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Power bills already shocking; more cold weather on the way

Here's a cold reality: Utility bills with the heating costs from Florida's recent deep freeze are arriving with amounts due that are often double and sometimes triple the norm.

"I'm shocked," said Bill Newton, the executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network in Tampa, after receiving the nonprofit's utility bill and his personal one, which ran a third higher than usual. "I did everything I could to keep costs down."

Lori Rosso, who runs Gulfport's six-suite Seabreeze Manor Bed and Breakfast Inn, said the cold chased away some of her customers and then kicked up her utility bill from the normal $300 to about $550. "Heat is usually not an issue for us," Rosso said.

Rick Morera, a spokesman for Tampa Electric Co., suspects the utility might soon be hearing an earful from customers. "We haven't seen any increased response yet, but as customers start seeing bills we could."

And don't pack up the blankets and space heaters just yet.

The, ah, unwanted northerners are making their way back to the Tampa Bay area — more cold temperatures and the inevitable sky-high heating bills. Old Man Winter forgot this is Florida, and we like our warm winters.

Today's temperatures will begin as low as about 40 in some areas. Tonight and Thursday night, temperatures throughout the Tampa Bay region will average in the 40s with northern counties dipping into the 30s.

So what can we do to cope, coming off the last wintry spell that pushed our bills to a level many of us have never seen before.

Progress Energy says an 1,850-square-foot, single-family home that set its thermostat at 68 degrees during that 10-day stretch could expect about $10 a day more on the utility bill.

The average utility bill with 1,000 kilowatts of usage is about $127. Add the other $100 from the earlier cold snap and you're staring at what the utility says is an average $227.26.

(I could only wish my bill were that low.)

"It's always based on energy use," Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for the Progress Energy, reminded me.

The sad story is our Florida heating and cooling systems are much like the people.

"The heating systems in Florida aren't really designed for when it is really cold," Grant said.

But don't think you now need to get a heating system imported from New England. "Mostly likely, it will not benefit them to install a northern type heating system," Grant said. "We have relatively rare cold days."

So here's the Edge for our cold spells, courtesy of Progress Energy and TECO:

• Get a free energy check. TECO and Progress Energy offer free energy checks to show you ways to be more efficient.

• Change your thermostat. Set your thermostat at 68 to 70 degrees during the day and 60 to 65 at night. Every degree under 70 saves 10 percent on the heating portion of your electric bill.

• Use portable heaters sparingly. Running a 1,500-watt resistance heater 24 hours a day 7 days week cost $149 a month.

• Check your water heater. Set it to 120 degrees instead of 140 degrees to save up to $85 a year.

• Consider budget billing. This free program helps customers on fixed incomes or others who need a consistent bill determine monthly energy costs.

• Ask for help. For the really hard hit, Progress has an Energy Neighbor Fund that helps provide assistance to customers in need. Local social service agencies distribute the funds.

For more on these and other tips visit progress-energy.com or tampaelectric.com.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

Power bills already shocking; more cold weather on the way 01/26/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 10:26am]

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