Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel

Consumers' Corner

FALL 2013

In This Issue:


Prepare early for a warm, energy efficient winter

Ceiling FanKnowing what you can do to lessen your energy usage without sacrificing comfort is important and also can lower your monthly utility bills. The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) wants to help you learn to control the energy you use in your home so you can stay warm this winter without "breaking the bank."

The first step is to identify what areas of your home need work in order to reduce the amount of heat you are losing to the outside. Losing heat can be caused by a lack of appropriate insulation in the walls or attic, old windows that allow cold air to seep in or insufficient caulking around windows and doors. To learn exactly how to "weatherize" your home, you can either do a self-assessment or you can arrange for a home energy audit by a third party.

If you choose to perform your own energy audit, OCC offers a checklist at http://goo.gl/7MhXCJ that can help you determine how to make your home more energy efficient and increase comfort.

If you choose to have a home energy audit conducted by a third party, you may be able to schedule the audit through your electric or natural gas utility (To see a list of programs offered by your utility, visit http://goo.gl/TbiSdI). For a fee, qualified energy auditors will search for areas in your home where heat is escaping and offer tips on how to prevent this from happening. Some companies even offer rebates to offset the cost of the recommended work.

With cooler weather and winter approaching, you may want to consider purchasing a high efficiency furnace or energy efficient windows that will help you stay warm and save money. High-efficiency furnaces and energy efficient windows may cost more up front, compared to other weatherizing efforts (such as adding insulation and caulking around doors and windows), but it can pay off in the long run by reducing your energy usage.

Another way to lower energy usage any time of the year is to replace old, outdated appliances, such as refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers and clothing washers with newer, more efficient models. Some utilities offer rebates or incentives to purchase and install newer appliances. Your utility may also offer free removal of your old refrigerator, as long as it is in working order. This approach also ensures your old refrigerator is recycled and doesn't end up in the landfill.

For more information about energy efficiency, visit OCC online at www.occ.ohio.gov and click on our "Smart Energy" page.

By Erin Biehl


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Communities connect to Smart911

Smart911

New technology enhances emergency response
When 911 dispatchers in Tennessee answered a call from a cell phone, all they could hear was a gurgling sound. On the other end was a 26-year-old woman who was having an epileptic seizure.

"The only information dispatchers had was the location of the cell tower," said Todd Miller, vice president of public safety services, Rave Mobile safety. "But even without the caller saying a single word, authorities were able to find the address in a timely fashion and knew what was going on."

We all know to call 911 in an emergency, but Miller's company is behind a new service that works with 911 to help give first responders even more information—Smart911.

Think of Smart911 as something that complements our existing 911 system. It allows residents to create a safety profile of information such as addresses, medical conditions, disabilities, allergies, photographs, emergency contacts, and even the number of pets in your home.

The profile is then linked to a cell phone, land line or internet phone service and available to first responders. With Smart911, anytime you make an emergency call from a phone registered to your safety profile, the 911 system recognizes your phone number and automatically displays your profile on the screen.

"You get to control what information you provide," Miller said. "Maybe it's just an address, which is critical because 70 percent to 80 percent of calls come to 911 dispatchers from mobile phones and those show up as a dot on a screen and not an exact location. You can provide home, work and vacation addresses."

Smart911 also has the ability to provide first responders with floor plans, information that can help them on the scene.

In the search for missing children, time is crucial. A Smart911 profile could get a photo or physical description to law enforcement immediately.

For families affected by autism, communication can be challenging. Rescue notes indicating how responders should approach a child could be included in a safety profile.

"This is a national database so if you register a profile and go anywhere where there's Smart911 it will be able to share your information," Miller said.

Although customers can register a profile with Smart911 for free, Smart 911 is not enabled in every municipality yet. Local communities must first purchase and install the Smart911 technology in order to allow the safety profile to be accessed by first responders. Grove City will be the first community in Ohio to link to Smart911. State Representative Cheryl Grossman (R-Grove City) has strongly supported availability of Smart911.

Currently, first responders in more than 450 communities in 33 states, including the District of Columbia, have installed Smart911 technology. Arkansas is the only state to provide statewide coverage.

By Scott Gerfen

Fun Phone Fact:

Listening to others chatter on cellphones has become an everyday annoyance for many, but is nothing new when it comes to the history of the telephone. The following from the August 9, 2013 Wall Street Journal article "Chatter..." states: New technology opened new channels for chatter. The telephone was one: An 1897 article in the New York Tribune bemoaned "the senseless chatter and constant 'helloing' "of the "telephone maniacs."


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Staying warm when the power goes out

photoIn Ohio, temperatures routinely dip to the freezing mark during the winter and, when they do, many of us turn the heat up to stay warm and comfortable. However, what should we do if the electricity goes out and our furnaces don't work? There are alternative ways to provide heat to your home; however, safety needs to be at the forefront to protect you and your loved ones. Here are a few tips from the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC).

Gas stoves and carbon monoxide
While it may seem convenient, a natural gas stove should never be used as a heating source because it emits carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can be fatal when breathed. Low levels of exposure can cause nausea, dizziness, muscle aches and weakness. Leave the house immediately and call the fire department if you suspect there is carbon monoxide or a natural gas leak in your home.

Generators
Some consumers may consider purchasing a generator if they experience long, frequent outages. When purchasing a generator, discuss the following factors with a salesperson: purchase price, fuel to run the generator, how long it can provide power and what it can provide power to, such as appliances, sump pumps or security systems.

Generators should always be operated outdoors (protected from weather) or in a well-ventilated area (but not indoors) to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. You should make sure that the rated capacity of your generator is not exceeded with what is plugged into it. And always power-up the generators with the largest appliance first, adding additional items one at a time. Also remember to use the appropriate gauge of extension cords for each appliance.

Fireplaces
If you have a fireplace, this can be a good source of heat, but there are several safety measures to keep in mind. First, ensure wood stoves and fireplaces are installed according to building codes. You should have the chimney cleaned and inspected yearly to prevent build up from catching fire that can spread to the rest of your home. Also, avoid using coal, charcoal, trash or paper wrappings in a fireplace. These items can emit carbon monoxide or other dangerous fumes.

For more consumer protection and utility information, visit www.occ.ohio.gov.

By Erin Biehl


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AEP seeking rate increases to pay for repairing storm damage

How to make your voice heard on proposals affecting your utility bills
Ohioans saw their lives disrupted on June 29, 2012, by a line of fast-moving thunderstorms that resulted in extended power outages for more than one million electric customers. For many residents, homes were dark for nearly two weeks during a blistering heat wave. The storms uprooted trees and knocked down power lines in many parts of Ohio.

On Dec. 21, 2012, American Electric Power (AEP) asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to approve its request to collect nearly $62 million from customers for its costs to restore service after the storms. Generally, utilities are permitted to request recovery of their costs to repair storm damages from customers; however, AEP's request was believed to be one of the largest ever in Ohio.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) is advocating for AEP's 1.2 million residential customers, about 670,000 of whom were affected by the prolonged outages. On July 19, 2013, OCC asked the PUCO to schedule local hearings for public input in five of the communities hardest hit during last summer's storms—Athens, Columbus, Findlay, Newark and Portsmouth. AEP opposed this request for local public hearings, and OCC's request was later denied.

Customers can have a voice in PUCO cases, whether it is in the AEP storm case or any utility matter when your interests are affected. To make your thoughts known on issues affecting your utility bills, follow these instructions (example shows the case number for the AEP request):

Write a letter to the PUCO:

Be sure to include your name, address, and reference to the utility and the case numbers. Send your letter to:

Public Utilities Commission of Ohio - Docketing Division
RE: Case No. 12-3255-EL-RDR
180 E. Broad St., 11th Floor
Columbus, OH 43215

File an online comment directly on the PUCO website:

  • „E-mails should be addressed to: Docketing@puc.state.oh.us.

  • To file a comment, visit the PUCO's web page for this case. That web page is found by viewing the PUCO's website at www.puco.ohio.gov; clicking on the link to the Docketing Information System and entering the case number, 12-3255-EL-RDR. On the web page for the case there is a link to a form for filing comments.

By Marty Berkowitz


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Help with heating bills available for consumers in need

photoWith temperatures beginning to drop, forecasters are predicting a long, cold winter ahead for Ohioans. This could be especially worrisome for residential utility consumers struggling to keep current with their monthly bills.

There are a number of resources available to help residential consumers stay connected to their utilities as the weather gets cold. On its website, www.occ.ohio.gov, the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) provides information about the various federal and state assistance programs available to assist consumers with their energy bills:

Consumers also can contact their local electric or natural gas utility to seek help through existing fuel funds. Our recently developed fact sheet, Utility-funded Assistance Programs Available to Consumers, can be found at http://goo.gl/JZpYnC or by contacting 1-877-742-5622. The fact sheet includes information about utility-offered assistance, as well as eligibility guidelines and telephone numbers to call for information.

There are also special reconnection procedures for the 2013 – 2014 winter heating season under the Winter Reconnection Order issued by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). The Winter Reconnection Order will remain in effect through April 15, 2014. It allows consumers to make a one-time payment of up to $175 to avoid being disconnected or to restore their disconnected utility service.

Some of the guidelines are as follows:
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  • Customers who are currently disconnected or facing disconnection can have their electric and/or natural gas service restored or maintained by making a one-time payment of up to $175.

  • If service has been disconnected, payment of a reconnection fee of no more than $36 can also be required. Some utilities charge reconnection fees of more than $36. In such cases, the balance of the fee may be billed to the customer in the following month.

  • Customers must sign up for a payment plan to pay any remaining past-due balance on their utility bill. The PUCO requires the utilities to offer customers several different payment options.

  • Customers must apply for assistance from the regular Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). Households with incomes at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($41,213 gross annual household income for a household of four) may contact their local community action agency and use funds provided through the Emergency Home Energy Assistance Program (E-HEAP) to pay the $175.

  • The $175 can be used to establish electric or natural gas service instead of the required security deposit. If the deposit is more than $175, the remaining balance will be added to the next month's bill.

  • If customers owe past due amounts on their natural gas and electric bills, the $175 can be divided between both utilities.

  • Former Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP Plus) and Graduate PIPP Plus customers can take advantage of the Winter Reconnection Order to re-enroll or continue participation in the program. Those customers must pay the balance of any missed PIPP Plus or Graduate PIPP Plus payments that are more than $175 by the due date of the next bill.

By Marty Berkowitz


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Technology is helping your home get smarter

Anyone who watched late-night television in the 1980s likely remembers a commercial that featured a catchy jingle and a woman clapping her hands to turn off the TV.

The Clapper, with its marketing slogan, "Clap on!" "Clap off!," features a sound activated electrical switch to control household devices.

But today's technology, and the increasing popularity of smartphones, tablets and Wi-Fi, offers much more in the way of a fully automated home, including everything from energy management and security to entertainment.

In our last issue, we offered information on thermostats that can be controlled remotely through wireless internet technology in the home. But there are other automated products for your home, such as lights and electrical outlets that can be controlled remotely. These technologies enable customers to save energy even when they are away from home.

For example, smart switches and smart bulbs can be remotely programmed by sending commands wirelessly or through existing electric wires. It is now possible to use an app on one's smartphone or tablet to program lights, such as to change brightness and to switch lights on or off.

But the automated home goes beyond controlling lights and temperature.

The promise of home automation is to simplify our daily lives in any number of ways. There already are hundreds of competing products.

As new home construction begins to bounce back, experts predict an expanding market for new players and products in the realm of home automation. The demand has even prompted Amazon to open a new store to help consumers find home automation products. The website is loaded with guides and introductory manuals. Microsoft, AT&T, Google and others have waded into the market.

But there is the potential for security risks with these new products. A reporter for Forbes wrote about being able to hack into other people's home automation systems. The reporter, located in California, surprised one couple by remotely turning on lights in their Oregon home.

For those who remember a 20th Century cartoon about the future, living "The Jetsons'" lifestyle can have its challenges.

By Scott Gerfen


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QR CodeOCC Speaker Request

Representatives from OCC can speak to your group about a variety of utility issues, including consumer protections, payment assistance, electric and natural gas choice and more!

For a complete list of topics, visit: www.occ.ohio.gov/education/speaker.shtml. To request a speaker, go to www.occ.ohio.gov/contact/sbform.php.

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