Local households could pay a little more for heat this winter.
In its outlook for heating costs from October through March, the U.S. Energy Department said natural gas users will see the biggest increase in bills.
The department said households heating with natural gas should expect to spend 13 percent more this year.
But if Columbia Gas customers notice an increase in their bills, it won't be because of natural gas costs, as rates are unchanged from last year at 51 cents per therm.
"For Columbia customers, natural gas costs are remaining low and stable," said spokeswoman Rachel Ford.
Rate increase: However, Columbia Gas customers might notice an increase in their monthly bills because of a rate increase approved by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in May, she said.
The 16 percent rate increase added about $11 to the average bill.
Columbia Gas requested the rate increase to cover costs associated with its infrastructure improvements, Ford said.
Since 2007, the natural gas provider has invested nearly $400 million in replacing and upgrading more than 2.3 million feet of pipe in its distribution system, she said. Columbia Gas plans to invest more than $150 million in replacements this year, Ford said.
The company predicts the average home heating bill will be $84.76 during the fourth quarter of the year, she said.
Help with bills: Help is available for customers who may struggle to cover higher bills, Ford said.
Several programs can help customers manage the impact of the impending rate increase: the Budget Payment Plan, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Customer Assistance Program (CAP), Customer Assistance Referral & Evaluation Services (CARES), Dollar Energy
Fund, Warm Wise: Low Income Usage Reduction Program and Crisis Emergency Energy Assistance.
For more information about those programs, call Columbia Gas customer service at (888) 460-4332 between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Additional information is also available at www.columbiagaspa.com.
Other fuels: Customers using other heat sources will also see an increase in costs, according to the Energy Department.
Propane users in the northeast will spend 11 percent more this winter, and those who use electricity as a source of heat will pay 2 percent more.
Heating oil users likely will spend $46 less on average this winter, although temperatures are expected to be 3 percent colder, according to the Energy Department.
"Heating oil is currently 4.8 percent lower than it was one year ago," said Shipley Energy spokeswoman Andrea Cote.
But the lower prices might not last long.
"The average price per gallon for Nov. 1, 2012, through Feb. 28, 2013, was $3.899 per gallon. We are projecting slightly higher prices this winter than last," she said.
Shipley has numerous purchasing programs clients can utilize to purchase home heating oil at lower than market rates, Cote said.
For more information about those lower rates, call (800) 839-1849 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or visit www.shipleyenergy.com.
-- Candy Woodall can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.