Winter Survival CenterNovember 19, 2010— Now that the winter heating season has officially begun, the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) wants you to know about some potentially expensive myths and misconceptions about your natural gas bills.
At the bottom of the page, CUB has a section with handy online tools and publications to help you better understand your gas bill.
Quick tips to help you through the winter.
2. Get on your utility’s budget plan. (See Myth #3.)
3. Be proactive with a utility company BEFORE it cuts off your gas service. Once you’re cut off, the company can demand full payment of the past-due balance AND a deposit AND a reconnection charge before restoring your service. Still, NEVER give up—even when your service gets cut off. Call the company and do everything you can to set up a payment plan. Remember, from Dec. 1 to March 31, the utilities are required to offer to all qualified customers, a special reconnection payment plan which is more lenient than the standard plan. The utility also must contact you to discuss the bill and notify you of any energy-assistance programs that might be available.
4. Know your rights, and call CUB (1-800-669-5556) if you think they have been violated. (See Myth #7.)
Seek financial assistance. Check the nearest
Cook County: 1-800-571-2332
Outside Cook County:
1-877-411-9276)—which offers assistance to low-income residents. Nicor's Sharing Program, which offers one-time annual grants to qualifying customers, is administered through the Salvation Army. Your municipality and the utility itself may have information on other funding.
6. Use your phone to protect your bottom line. Cutting your phone bill frees up more money to cover your energy bills—and CUB has been cutting phone bills by hundreds of dollars a year. Go to CUB’s Phone Savings Center.CUB Energy Saver, which can build a money-saving plan perfect for your home. So far, it's been showing Illinois families how to cut their utility bills by an average of $200 a year. Also, ComEd customers can link their accounts to CUB Energy Saver and receive points for documented reductions in their power bill. Those points can be redeemed for thousands of free or discounted items, from gift cards to free museum passes. Anyone who signs up now will receive a free energy-efficient Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulb, which can cut electric bills by up to $10 a year, and will qualify for periodic drawings to win a month of free electricity.
Also, don’t forget to try CUB Live Wire, the most comprehensive library of energy-efficiency incentive programs in the state.
It has great information on hundreds of dollars in discounts for heating equipment. If you see the word “estimated” or “EST” on your bill, that means your gas utility didn’t actually read your meter. It estimated how much gas you used this month based on your usage the year before. Unfortunately, if the company underestimates your usage for months you will suddenly be slapped with a huge make-up bill. It's one of the most common complaints CUB receives, but you can avoid this nightmare by reading your bills carefully and contacting your utility when it estimates your bill for two months in a row. Consider doing your own meter reading each month. (CUB can show you how.)
*Note: If you do get a huge make-up bill related to an estimating mistake, state regulations prohibit your utility from back-billing you for more than 12 months from when the error was discovered.utility's budget plan, only to find that they were on a much different and much more expensive plan. An unregulated affiliate of Nicor Gas, Nicor Advanced Energy, sells the Lock 12 plan, which chains customers to a fixed monthly bill for an entire year. CUB has yet to find anyone who has saved money under Lock 12. The utility’s budget plan is very different. It’s designed to prevent drastic month-to-month winter price increases. The utility assigns you a monthly budget-billing amount, based on how much gas you used last year, gas-price predictions, and weather forecasts. Unlike with Lock 12, that amount will be adjusted throughout the year if your usage increases or the price of gas shoots up. And here’s another big difference from Lock 12: At the end of the year, the budget plan will credit your account if the utility overestimated your usage (or you will be billed the difference for an underestimation*). If you overpay with Lock 12, you’re simply out that money.
*Note: Nicor Gas charges interest on any debits that you build up under its budget plan. It also pays interest on any credits.Peoples Gas, Nicor Gas, and North Shore Gas. But even if you buy gas from an alternative company you’re not shielded from utility rate hikes. That’s because the regulated utility still charges you to deliver that gas to your home—and those “delivery rates” are subject to increases.
CUB has received complaints of misleading marketing and rip-offs regarding unregulated gas companies. In fact, to date, CUB's Gas Market Monitor shows that most of these offers have been more expensive than traditional utility rates.
Don’t sign up for an offer over the phone or at your doorstep and don’t give out your account number. Take a day to read the fine print and call CUB with questions. Remember, you can ask your utility to put a free block on your account to prevent unauthorized changes to your service. federal regulators have been unsure of the reason, and CUB has called for better safeguards to prevent market manipulation. Meanwhile, Peoples Gas and Nicor Gas profit off the "delivery" portion of your gas bill. As for the actual gas, the utilities are legally obligated to prudently buy the heating fuel and pass the cost onto their customers, with no markup. Of course, scandals uncovered by CUB in recent years give consumers reason to be suspicious of how the system works. Peoples in a 2006 settlement agreed to give its customers a $100 million refund after CUB accused the company of an illegal, profit-sharing deal with an Enron affiliate. Also, state regulators are considering evidence that Nicor Gas unfairly profited off its customers about a decade ago and owes them a $287 million refund. Both alleged schemes hurt customers at the beginning of the decade, when gas prices reached then-record highs while utilities swore they weren’t profiting off the high prices.
If it hasn’t given you proper notice (mailed eight days before the date of disconnection, or posted on your door five days before disconnection);If you think your rights have been violated, call CUB,
When the temperature is below 32 degrees or expected to fall below that within the next 24 hours and when disconnection would mean the loss of your heat;
On any day before a weekend or holiday when temperatures are expected to fall below 32 degrees;
If you have a current, approved medical certificate on file with the utility stating that the disconnection would aggravate an illness in the household.
If you are a LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) recipient and it’s between Dec. 1 and March 31.
1-800-669-5556. A gas utility’s failure to comply with these regulations could be leverage to get your service turned back on. CUB Energy Saver.
Get all the information on energy-efficiency incentives in Illinois, including a tax credit of up to $1,500 and discounted heating equipment, at CUB Live Wire.
Check out CUB's Natural Gas Price Checker, your only source for comparing what Illinois’ top gas utilities charge
The Facts about Natural Gas Prices
Making Sense of Your Gas Bill
The Gas Market Monitor
Alternative Gas Companies Serving Nicor Gas Territory
Alternative Gas Companies Serving Peoples/North Shore Gas Territory
Do Not Market Lists
Want to avoid getting marketed by an unregulated gas company? Join your utility's "Do Not Market List."
Nicor Gas: 1-888-642-6748
Peoples Gas: 1-866-556-6001
North Shore Gas: 1-866-556-6004
For more information, please visit CUB's Natural Gas Page.