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Warmer houses wont burn up bank account as much this winter
Atmos Energy distribution operator Greg Davis takes a meter reading from a Gainesville residence Friday afternoon. This winter may bring lower heating costs to consumers, perhaps as much as 8 percent.


Listen as Brenda Dalin, director of community service for Ninth District Opportunity, talks about the agency’s heating assistance program.

Residents could get a taste of winter this weekend, as temperatures are expected to plunge into the 30s.

But the good news is, at least for natural gas customers, paying for extra heating around the house could cost less this winter.

Experts say despite rising crude and gasoline prices, gas inventories also grew, with levels now sitting at nearly 15 percent above the five-year average.

"We forecast that the annual cost of the natural gas we buy for our customers across the 12 states where we operate will be 10 percent to 12 percent less, on average, compared to our gas costs for the past year," said Kevin Akers, Atmos Energy’s division president.

Atmos serves much of the Gainesville area.

The Energy Information Administration has forecast an 8 percent drop in heating bills this winter.

The government reported that heating oil prices rose 3 cents last week to $2.53 per gallon. Last year at this time, a gallon of heating oil cost $3.39.

"Customers tell us that paying lower natural gas bills this winter is welcome news, considering the current economy and the pressures they feel on their household budgets," Akers said.

Still, with many Americans reeling under the crushing recession, making that monthly heating payment could be difficult.

Ninth District Opportunity, a Gainesville-based nonprofit agency that provides aid to low-income people, plans to begin accepting applications for its heating assistance program on Nov. 2.

The agency will first accept applications from households in which every person is 65 and older or in which every person is unable to leave their home because of health problems.

All others can apply beginning Dec. 1, said Brenda Dalin, director of community services.

The program features a one-time payment up to $350 to the vendor on behalf of the client, she said.

"With the economy like it is, we expect to serve more people than we did last year, and they are going to need all the savings they can get," Dalin said.

"We are seeing so many people now who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. They are still unemployed. We’re seeing Realtors, people who have been in the banking business, financial planners," she said.

Last year, the agency served about 15,000 people, spending about $5.2 million, Dalin said.

"We’re anticipating we’ll get the same amount (of money) this year and that we’ll be able to help that same amount" of people, she said.

Atmos Energy "urges customers facing difficulty to sign up for budget billing to smooth out their payments to more equal amounts each month so that they don’t have small bills in the summer, then larger bills in the winter," said company spokesman Joel Ames.

"If budget billing doesn’t work for (customers), we can make ... arrangements with customers so that they can spread their payments out over time," he said. "We just ask them to call us before they’re facing service termination."

And for those who can afford it, certain home improvements — including beefed-up insulation — can lower heating costs as well as provide tax credits.

"We have flyers in our offices on energy conservation, our service technicians often give free advice to customers, our Web site offers online tools and tips, and local (technicians) do a good job of helping customers reduce consumption," Ames said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.