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Highs and lows of gas heat As prices rise and temperatures fall, home thermostats drop to levels many customers had never previously dared to explore

How low can you go?

Shawn Mellott turned the thermostat down from 69 to 64 after he saw the November gas bill for his Kenmore home, and he cringes at the thought of how high the December bill will be.

Roger Younger keeps the thermostat at 62 degrees in his North Tonawanda apartment and upholstery shop, where he just got a heating bill for $742.

But Shannon Brooks, a Fredonia State College student, has them all beat. She didn't turn the heat on in her Fredonia apartment until mid-December after noticing ice chunks on the top of her fish tank.

Now she and her roommate turn the heat off at night.

"It's probably 45 degrees at night," the 21-year-old student said. "I bought a $30 electric blanket. Usually, I wear a long-sleeve T-shirt, fleece pants and a hoodie [to bed], and I put the hood up."

Western New Yorkers are finding out just how low they can go -- when it comes to their thermostats.

With gas bills skyrocketing this year, sticker-shocked Buffalo-area residents are reluctantly turning down their heat and coming up with creative solutions to keep warm this winter.

Some dress like Brooks, donning layered bed clothes that look almost suitable for a Buffalo Bills midwinter game. Wool socks, thermal underwear, fleece and electric blankets have become standard survival gear for people -- inside their homes.

Others are insulating windows, buying setback thermostats, burning wood in stoves and fireplaces, installing kerosene heaters or doing anything they can to cut their natural gas use.

Still others are just resigned to paying more.

>Setting fund aside

Jim Ray adopted a practice he used years ago to pay for his children's orthodontist bills.

"I set about $1,000 aside at the beginning of the heating season," the 77-year-old Grand Island man said. "I compare last year's monthly bill to this year's monthly bill, subtract it, and I take that amount out of the account. I hope the $1,000 will be enough to pay for it [through the winter].

"It gives you something to do with your mind, instead of getting angry and frustrated," Ray said.

National Fuel officials are warning Western New Yorkers just how much their gas bills are expected to rise this heating season.

"To be safe, we're telling customers to be prepared for a 30 to 40 percent increase in the price per unit," National Fuel spokeswoman Julie Coppola Cox said.

And that doesn't include Mother Nature's effect, in case a colder winter forces furnaces to work overtime.

Customers got their first slap in the face when they received their November bills. The average residential bill was about $156, compared with $106 a year ago, an increase of 47 percent.

The good news: Natural gas prices have dropped 19 percent since last month and plunged another 10 percent Tuesday, settling at their lowest level in 3 1/2 months amid forecasts calling for mild U.S. weather over the next week.

The bad news: The first 27 days were 3.2 degrees colder than the same period last year. The average December temperature this year was 26.6 degrees, compared with 29.8 in December 2004.

With natural gas prices still 19 percent higher than they were last December, consumers can expect to receive an added jolt when they get their next bill.

Younger, who just got the $742 National Fuel bill for his apartment and upholstery shop, doesn't know how much lower he can turn the thermostat.

"Customers don't like it when they come in there and they can see their breath," he said.

While most people seem to have accepted the reality of the drastically higher natural gas prices, some aren't taking it as well.

Alvera Thomas, of Buffalo, has resisted turning her heat down but resents the high cost it takes to keep her home at 70 or 71 degrees.

"I don't think it's fair," she grumbled. "I don't think the financial help should just be for the [poorer people]."

>Seeking relief

There are plenty of signs that local residents are seeking any relief they can from the higher heating bills:

More than 4,200 National Fuel customers, through late November, had signed up for the utility's Energy Partnership Savings Card, which provides discounts on vendors' products and services, including weather stripping, insulation, gas appliances and furnace cleaning.

"We're thrilled," Cox said. "There are still discounts being offered, and we're encouraging customers to avail themselves of the program."

Business has doubled since last year at Williamstown Construction and Superior Insulation in Cheektowaga, office manager Sue Lehsten said.

"As soon as the first cold spell came and they turned down their thermostats, the phone started ringing nonstop," she said.

In November, National Fuel fielded 113,000 phone calls from its Western New York customers, 10 to 15 percent higher than the previous sticker-shock season of 2000-01.

Jim Pod, who has run Alpine Firewood in Clarence for three decades, said he has seen a 20 percent increase in business this cold season.

"There's also a shortage of wood," said Pod, who delivers firewood. Prices have gone up from about $88 for a 4-by-8-foot cord to $98, he said.

Some 133,000 National Fuel customers, about one-third of the customer base, now opt for balanced billing, which evens out their bills over either a 12- or 10-month period.

"We're on budget billing," said Mark Vogel of Lancaster. "So during the wintertime, you don't have to worry about a big bill."

Still, Vogel puts foil over the windows, which cuts down on the draft there. And any time family members are away for more than four hours, they turn down the heat.

That's just what National Fuel advises.

"The rule of thumb is to turn your thermostat down 8 to 10 degrees if you're going to be gone for four hours or more and at night when you're sleeping," Cox said. "It absolutely makes sense to turn your thermostat down."

No matter how hard National Fuel officials tried to brace their customers for the upcoming price hikes, people have been taken aback by the reality.

"I keep it as cold as I can stand it," sighed Marie Kullman, a teacher at Harvey Austin Middle School who lives in University Heights. She was "shocked" by the $250 bill she received for November after two months in a row of getting money back from the gas company.

>Toddlers need heat

Lenny Potwora, who works in the Erie County clerk's office, said he has no choice but to pay the big bucks for his gas bill.

"I've got young children, 6 months and 2 years old," said the Cheektowaga resident. "You have to do it. And we're going to be paying a lot more."

While longtime Western New Yorkers grumbled and commiserated over their rising heating bills, Mike Zewin, of Grand Island, who had lived in Las Vegas the past 18 years, is no stranger to high utility bills.

"We were paying $350 to $400 a month for electricity, for air-conditioning in the desert," he said. "It shouldn't be worse than that."

Let's hope not, Mike.

News Staff Reporter Elmer Ploetz contributed to this story.

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