There are federal programs available for North Carolinians behind on their utility bills. Making your home more energy efficient is another way to save money.
Inflation has cost us money at the gas pump, at the grocery store and at our favorite restaurants. It has also hit us at home.
No, you’re not imagining things: Your utility bills are likely far higher this summer. And while you can cut down on your restaurant outings if things get tight, you need your lights and air conditioning, especially in a North Carolina heatwave.
Inflation has been an outsized burden on many families, especially those already struggling to make ends meet. So what can you do if your power bills are getting too high, or you are behind on bills and are worried about having your service turned off?
The good news is that there is help available. Let’s take a look.
What is Inflation and Why Is It Such a Problem?
Inflation is the byproduct of surging demand and diminished or disrupted supply.
If something becomes harder to find or produce, its price goes up. And when lots of prices go up at once across several economic categories, it can be a real strain on the overall economy and make it harder for people to afford both luxuries and essentials.
The pandemic wreaked havoc across industries, and in the first year or so when everyone was home, purchases soared so much that production couldn’t keep up. And with so many people sick, there were fewer truckers, dock workers, ship captains and custom agents to process this huge surge of goods moving in and out of the country. That created backlogs that made things worse. Then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought the same volatility to the gas and oil markets, and here we are.
As for utilities, another world-wide problem is helping to drive up costs – climate change. Most of the country has experienced an extreme heat wave or two already this summer, meaning more people are running their air conditioners more often to stay cool and safe.
The cost of the gas utility companies rely on to bring you your electricity more than doubled in 2021 and most of the time power companies pass those extra costs onto the consumer.
While gas prices are now falling, giving some relief at the pumps, consumers should not expect this to translate to utility bills anytime soon.
“It would be nice if lower energy prices would also lower our electric bills, but this isn’t likely to happen,” Connel Fullenkamp, a professor at Duke University’s Department of Economics, told Cardinal & Pine.
“Regulated utilities generally change their prices slowly, and when they do, their prices react to the average costs they are paying for their fuel and other expenses. If the power companies expect–or worry–that the drop in fuel prices is only temporary, which it may well be, then it becomes very unlikely that they will change the prices they charge.”
“That means that the best strategy for us users of energy is to think about ways we can use less electricity and natural gas,” Fullenkamp continued. “Of course, this may not be possible for everyone, but if you can make a few small changes, they can add up.”
What You Can Do to Lower Your Bills
Invest in energy-efficient devices and lightbulbs: A smart thermostat, for example, can help you regulate the temperature in your house. Maintaining a steady comfortable temperature requires a lot less energy than frequently turning the air off and on depending on the weather.
LED light bulbs are more expensive than regular bulbs, but they also use far less energy and save money over time. An LED bulb can save about $8 a month, according to a 2017 report from the Consumer Federation of America.
Turn off the lights and unplug unused appliances: Just because you’re not in a lighted room doesn’t mean you aren’t paying for it. It’s an old trope, but it can make a difference: Turn off the lights when you don’t need them.
And many appliances still draw power even if they are turned off. This is called “vampire power” and can add up to $200 a year for some households. So unplug the coffee maker after your final cup.
Check your bill for errors: It is important to understand your bill, so that you can more easily spot when something is not right.
“It is not uncommon to have an error on your electric bill even though all providers use digital metering and bill-generating systems,” the consumer advocacy group DoNotPay says.
Check the bill each month to make sure the account details and your personal information is correct and that there are no duplicate items, DoNotPay says.
“If the total amount is much higher than usual, or if there are new items that you haven’t seen before, contact your supplier’s customer support and ask for an explanation,” they advise, but just make sure you do it as soon as you receive the bill.
The earlier you catch the error the easier it is to dispute the charge.
Where Can You Get Help Paying Your Electric Bills?
Most power companies have programs to help customers who are behind on their payments or are having trouble paying them. So check your provider’s website.
You can find a list of such utilities in North Carolina here:
There are also several federally funded assistance programs run through the state that can help you pay your bills or avoid utility shut offs. To receive help, you’ll need to show income and hardship levels, and each program has its own application. But don’t worry, the process, which is akin to a credit check, does not affect your credit score, the state says.
Here are some of the federal programs available:
Low Income Energy Assistance: This program provides a one-time payment to help eligible families pay an energy expense. You can find eligibility requirements and the application process here.
Crisis Intervention Program: Apply for this If you are at risk of having your heat or cooling systems shut off and would face a medical emergency as a result. You can find more information, including the application process and eligibility requirements here.
Low Income Household Water Assistance Program: This is a temporary emergency program that helps eligible households pay their water bills to avoid disconnected service. Read more here.
You can also apply for a variety of other assistance programs, including help with paying for COVID tests and treatment, through North Carolina ePASS, an identity-verification program. While this is necessary to get your assistance, the North Carolina assures you it won’t affect your credit score.
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