Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel

Consumers' Corner

May/June 2012

In This Issue:


PIPP Plus works for customers paying off high utility balances

PIPP PlusSlowly but surely, customers saddled with the burden of huge utility debts are working their way out of trouble by paying a percentage of their household income each month.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) has received data from Ohio's electric and natural gas utilities that suggests the program is working. On average, more than 72 percent of the payments made by customers enrolled in the Percentage of Income Payment Program (PIPP Plus) during 2011 were submitted in full and on time. The utilities also reported that nearly $500 million in arrearage credits were awarded to PIPP Plus customers who were current with their payments.

These dollars were credited to customers finally able to relieve themselves of utility debts they may not have been able to pay otherwise. The average monthly PIPP Plus installment payment was slightly under $54 in 2011. This averages to approximately $647 paid throughout the year towards electric and natural gas bills. Because PIPP Plus households may earn no more than 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, this dollar amount shows that the majority of consumers benefiting from the program earn well below that level.

The Percentage of Income Payment Plan has existed in Ohio for more than 25 years. PIPP is a program that allows income-eligible customers to take part in an extended payment arrangement on their electric and/or natural gas bills to avoid being disconnected for inability to pay.

Major changes to the program went in effect in November 2010 that resulted in lower monthly payments for participants. The OCC and other parties advocated for many of the reforms which, in 2011, began to show positive results for consumers participating in the program, now called PIPP Plus.

PIPP PlusAmong the changes were lower monthly payments. Consumers now have to pay 6 percent of their monthly income or $10 per month to both electric and natural gas utilities, whichever is greater. This is lower than the payment level originally required. As a result, more customers have been able to afford to stay current on their monthly payments and avoid having their electric or natural gas service disconnected.

Another reform enacted as part of the PIPP Plus changes was a debt-forgiveness program that offered consumers a chance to have part of their utility debt forgiven by paying their monthly bills in full and on time. For every month customers make a full payment, one-twenty-fourth of their remaining electric or natural gas debt is erased. If a customer makes 24 consecutive payments, in full and on time, the entire debt will be forgiven.

Factors such as lower natural gas prices help explain why many PIPP Plus customers have been able to consistently make their payments; however, Ohioans continue to struggle with unemployment averaging more than 7.5 percent through March. As more PIPP Plus customers are able to keep their utility service connected while making affordable payments and eliminating their long-term utility debt, they are better able to participate in helping Ohio's economy recover.

By Marty Berkowitz


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10 essentials to know before choosing an electric supplier

If this spring has been any indication of what summer could be like, the next few months could get hot. And the dog days of summer likely means cranking the air conditioner to stay cool. With cooler home temperatures combating the hot outdoor temperatures, high monthly electric bills could be in store for some consumers.

Factsheet_Comparing-Your-Electric-ChoicesThe Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) has shared a number of ways to help you keep your electric bills under control. One that you may want to consider is shopping for an alternative generation supplier. Shopping for the best deal could lead to savings on the most costly part of your electric bill.

While your traditional utility would still deliver your electricity, a competitive supplier would provide the generation and transmission of the electricity. These two elements can account for up to 65 percent of your monthly electric bill.

When shopping for a competitive supplier on the OCCs website, receiving a door-to- door solicitation or responding to a television advertisement, there are 10 essential tips you should consider before choosing an alternative supplier:

  1. Suppliers must be certified - All electric choice suppliers must be certified with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio before they are able to do business in the state. A listing of certified suppliers is available online;

  2. Know your price to compare – The price to compare is the amount a competitor must beat in order for you to save on your electric bill. This price is on each monthly bill you receive and includes the cost for generation, transmission and some other charges in cents per kilowatt-hour. Remember, the price to compare can change month to month based on your electric usage patterns. Review your previous bills to determine your average price to compare;

  3. Ask questions – Gain as much information as possible about the details of the offer presented to you. An extensive list of questions you should ask is available online from the OCC in a fact sheet titled "Electric Choice 101;"

  4. Your right to cancel – If you agree to switch electric generation suppliers, notification will be provided to your local electric utility that you are switching generation providers. A confirmation letter of the switch will be sent by the local utility. If, for any reason, you change your mind about the contract, you have seven days from the date postmarked on the letter to cancel with no penalty;

  5. Know the service agreement – Every certified electric supplier must provide you with a service agreement when you enroll. The agreement must include the supplier's name, telephone number and address, list any switching fees, itemize the prices, fees and other charges that are a part of the contract, and its complaint handling procedures. Know that if you return to your local utility you could be charged a fee, in addition to any early cancellation fees assessed by the supplier;

  6. Is there an automatic renewal? – Check to see if there is an automatic renewal provision in the contract with the electric generation supplier. Consumers sometimes mistake communications from the supplier as junk mail and learn too late that they were automatically signed up for a new contract. This renewal could even be at a higher rate than what you signed up for originally;

  7. Ask to see a name badge - Door-to-door solicitors must show a valid photo identification badge issued by the electric supplier. They must also explain they are not hired by the utility, and fully explain the details of any documents to be signed including associated costs with taxes, and the length of the contract;

  8. Keep your bill and account number private – Protecting this information is of the utmost importance. Access to your name and account number could allow someone to enroll you in services that you had no intention of purchasing. It cannot be said enough to keep this information private;

  9. Multiple ways to sign up – If you're not ready to sign up with a solicitor who knocks at your door, there are other ways to sign up as well. Phone, mail, fax, and Internet are all options. So take your time, and do your research before signing up; and

  10. Comparison shop with the OCC – The OCC receives information about offers from electric suppliers on a regular basis. For the most up-to-date offers, check the OCC's Electric Choice information web page.

Following these 10 essentials can help you make educated decisions when considering a competitive supplier. For more information about electric choice, or any other utility-related topic, visit the OCC at www.occ.ohio.gov.

By Anthony Rodriguez


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Shopping for an independent gas supplier? Know the contract

Paying utility bills

Agreeing to purchase a service can be complicated – whether you are signing a lease to a new apartment, buying a car or natural gas to heat your home. As the number of retail natural gas suppliers in Ohio has increased, budgeting for utility costs is no longer a simple matter of paying your monthly utility bill. Now, you have choices.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel website, www.occ.ohio.gov, offers weekly charts for Columbia Gas, Dominion East Ohio, Duke Energy and Vectren customers who want to comparison shop for natural gas alternatives. Each chart includes a list of offers from independent natural gas suppliers certified to do business in Ohio, as well as contact and contract information.

Among the first and most important things you need to remember is that buying your natural gas from a private supplier is quite different than receiving service from a regulated utility company. The supplier sets the price for the service it provides, as well as the terms and conditions of the contract.

You need to have clear and understandable answers to the following questions before entering into a contract with a retail natural gas supplier:

  • Is the price offered a fixed or variable rate? What is the difference?
  • Is there a fee to sign up?
  • Is there a fee to switch if I decide to go back to my local utility company or switch suppliers?
  • What date will I begin receiving service from the supplier?
  • When will the supplier's charges appear on my bill?
  • How long is the agreement?
  • Is there a fee to cancel my agreement?
  • What happens if I decide to move before the agreement expires?
  • Will the agreement automatically renew at the end of the contract period? If so, at what rate and for how long? Will I be notified that the contract has renewed?
  • Will I receive two bills (one from the supplier and one from my utility company), or just one bill?
  • If I have a billing problem, whom should I contact?
  • What are the terms and conditions of the agreement? (Always obtain a written copy.)

Make sure you have all of your questions answered before completing any contractual arrangement and ALWAYS keep a copy of your signed contract on hand.

If a salesperson comes to your home, ask to see a name badge. Solicitors are required to show a valid photo identification badge issued by the supplier. They must explain that they are not employees of the utility and clearly explain the details of any document they ask you to sign. In ALL cases, keep your billing and account information private.

Choice can give you the ability to control your natural gas costs, but being an educated consumer is the best way to make sure you get the best bang for your energy buck.

By Marty Berkowitz


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Recycling CFLs as easy as a trip to the hardware store

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) have become an increasingly large part of the way consumers choose to light their homes over the last few years. Not only do they use up to 75 percent less electricity than traditional light bulbs, but advances in technology have made CFLs a choice people can now make without sacrificing the lighting quality they have grown accustomed to experiencing.

CFL BulbAs CFLs gain in popularity, one of the common questions people have is how to dispose of them properly since they have a tiny amount of mercury (think of the size of ball point pen tip) inside them. "Disposing of Your CFL Bulbs," one of the more popular pieces of information on the Ohio Consumers' Counsel website, directly answers this question. There consumers can find a short list of places where customers can safely drop off used CFLs to be recycled. This list includes several local solid waste management districts.

There also are a number of local hardware stores and other retailers that can recycle used CFLs for consumers. Just be sure to check directly with the store to verify it is equipped to recycle CFLs. For a comprehensive listing of CFL recycling centers visit the website, Earth911.com.

Properly recycling expired and unbroken CFLs will ensure safety and environmental measures are followed so the release of mercury is prevented.

If it is not possible to recycle a used CFL, and there is no better disposal option available, it is recommended to seal the bulb in a plastic zipper bag before discarding it in an outdoor trash container.

It should also be noted that if a CFL bulb breaks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends a simple clean-up procedure for consumers to follow to minimize exposure to mercury vapor.

By Anthony Rodriguez


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Checklist can remove vacation utility bill surprises

Bills to Pay

As summer approaches and children take breaks from school, this is the prime time when families will take much needed vacations.

The rest, relaxation, fun and family memories from these vacations uplift our spirits. But the last thing you want is to dampen the highs of a vacation by coming home to a high utility bill you were not expecting.

If you plan to holiday away from home this summer, don't forget to spend some time creating an energy checklist to help save money and energy while you're out having fun in the sun. This checklist from the Ohio Consumers' Counsel can help get you started on the road to savings while you and your family are out enjoying your vacation.

Saving ENERGY Checklist

  • Completely turn off electronics, then unplug them – Some appliances and electronics continue to draw power even when turned off. TVs, cable boxes, DVD players, computers, video game consoles, and more continue to use power even though they are in the off position. Use a power strip and turn off multiple electronics when not in use, or unplug them directly from outlets

  • Push home temperatures up – Increase the thermostat 5 degrees. On average, each degree you set your thermostat above 75 degrees Fahrenheit for eight-hour blocks cuts your cooling costs by about 3 percent, according to Focus on Energy. You also may want to consider turning off your air conditioner completely

  • Lower water heater tank temperature – A water heater tank can account for as much 18 percent of your monthly utility costs. Lowering the temperature of your water heater or setting it to "vacation mode" will help you save. Additionally, if your water tank is more than 10 years old, an inexpensive insulation blanket can help regulate water temperatures

  • Shut all window curtains and blinds – Keeping window treatments drawn can help reduce heat gain from the hot afternoon sun

  • Adjust the refrigerator – Turn the settings on your refrigerator to a slightly higher temperature. Normal recommended temperature settings are between 37 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit for the fresh food compartment and 5 degrees Fahrenheit for the freezer. If you are able to completely empty your refrigerator, unplugging the unit (and leaving the doors open) can lead to larger vacation energy savings

  • Turn off all lights – If you use a lamp for security reasons, use a low-wattage bulb such as a compact fluorescent light bulb or an LED bulb and attach it to a timer

If you check off each of these items before leaving for your vacation, you can focus on what really matters and not a scary utility bill when you get back.

By Anthony Rodriguez


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Infographic: Electricity in Ohio

Electricity is obviously an important part of our everyday lives. It illuminates our lights, heats our homes (for some of us), powers our entertainment and much more. But did you know Ohio is one of the largest producers of electricity in the United States? Or that consumers in the state also are one of the largest users of it? Ohio's electricity profile is chock full of interesting information. Take a look!

Click for larger image

Infographic: Electricity in Ohio

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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