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Energy costs rise for off-campus residents

Katie Perry | Thursday, January 19, 2006

The nationwide decrease in natural gas production has caused home heating prices to skyrocket this winter – a frigid reality for off-campus students who are forced to dig deep into their pocket books just to keep warm in the cold South Bend climate.

The Office of Residence Life and Housing estimates more than 80 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates live on campus, where heating costs are factored into room and board charges. But for the remaining fifth, paying monthly heating bills has become an unexpected and frustrating struggle.

Senior Karen Daniels and her four roommates paid approximately $300 for the heating system in their East Angela Blvd. home last month – nearly double the monthly estimates given to them by their landlord last year.

Daniels said the house has four bedrooms – two on each floor – with a living room and kitchen. Even though the house is “kind of small,” the heating bill last month was not.

“[When we bought the house], we had a conversation with the landlord and he estimated rough utilities would cost between $100 and $150 – maybe not even that [much],” Daniels said. “With a $300 bill for gas, it’s ridiculous even split between five people.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) warned Americans who use natural gas for heat about climbing rates for home heating costs, and said they should expect to pay on average more than 40 percent more than last winter.

Depending on the region, the EIA said the rise may be as great as 70 percent, however. For areas of the country that experience colder weather in the winter months – South Bend’s average low temperature in January is 16 degrees – hundreds of extra dollars will be required from homeowners.

“It’s just crazy,” Daniels said. “I think about low income families and wonder [how they afford heating]. We’re splitting it five ways.”

Daniels said the house she shares with her roommates – built sometime in the mid-20th century – has a very “old school heating system.”

“Usually you have heaters throughout the home with a central electric heater,” she said. “Our [heating system] is electric in that it turns on with a switch, but then it warms water which is passed through pipes. It’s a very inefficient way of heating the house.”

The system barely heats the entire house and keeping a comfortable temperature has been difficult, Daniels said.

“It drafts a lot,” she said. “[By] just maintaining 64 degrees, our heating bills have been around $300. It has to work double overtime just to get through the night.”

In December the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said rising demand, lowered production and two natural disasters were to blame for the spike in energy costs this season. More than half of all American homeowners rely on natural gas for temperature control – a demand production has been unable to meet since 2000.

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall on American coasts in 2005, the problematic discrepancy between supply and demand was heightened. The UCS said the hurricanes damaged or destroyed nearly 200 oil and natural gas drilling rigs needed for production. As a result, the level of natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico is half what it was prior to the hurricanes and not expected to recover for several months.

In the long term, the UCS said Americans can make themselves less vulnerable to future shortages by “diversifying energy sources with clean, home grown, and more decentralized renewable energy supplies.”

For off-campus students struggling to pay heating bills, the UCS offered more immediate advice for assuaging the harsh prices – reduce bills by curtailing energy waste. By implementing “a few simple steps,” costs can be reduced by 10 to more than 20 percent.

Using insulation around windows and doors to prevent heat loss and making sure radiators are clean and unblocked can help maximize warmth in the home, the UCS said. In addition, programmable thermostats that automatically decrease the temperature at set times – priced at about $100 – might also help lower heating costs.

Daniels said she and her roommates are going to take it in stride and “suck it up.”

“We can’t leave it any colder than 60 degrees or else the pipes will freeze,” she said. “The $300 bill was for the month we were gone [during winter break] and it was set at 50 or 55 degrees. If we [turn it higher] I’m sure the bill would be between $400 and $500.”

Daniels said her landlord is also helping assuage the rising heating costs for the off-campus house.

“We talked to our landlord [about the bill] and he said gas prices have gone up tremendously. I didn’t realize that because I lived in a dorm last year,” she said. “I talked [the landlord] into buying space heaters for our home. That was nice of him.”