Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel

Consumers' Corner

SPRING 2013

In This Issue:


Stay cool and comfortable this summer while saving money

Ceiling Fan

The hot, humid days of summer are coming. Soon, Ohioans will be looking for ways to stay cool and comfortable without spending hundreds of extra dollars on electric bills. To help you save money, the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) offers these tips:

  • „Replace the filter in your air conditioner every one to three months. Check your manufacturer manual to see what is recommended for your system. Also, occasionally removing dirt on the filter can reduce electricity usage by allowing the unit to work less to keep the home cool.

  • „Clean the coils (either on the back or the bottom depending on the model of the refrigerator) to help the compressor cool faster and run less.

  • „Have leaky air ducts repaired or replaced. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 20 percent of cooling energy for the majority of homes is lost through ducts with leaks.

  • „Make sure all ceiling fans are spinning counter-clockwise. Turn them off when no one is in the room or when no one is home.

  • „Find ways to block direct sunlight from getting into your home. Use awnings, deck umbrellas, trees and shrubs to create shade around your home. This will reduce the amount of heat your home absorbs from the sun. Remember to call the Ohio Utilities Protection Services (8-1-1 or 1-800-362-2764) before planting to avoid hitting buried utility lines.

  • „Take advantage of cooler nights by opening your windows. Keep safety in mind and do not leave ground floor windows open at night.

  • „When possible, fix meals on a grill outside. If it is necessary to use your stove or oven, remove heat through the fan on the range hood. Using your microwave is another great option to cut down on heat from cooking and to reduce your air conditioning use.

There are many more tips you can apply to your home and routine that will help you use less energy and stay cool. Learn more from OCC's fact sheets "Beat the Heat – Summer Cooling Tips" and "Smart Energy Tips" on its website, www.pickocc.org/publications/factsheets-smart_energy.shtml.

By Erin Biehl


return to top ^

Energy contracts … understanding the fine print

Energy consumers have choices. You can purchase electricity or natural gas through your local utility. You may be able to join your neighbors and purchase energy at a rate determined through a local government aggregation. Or you can shop for an offer from an energy marketer that best suits your individual needs.

If you choose to sign-up with an energy marketer, the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) recommends that you closely review the contract including the terms and conditions. This "fine print" in the contract can include hidden fees.

Here are some examples of fine print to watch for:

  • „ "Under this automatic month-to-month renewal provision, this agreement can be renewed each month without your affirmative consent, even if there is a change in the rate or other terms and conditions."

Some contracts include rates that change on a month-to-month basis. Just because the rate is low one month, doesn't mean it will stay low the next. Make sure you understand how the rate may change, and if there is any guarantee that it will be lower than the price your local utility is offering.

  • „ "If you select a fixed price plan, you will get the fixed price in effect when you make your selection. If you take no action, upon expiration of your fixed price plan you will be automatically enrolled on our Variable Plan at the standard price in effect at that time."

It's important to know if the contract will automatically renew, and at what rate. If you let your contract auto-renew, you could end up paying more than you bargained for.

To avoid this costly mistake, be aware of the end date of your contract. At that time, you can choose another offer from your current marketer, an offer from a different marketer, or purchase through your local utility.

  • „ "If you terminate your plan prior to its scheduled expiration, you will be assessed an early termination charge."

The fine print should reveal whether there is a fee for early cancellation if you switch to a different marketer or to your utility before the end of your contract. Early cancellation fees may vary. Read the fine print to find the amount of the fee, if any, and the conditions under which the fee will be imposed.

  • „ "You agree to the company obtaining a credit report and investigating your credit rating, credit history and utility bill payment status and history."

Some energy marketers may review your credit history before enrolling you in their services.

Always keep handy a copy of your energy marketer contract as you would with a lease agreement or a vehicle warranty. Your contract will tell you what your marketer is agreeing to provide in exchange for your signature. And, it will also tell you the terms you are agreeing to abide by. Knowing what is in the fine print is a key element in making an informed energy decision.

Electric Choice Fact SheetOCC offers consumers fact sheets that compare energy offers:

„ "Comparing Your Natural Gas Choices," www.pickocc.org/gas/choice.shtml

„ "Comparing Your Electric Choices,"
www.pickocc.org/electric/choice.shtml

For customers considering electricity offers, compare the offers to the "price to compare" listed on your electric bill. For customers considering natural gas offers, compare the offers to the "Standard Choice Offer" (or SCO) listed on your natural gas bill and on OCC's fact sheets.

By Marty Berkowitz


return to top ^

Play it safe – call before you dig

Warm weather is finally here and it's time to start landscaping and outdoor home projects. Before you pick up your shovel to plant that bush or begin clearing the yard for the new deck, be sure to contact the Ohio Utilities Protection Services (OUPS).

By law, Ohioans are required to contact OUPS at least 48 hours, but no earlier than 10 days, before digging on their property. If you hire a contractor to perform work, verify that the company will contact OUPS to avoid costly errors. This allows the organization to work with your local utilities to mark the locations of underground utility lines. This helps avoid costly, and potentially dangerous, accidents such as cutting telephone or cable lines or hitting underground electric wires or natural gas pipelines.

According to OUPS, activities such as digging fence posts, installing supports for decks and swing sets, removing tree roots and driving landscape stakes have all resulted in damage to utility lines.

Call 8-1-1Here are two ways to contact OUPS. You can call 8-1-1 or submit an e-dig ticket online at www.oups.org. Make sure to have the following available information when you submit your request:

  • Digging dates;
  • Type of work;
  • Where the work will take place on your property;
  • Your county, city or township name; and
  • Your address and nearest cross street.

OUPS offers additional tips on its website, under "Homeowners." Do your part to protect yourself and ensure the reliability of utility service in your neighborhood. Be responsible by taking a few minutes to submit your request to OUPS.

By Erin Biehl


return to top ^

Ohio General Assembly off to a busy start

Ceiling Fan

The 130th Ohio General Assembly convened in January and has been busy ever since. Legislators are holding hearings to review Ohio's electric, natural gas and telecommunications laws. They are also considering a budget bill which will determine state spending for the next two years.

Here's a brief update on each of these issues:

Natural Gas
The Ohio House of Representatives is considering a Bill that would increase the price of natural gas. House Bill 102 (HB 102) requires the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to increase utilities' Standard Choice Offer price for natural gas by adding certain costs that their competitors, the natural gas marketers, incur for doing business (such as door-to-door sales and direct advertising).

Most consumers have the ability to choose the supplier for their natural gas. Consumer options include:

  1. The Standard Choice Offer that can be selected by contacting the local utility (Columbia, Dominion or Vectren);
  2. Offers from unregulated energy marketers; or
  3. A government aggregation offer (if available in their community).

HB 102 would increase the cost of the Standard Choice Offer (option #1) to include some of the unregulated energy marketers' (option #2) costs of doing business. This change would increase the price of natural gas for hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who choose to purchase natural gas through their local utility at the Standard Choice Offer price.

The Standard Choice Offer is determined through a competitive auction. This rate has allowed utilities to deliver low-cost natural gas to Ohioans and has saved consumers money on their natural gas bills. HB 102 would artificially increase this market rate.

Alternative Energy
The Senate Public Utilities Committee has begun a review of Ohio's energy efficiency and alternative energy laws. Senate Bill 58 was introduced as a "placeholder bill" to "review and possibly modify the energy efficiency, peak demand reduction, and alternative energy resource provisions established by Ohio law."

The Senate Committee held several hearings on these topics. The Committee may use the hearings to develop a more detailed proposal to address these issues. OCC testified in support of Ohio's energy efficiency laws. OCC's testimony can be viewed at: www.pickocc.org/lservices/testimony.shtml.

Telecommunications
In 2010, the Ohio General Assembly passed legislation that significantly changed the law regulating landline telephone service. The legislation allowed telephone companies, when they could show some competition, to automatically increase the rates consumers pay for basic landline service each year. The legislation also removed numerous consumer protections that had been in place.

In addition, the legislation established a Select Committee to study the impact of the changes in the law. The Committee's report is due by September 2014. The Committee met for the first time in February 2013. The Ohio Consumers' Counsel holds a seat on the Committee. OCC provided testimony at the Committee's second meeting in April. OCC's testimony is available at: www.pickocc.org/lservices/testimony.shtml.

Budget
Governor Kasich submitted his proposal for the next two years of state funding to the Ohio General Assembly. The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel's budget is determined as a part of this process.

The Governor's proposal maintains OCC's funding at its 2013 level.

The funding for OCC is provided through an assessment on utilities and other entities regulated by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). OCC's funding is not generated through tax dollars.

For more information about any of these proposals, please contact OCC by email at
occ@occ.state.oh.us.

By Amy Kurt


return to top ^

Summer Crisis Program offers assistance to help low-income Ohioans

Summer's heat can be unbearable. Many Ohioans fight the heat without the help of air conditioners and even face electric disconnection notices. The Summer Crisis Program (SCP) provides relief to many Ohioans who need help paying their bills or keeping cool.

This summer consumers can apply for funds if their household income is at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level, and by meeting one of the following guidelines:

  • „ A member of the household is 60 years of age or older; or
  • „ A physician has certified a medical necessity.

Income GuidelinesThe 2013 Summer Crisis Program will operate from July 1 through August 31 and provide one-time assistance of up to $175 per household. This emergency assistance may be used to keep electricity connected and/or allow for the receipt of a window air-conditioning unit and/or fan. Consumers can apply for SCP assistance through local assistance agencies (in most cases the local Community Action Agency).

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel has posted updated information on its website, www.pickocc.org. The Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA) oversees the Summer Crisis Program. Ohioans can contact ODSA at 1-800-282-0880 or visit its website, www.development.ohio.gov/is/is_heapsummer.htm for additional details.

By Erin Biehl


return to top ^

Energy efficiency tax credits available in 2013

Installing insulation, replacing old windows, and upgrading to an efficient air conditioner will save you money on your energy bills. Now, thanks to a recent law, you can also receive a federal tax credit for making these home efficiency improvements.

Consumers may claim a tax credit of 10 percent of the cost of qualifying products or services that are purchased in 2013:

  • „Heating, ventilating, and air conditioning units;
  • „Insulation;
  • „Roofs (metal & asphalt);
  • „Water heaters; and
  • „Windows and doors.

Consumers who install geothermal heat pumps, small wind turbines, solar energy systems and residential fuel cells can also claim a 30 percent tax credit on installations through 2016. Certification from the manufacturer is also needed to ensure that the product meets the requirements for the tax credit.

Originally, the ability to claim tax credits for energy efficient upgrades expired in 2011. However, through the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, homeowners can claim credits for certain energy efficiency improvements made through the end of 2013.

To learn more about tax credits for home energy efficiency improvements, visit www.irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/Get-Credit-for-Making-Your-Home-Energy-Efficient.

By Erin Biehl


return to top ^

Important information for Dominion East Ohio customers

Are you a Dominion East Ohio natural gas customer?

Have you ever signed up to purchase your natural gas directly from an energy marketer, or opted into a government aggregation program?

Has your natural gas contract ended? Or have you chosen to end your energy contract and switch to Dominion?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you may be one of the thousands of Dominion customers that have been switched to an unregulated "Monthly Variable Rate" or "MVR" which could be a higher rate than Dominion's Standard Choice Offer.

If you wish to purchase natural gas at Dominion's standard offer price you must call Dominion at 1-800-362-7557 and specifically ask for the "Standard Choice Offer," or the "SCO".

Natural Gas Marketer ChartIf you don't call Dominion and request the Standard Choice Offer, you will be switched to another energy marketer at its Monthly Variable Rate after a two-month grace period. The energy marketer will be chosen at random and its rate may be significantly higher than Dominion's Standard Choice Offer.

Dominion's Standard Choice Offer is a combination of the wholesale price of natural gas and a retail adder determined through a competitive auction. This market-based rate has given customers a low-cost option for their natural gas.

This chart illustrates a comparison between Dominion's Standard Choice Offer and the monthly variable rates charged by various energy marketers:*

* Source: Dominion "Apples to Apples," May 2, 2013, http://www.puco.ohio.gov/

By Marty Berkowitz


return to top ^

OCC 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.pickocc.org/education/speaker.shtml

To request a speaker, go to www.pickocc.org/contact/sbform.php, or email us at speaker@occ.state.oh.us.

return to top ^

Information believed accurate but not guaranteed.
For information about our privacy policy and copyright, visit our Legal Disclaimer page.
The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel is an equal opportunity employer and provider of services.
Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel - Your Residential Utility Consumer Advocate OCC Seal Home En Español Search Ask Utility Questions Action Alerts