UPDATE 2/2/2021: Portions of this story originally appeared in January 2018, and have been updated to reflect January 2021 conditions.
Many Cincinnati area homeowners and renters are opening their January heating bills this week, and getting sticker shock when they do.
Bills are up sharply, but the recent cold snap is just one reason
Mary Harrell of Amelia, Ohio, is among many homeowners complaining, after receiving a January Duke bill much higher than December's, or last year's bill at this time.
"My January bill was $407," she said, which was almost double her most recent bills.
But when she looked more closely, she noticed the rate she was paying was up sharply compared with last fall.
It tuns out Duke didn't raise rates. Rather her third-party energy supplier, which she had signed up with a year-and-a-half earlier, had renewed her contract at a much higher rate.
"It just seemed they didn't have to do that," she said.
Cold weather just one reason
Obviously most of us used a lot more gas and electric in the last month with three weeks of below-average temperatures.
But that's just part of the problem.
In Ohio, many third-party energy contracts expired at the end of 2020. Suppliers are required under Ohio law to send you a notice in the mail that your rate deal is ending, and that your contract is about to be renewed (almost always at a higher rate).
But many people toss the letters, as they look like junk-mail solicitations.
They are then stunned when their January bill reflects a dramatic increase in the base rate they are paying for gas or electricity.
Mary Harrell worries other people may have missed letters warning of higher rates.
"9 out of 10 people aren't going to sit down and look closely. They don't have time to look at their bills and review them."
High bills in Kentucky, too
But even if you don't use a third-party supplier, January's bill will still be up. Kentucky homeowners don't have an option of switching gas or electric companies. But Anthony Belden of Walton, Kentucky, forwarded us a copy of his $400 bill, substantially higher than anything he has paid the past two years.
We spoke with Duke Energy, where spokeswoman Sally Thelen said if your January bill is much more than you can handle, you have several options:
- Ask about setting up Budget Billing, where you spread your payments over the entire year.
- Check to see if you qualify for HeatShare (in Ohio) or WinterCare (in Kentucky) for lower-income customers.
- Call your third-party energy company, if you have one. You may be able to defer part of this month's large bill, and negotiate a new rate going forward.
- Go to the Ohio PUCO website and choose a new provider, after comparing deals to get the lowest rate possible.
Unfortunately you cannot get a break on your current bill. You have to pay it.
But Mary Harrell says if your rates went up sharply, like hers, call and negotiate. She now has a much lower rate.
As always, don't waste your money.
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