State finds thousands without heat source

Winter could hit particularly hard this year for those in roughly 20,000 households in Pennsylvania.

About 19,653 residences have started the winter season without a heat-related utility service, according to figures released this week by the state Public Utility Commission.

That number is up from 15,975 last year, findings from the PUC’s annual cold weather survey show.

Officials said they encourage those without heat to contact their utility services or the PUC if they are having trouble paying bills.

“With the coldest months of the year still ahead, it remains critically important for consumers without heat-related utility service to learn about the options available to them to reconnect service,” Robert Powelson, commission chairman, said in a statement.

The state’s electric and natural gas distribution companies must survey residential properties where service was terminated and not reconnected in the same calendar year. The information is passed along to the PUC and shows how many households are without heat-related services during winter months.

About 1,628 residences in the survey were using potentially unsafe heating sources, bringing the total homes not using a central-heating system to 21,281.

The total number was 18,116 in 2012.

Potentially unsafe heat sources include kerosene heaters, kitchen stoves or ovens, electric space heaters, fireplaces and connecting extension cords to neighboring homes, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

West Penn Power, which provides electricity to much of the region, reported there were about 345 households without a central heating source due to termination of utility service or using potentially unsafe heating.

The number does not include homes using other central heating sources or vacant residences. It’s an increase from 259 in 2012.

Columbia Gas, which provides natural gas services locally, reported 973 households without central heating due to termination or using potentially unsafe heating. That number was also from 2012, when there were 829.

Amanda Gentzel, basic needs care manager at Community Help Centre, said it’s fairly common for the relief organization to get calls from people who need help keeping their utilities on.

The center, which offers a 24-hour hotline for those in need, is a volunteer-based, nonprofit organization that provides services, resources, education, training and information to people who are in need of support, according to its website.

Gentzel said fewer people are calling for heating assistance than did last year, indicating Centre County could be bucking the statewide trend.

Awareness in assistance programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program also could be responsible for fewer calls, Gentzel said.

She said customers who don’t qualify for LIHEAP and who still can’t afford their utility bills are often in a tough spot.

“All we can do is hope a local church or organization is willing to help,” Gentzel said.

The PUC said in a statement that customers should obtain information about programs available to help them restore and maintain utility service.

Consumers should call their utility first to make arrangements to pay their bill. If they are unable to reach an agreement with the utility, the PUC may be able to provide assistance. The PUC can be reached toll-free at 1-800-692-7380.

The PUC asked those seeking more information to contact their local county assistance office or the LIHEAP hotline at 1-866-857-7095.