While natural gas customers have been able to shop for the best price since utility deregulation in 1999, not everyone does, or can, take advantage of their options.

Low-income customers subsidized either through enrollment in LIHEAP or their gas company’s Customer Assistance Programs automatically get billed at the lowest available price regardless of their distribution company.

Everyone else can either pay their company’s default price, or shop for a supplier themselves. In this instance, residential customers can save on the administrative fees their supplier would normally charge, and on the price of the gas itself. Regardless, they will still pay their distributor’s fee for service delivery.

Everyone’s gas bill has a listed “price to compare.” However, the amount of comparison-shopping customers can do is determined by who delivers their service. In Allegheny County, customers are served by one of four suppliers; Columbia Gas of Pa, Equitable Gas, People’s (Dominion Peoples) and Peoples TWP (T.W. Phillips Gas and Oil.)

The Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate provides an online Shopping Guide that lists their rates and those of their licensed competitors. It’s the best place to start learning whether shopping for a natural gas supplier is worth one’s time.

For instance, if you get a flier in the mail from, say, Agway Energy offering to sell you gas at $.50 per hundred cubic feet (ccf), you might look at your bill and see that rate is $.10 cheaper than you’re paying. But your distributor is Equitable, and Agway is not licensed to supply to Equitable, so you cannot get that price.

Equitable customers, in fact, can only buy from their distributor and one other supplier, Dominion Energy Solutions. Its current price is $.08 higher per ccf than Equitable’s price.

Columbia Gas customers currently paying $.48 can choose from eight different competitors whose prices range from $.44 to $.79. People’s lists two competitors with prices ranging from $.10 cheaper to $.60 higher. Peoples TWP has no licensed competitors in its service area.

Also, like mortgages, gas can be purchased at a fixed or variable rate. Other issues customers should consider are whether a new supplier’s price includes a home heating repair program, whether there is an early termination fee and whether you still pay a single bill sent by your distributor.

Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate Sonny Popowsky said the huge drop in wholesale natural gas prices means everyone is benefiting from low prices whether they shop for a supplier or not.

“Just a few years ago the rate was around $12 per thousand cubic feet, now it’s around $4,” he said. “But with distributors and suppliers competing in both the wholesale and retail markets, the new guys can’t really win on price unless they offer better long-term rates or other incentives.

It’s worth it for customers to look at their bills and look at our shopping guide.”

The Consumer Advocate Office also has shopping guides for electricity, which is where Popowsky said people are finding much more choices. They can be found online at http://www.oca.state.pa.us. Residents can also request hard copies, updated at least monthly, through the mail by calling 1-800-648-6560.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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