- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Larry Carroll’s home was only heated by a stove last winter before he received assistance from the Mechanical Services Contractors of America. The 72-year-old cancer survivor can expect to be a little bit warmer this season because the tradesmen installed a new furnace in his home earlier this month.

“I was used to that type of condition,” said Mr. Carroll, of Beltsville. “But I am grateful to have this fixed. It means I get a little more heat this winter.”

A little extra warmth could be the case for many local residents, many of them unemployed or underemployed this year, as they seek assistance from numerous programs to help them heat their homes this winter, even though fuel prices are predicted to be lower.

“In many cases, seniors are having difficulty finding the resources to stay in their homes and communities,” Steve Mack, president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Metropolitan Washington, said in a press release promoting his organization’s “Heat’s On-Water’s Off” program.

Since 1998, the MCAMW - which provides services and maintenance work in the heating, ventilating, air-conditioning and plumbing industries - has teamed up with Plumbers Local 5 and Steamfitters Local 602 and sponsored the “Heat’s On-Water’s Off” program in Prince George’s County.

The program donates materials and expert volunteer services to help needy senior citizens make their homes ready for winter by repairing or replacing heating, plumbing and other mechanical equipment.

Seniors, however, are not the only needy residents who will receive help to weather the winter. Some will be nontraditional recipients, such as out-of-work middle-class homeowners who are unfamiliar with accessing assistance programs.

In a recession year, gas and electrical companies such as Pepco, Dominion Virginia Power and Washington Gas prepare their customers for the winter by re-establishing payment-options programs that will reduce their bills.

In September, Pepco hosted a “Joint Utility Day” with the Maryland Energy Assistance Program. According to Pepco’s Web site, the event offered an opportunity for low-income residents to apply for assistance in paying their heating bills.

“Over 6,000 people showed up, so we know there is a need,” said Bob Hainey, a Pepco media relations spokesman. “We see the storm coming, and we are preparing.”

EnergyShare is a home-heating assistance program that helps residents pay for their main source of heat, which could be oil, gas, kerosene, wood or electricity. According to Le-Ha Anderson, Dominion Virginia Power manager for media and community relations, the program has been helping customers for 28 years and will be helping more people this winter.

The program “is for anyone experiencing trouble with their heating bills,” Ms. Anderson said. “We help people in the summer with cooling, and we help people in the winter with heating.”

Ms. Anderson said that Dominion saw an increase in the number of people it helped last summer with cooling their houses, so it expects to see more people in need of help this winter.

Dominion electric customers are able to contribute money to the EnergyShare fund by adding specific amounts onto their bill payments, which will be recognized as a contribution, or they can mail a check with any amount to EnergyShare. Ms. Anderson said that some Dominion employees also donate to the program. That money goes to helping needy customers.

“We assume it’s because the unemployment rate is higher, or they had resources cut. We expect there will be more people needing assistance because they are unemployed or underemployed,” Ms. Anderson said.

The EnergyShare program also dispatches employees to meet with customers to give them helpful tips on how to heat their homes for less and to inform them of ways to conserve energy and to utilize the company’s budget plans.

The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) also has a plan in place to help residents pay their utility bills this winter. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will help eligible residents with a one-time utility payment. Last year, the program helped more than 30,000 households. Assistance depends on income and how much a customer owes.

Is DDOE expecting to see an increase this winter in people needing assistance?

“It’s hard to say,” Alan Heymann, spokesman for DDOE, said. “Because of the challenging economic rate, maybe. But utility [costs] are not as high as last year.”

Mr. Heymann added that residents needing assistance should make an appointment at the DDOE.

Washington Gas released a statement saying its customers can expect a 10 percent to 20 percent decrease in winter heating bills compared with the “colder-than-normal” 2008-2009 winter.

As colder weather approaches, Washington Gas is encouraging its customers to “prepare their homes by practicing energy efficiency.” Its helpful tips include caulking and weatherstripping around doors and windows, installing high-efficient appliances and taking part in the Washington Gas budget plan.

The Washington Gas budget plan allows eligible customers to spread the cost of winter heating over an entire year, thereby minimizing the impact of higher seasonal bills.

Washington Gas also helps customers through the Washington Area Fuel Fund (WAFF), which is administered by the Salvation Army.

For more than 20 years, WAFF has disbursed nearly $17.8 million in helping more than 215,000 residents in the D.C. area. WAFF helps residents and families who “don’t qualify for or have exhausted government energy assistance,” said Ruben Rodriguez, director of corporate communications at Washington Gas.

Kelsey Knutson is a Washington Times intern. Odell B. Ruffin is a freelance writer and photographer living in Prince George’s County.

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