating ductwork in the basement, cleaning the air filters from heat pumps and noting the efficiency and age of the heating system and water heater.

“If they’re not serviced annually or are at the end of their life, the efficiency can decrease,” Smart said.

While some energy-stressed Mainers are looking into making the solar switch and others pursue making their homes more airtight, one state official would like to let Mainers know that there are still funds available through LIHEAP, or the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Recipients need to qualify financially for the program, and can apply through their local community action agencies.

“We have a pretty robust program out there,” Dan Drost of Maine State Housing said. “I think obviously with the oil prices and the weather situation we found ourselves in, certainly the pressure is on households.”

He said that Maine will continue to take applications for funds disbursed through the federal program through April 30, and that right now the average benefit is about $868 per household. Benefits range from $160 to $2,714 per household, and depend on household size, energy consumption, energy burden and income level.

“We don’t want to send any funds back to the feds,” he said.

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