As temperatures plunge, heating costs rise, help is available to keep the heat on at home

Home heating costs are expected to increase this winter. (WWMT/MGN Graphics)

Temperatures plunged across the Midwest this week, and if the bitter cold isn't bad enough, energy costs are rising. Bigger bills are expected to show up in January and already, 90,000 Consumer Energy customers are behind on their heating bill payments.

So Newschannel 3's Rachel Glaser went searching for ways to rein in those heating bills.

“It's cold out here, the wind is blowing and it's just cold,” said Thelma Bizzel, a customer who was paying her bill at the Consumers Energy office in Grand Rapids.

During warmer weather, Consumers Energy bought and piped in natural gas; it was cheaper then. But because of increased usage now, bigger bills are on the way.

“Sometimes you have to turn it up higher when it's sub-degree weather,” Bizzell said of her thermostat.

Plus, when old man winter comes knocking, frosty air can sneak in through tiny cracks.

“It's amazing, a one-quarter-inch gap in your door can be the same as a softball-size hole,” said Roger Morgenstern, Consumers Energy's chief spokesperson for operations in Western Michigan. “Imagine that this big of a hole in your front door letting in cold air.”

To seal up those gaps, weather stripping can cost $5 or $10, which is how much it can shave off monthly heating bills.

“Yep, that helps keep the house warm,” Bizzell said.

Curtains can act as an another line of defense, by keeping them closed unless the sun is out and shining on the windows.

Bizell said she’ll sometimes put plastic on her windows to keep the cold out.

Turning down thermostats when not home is another way to save, but if that's not enough, there are other options.

“There is money out there,” Morgenstern said. “There's more than $50 million that was made available” to keep the heat on for customers with limited resources.

Nonprofit groups also have access to funding designed to help families with heating costs; call 211 to learn who qualifies for the assistance.

“Don't get into a situation where your electricity and gas are cut off and you're having to use space heaters or open an oven, because that's very dangerous,” Morgenstern said.

For those who don't meet the state's guidelines for assistance but still fall behind on bills, Consumers Energy offers payment plans. Customers who are up-to-date on bills can sign up for budget billing, which spreads the high winter costs through the year, and sets a fixed monthly bill.

Follow Rachel Glaser on Twitter and on Facebook.

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