By Katie Dahlstrom
CLINTON — When Dorothy Champion received an $118 electric and gas bill in October, she started to worry a little.
"I needed $118 on my electric bill, but I couldn't pay it," the 65-year-old Clinton resident said.
Of the supplement security income Champion receives, she only had $18 to put towards the bill, sending her searching for help.
She wound up at Information, Referral and Assistance where she received one-time help with her utility bill, a service the agency offers to residents in crisis.
Information, Referral and Assistance paid $100 of Champion's bill so she could keep on track with heating her apartment.
"I felt good when I found out they could help me," Champion said. "I'll be alright."
As bone-chilling weather become a staple of everyday life in the Gateway area, local agencies and utility companies offer ways to keep heating costs under control.
Information, Referral and Assistance helped 664 households with utility bills, the average ranging from $300 to $400. Many of those residents are like Champion and live in an apartment or older home with little insulation.
"It is a huge need. Really, we see people daily who come in and need assistance," Information, Referral and Assistance Executive Director Regan Michaelsen said.
Residents who need help with their heating bills also can get help through community action, which administers a federal assistance program. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federally funded block grant, helps qualifying households pay a portion of their residential heating costs for the winter heating season. To qualify for the program, the resident's household income must fall under 150 percent of poverty, which means to qualify a household of five has to have an annual gross income of $41,355 or less.
Because Information, Referral and Assistance is a non-profit and not federally funded, people who need utility assistance don't have to qualify by income guidelines.
"They might have a good income on paper, but then something happens like car trouble or someone gets sick and they can't pay that bill," Michaelsen said.
While there are some protections from having heat shut off in winter, the parameters might not be as broad as people think.
In Iowa, the utility that supplies the main heating utility can't be disconnected when temperatures are below 20 degrees from Nov. 1 to April 1. But say, for instance, a home's main heat source is gas and the residents don't pay their electric bill, the power can still be turned off. Also, if the a warm streak hits during the times covered in the cold weather rule, the heat source can be shut off. However, LIHEAP customers have full protection from Nov. 1 to April 1.
Shutting off service isn't a preferred option for the company providing the service.
"If you are having an issue with a bill, give us a call right away. We will work out some sort of payment plan," Alliant Energy Spokesman Justin Foss said. "Shutting somebody off is the last resort. We don't want to do that."
Foss cited a number of ways residents can keep their energy bills down, such as turning down the furnace when using a fireplace or space heater.
"There's no sense in heating your whole home to a super hot level when you're not going to use anything but that room," Foss said.
He also recommended sealing windows, using the ceiling fan on the mode that circulates air and cleaning furnace filters.
Saving energy by shutting doors or vents to rooms that aren't used is a common misconception, Foss said, because the heating system is designed to heat the entire home and the cold air that gets trapped in that room eventually escapes throughout the home.
To save some cash, customers with a programmable thermostat can turn the temperature down by 10 degrees for eight hours and potentially save 10 percent on their heating bill.
People also help their low-income neighbors by contributing to Alliant's Hometown Care Energy Fund. Donations made to the fund are distributed to local action agencies, which then administer the funds to families in need.
Keep energy costs down isn't the only thing people should keep in mind during winter. In the time of space heaters and fireplaces, state fire officials are reminding residents to keep safe as they keep warm.
"The noticeable increase in home heating fires and fatal fires follows the cold temperatures. Many home heating fires could be avoided with an ounce of prevention," Acting State Fire Marshal Jeff Quigle said.
The primary reasons for portable heater fires are placing heaters too close to combustible objects such as furniture and blankets as well as leaving heaters unattended, state fire marshal investigators report.
The state fire marshal's office advises people to keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet away from heaters, to remember to always turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed and never to use their oven to heat their homes.
Other heating safety tips include:
• Always use the right kind of fuel and be sure you have a working carbon monoxide alarm and smoke alarms installed in your home.
• Portable heaters provide localized heat to an area and should not be used as the only source of permanent home heat.
• Be sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to stop sparks from flying into the room. Always use metal containers for ashes and keep them far from the home.