Graciela Lopez of Hauppauge describes how she and her 17-year-old daughter get creative in order to tamp down their utility bills. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Unless the air is exceptionally cold, Graciela Lopez turns down the heat during the day — sometimes to 60 degrees.

She rarely uses the two gas fireplaces in her Hauppauge home, for fear of what it might cost. A single mother of a 17-year-old daughter, Lopez works two jobs to afford rent and utility bills.

She sells hair products to beauty salons by day and delivers food for DoorDash by night. She also volunteers four days a week for Helping Hands Rescue Mission, the same nonprofit organization that helps her stock her own kitchen with groceries twice a month.

“I need coffee in the morning, and coffee at night,” Lopez, 41, said one December evening. As the coffee beans brewed, her daughter, Alejandra Cevahir, made herself a Nutella sandwich before dance class.

Lopez, originally from Honduras, rents part of a house for $2,500 a month before utilities. With heating costs, she pays closer to $3,000 monthly, despite her best efforts to use the gas heating system sparingly and strategically.

Graciela Lopez, with her daughter, Alejandra Cevahir, 17, at their...

Graciela Lopez, with her daughter, Alejandra Cevahir, 17, at their Hauppauge home. Credit: Danielle Silverman

She is among many Long Islanders working hard to cover the costs of warmth and comfort. In an economy beset by the rising cost of food and other goods, the price of heat is no exception.

“I think it’s affecting everybody,” she said. “I hear from lots of people that they can’t pay the bills.” Some have had their electricity cut off, she said.

Last winter, heating oil cost $3.90 a gallon, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association; this winter, the cost per gallon surpassed $5 and in January sits closer to $4.65 per gallon. The price of natural gas has jumped, too: NEADA reports an estimated 24.3% increase in natural gas heating cost from last winter to this one, and more than twice that from winter 2020.

Although the price of natural gas, electricity, propane and oil are projected to rise this year; oil prices are soaring far above the rest, according to Energy Information Administration data compiled by NEADA in November.

“Natural gas and electricity, it’s expensive this year, but the pricing is somewhat under control because the gas companies have to buy ahead of time,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA. “Oil, you buy it as you use it.” He added that prices for natural gas are expected to stay at current levels for the season.

In November, Wolfe described an unstable and unpredictable market affected in part by the war in Ukraine. This is especially true for oil.

“There’s a possibility prices could come down later in the winter if it’s a warmer winter; but if it’s a colder winter, prices go higher,” Wolfe said.

“It’s a challenge when I list a home that is...

“It’s a challenge when I list a home that is oil," said Tsui Ying (Judy) Hsu, a real estate agent for Douglas Elliman. Credit: Dawn McCormick

For current and prospective homeowners, the heat is a major concern, said Tsui Ying (Judy) Hsu, a real estate agent for Douglas Elliman. Heating system questions come up at every house showing she gives. When she shows an oil-heated home, she calls National Grid first to find out whether the buyer could convert to gas and what it might cost. Gas conversions typically range from $6,000 to $12,000 and can be completed in just a few days, Hsu said.

“It’s a challenge when I list a home that is oil,” she said.

Faced with prices risen and rising, Long Island homeowners, renters and landlords alike are finding ways to keep homes warm and save money this winter. Sometimes, it’s just about knowing whom to call for help.

Homeowners can install smart thermostats to help control the use of...

Homeowners can install smart thermostats to help control the use of heat and lower costs. Above, a smart energy meter. Credit: EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Tolga Akmen

How to keep the heat in — and save money

The heating landscape is complex, but the cost-cutting strategies are simple. PSEG Long Island offers the following tips:

1. Lower the thermostat

Lowering the thermostat by even one degree can make a difference, according to the power authority. Consider lowering the temperature two degrees during the day and five to 10 degrees at night.

2. Seal windows and door frames

Use caulk or weather stripping to seal openings around windows or doors. If light comes through, so does the air. Cover window air- conditioning units to eliminate drafts. 

3. Turn on the fan

A ceiling fan can help heat a room, too. 

Setting a fan to rotate clockwise on low pulls cool air toward the ceiling, pushing warm air down into a room.

4. Close the fireplace damper

Warm air can escape through chimneys. 

5. Unblock heat sources

Move furniture and drapes away from vents so that nothing blocks the heat. Remember to open register or baseboard dampers, too.

6. Mind the blinds

On a sunny day, don’t forget to open the curtains and blinds. At night, close blinds and curtains to retain heat. 

7. Install a programmable thermostat 

A programmable thermostat allows the user to schedule temperature changes. This might mean setting the thermostat to lower the home’s temperature at night. PSEG Long Island offers rebates on qualifying smart thermostats. Smart thermostats cost about $250, including installation.

8. Install a heat pump

PSEG offers rebates for installing a high-efficiency air source heat pump, which can deliver up to three times more heat energy than the electrical energy it consumes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The national cost of a heat pumps averages about $5,500, not including installation, which can start at $2,500.

A technician installs a heat pump in Maine in the...

A technician installs a heat pump in Maine in the fall. Credit: Getty/Portland Press Herald

Where to get help

If you need assistance paying to heat your home, these programs can help.

1. PSEG offers a payment plan and will guide customers the available assistance programs, many of which are income-based. Some customers may be eligible for more than one.

“The most important thing that somebody can do is to stay in contact with us,” said Amy Di Leo, a PSEG Long Island spokesperson. “We’re going to do whatever we can to help them get onto a program or help themselves make their payment. If people just completely shut the door and don’t talk to us, we don’t know what’s going on and we can’t help.”

PSEG has a team of consumer advocates to guide customers through applying for various programs. PSEG has also been hosting two live webinars a month during the winter season. 

Applying for state or federal benefits can produce long-term results. PSEG automatically places any customer who applies for and receives one of these benefits on the Long Island Household Assistance rate and residential energy affordability program, which offers tips on energy efficiency and decreased consumption. 

2. Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) — This state program offers eligible homeowners and renters a grant to pay for heating fuel. A family of four qualifies with a maximum gross monthly income of $5,485. For more information, visit otda.ny.gov/programs/heap/

3. Emergency HEAP — This is available to low- and middle-income customers in danger of having their heat disconnected. To apply, contact your local Department of Social Services location. To find your DSS location, visit otda.ny.gov/programs/heap/contacts/

3. Heating equipment repair or replacement benefit — This benefit, through the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, is available to low-income households facing no-heat situations.

Eligible homeowners can apply for up to $4,000 for repair or $8,000 for replacement of a furnace, boiler or other heating equipment. 

Eligible households can also receive services like the cleaning of primary heating equipment to increase energy efficiency and ensure safety. To apply, reach out to your local Department of Social Services location. 

4. New York State Electric and Gas Bill Relief Program  This new state-run program offers an automatic credit to customers enrolled in PSEGs Household Assistance Program. The credit will be put toward arrears. Those who have received a payment on their PSEG account through the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program are also eligible for this program. 

5. United Way of Long Island's Project Warmth — To qualify, a customer must live in Nassau or Suffolk counties or in the Rockaways and prove financial need. The resident must also “provide an acceptable explanation for any unpaid energy bills; have exhausted or been denied emergency HEAP assistance,” and not topped their oil tank in any previous year, according to PSEG. unitedwayli.org/project_warmth.asp 

If your income is too high

New York State also offers a program with no income requirement for homeowners heating with natural gas. An energy assessor will visit your home to take photos and measurements of insulation, appliances, HVAC systems and the like. The homeowner receives a report about two weeks later, along with a list of recommendations and incentives for which their home qualifies.

“The incentives portion of it is a preapproval process we go through with National Grid,” said David Ferreira, an energy assessor and president of NYS Energy Solutions. “About 50% of the time they pay for 100% of the project; about 50% of the time they’re going to pay between 70 to 80% of the project.”

The assessment itself is free (call 516-800-1363) and only offers the homeowner information, Ferreira said. No further work is done without the homeowner’s consent and initiative. But putting money toward a better-insulated home can have year-round effects, he said. 

“In the wintertime any heat you’re pumping into the home is looking to escape to the outdoors, and in the summertime the opposite is happening — the heat from the outside is looking to attack your cold, air-conditioned home,” Ferreira said. “Regardless, all year-round, having a better insulated home is going to save you hundreds of dollars a year; and if you’re going to be in that home for 10, 15 years, it’s going to save you thousands of dollars.” 

Keeping the heat in during the colder months — and out during warmer months — is a simple strategy often overlooked.

“Nobody sees the air leaking,” Ferreira said. “If we had a water leak, people would deal with it immediately.”

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