Sticker shock inspires couple to find natural gas alternatives

$343 bill spurs conservation

Talk about motivation. And conservation.

All it took was one $343 natural gas bill to spur Linda and Leonard Zook to look for other ways to keep their Lawrence mobile home heated.

They bought two electric, radiator-style heaters, which they’ve been using for about three weeks.

“I also loaded up on quilts. I borrowed quilts from my mother,” Linda Zook said.

Their gas conservation measures produced an unexpected result and a visit from Aquila, the gas company, which sent someone out to see why the family’s meter wasn’t registering any use.

“They just couldn’t understand why we weren’t using any gas,” Zook said. “Well, I couldn’t afford to.”

When a meter reading was taken by Aquila on Jan. 23, it read the same as it did when it was checked Dec. 22, said Larissa Long, community relations official with Aquila’s Lawrence office.

Lawrence resident Linda Zook talks on the telephone in the living room of her mobile home Tuesday. To her left is one of two electric space heaters that she and her husband, Leonard, purchased and have used daily after last month's natural gas bill totaled 43. In addition to using the heaters, the Zooks also have used tape and plastic sheeting to seal their windows to retain heat in their home.

On Friday, an Aquila technician went back to the meter to check it to see whether it was working. Tests showed gas was going through the meter but it was not registering, Long said. There was no indication the meter had been tampered with, she said. The meter was replaced.

Linda Zook is disabled; her husband holds a job with an exterminating company, and they have a 16-year-old son.

In addition to using the electrical heaters, the Zooks have been using a toaster oven and microwave for cooking. The gas valve on the stove is turned off, Linda Zook said. They also used plastic to seal windows.

“We still get cold,” Linda Zook said. “The radiator heaters we got are the best made but they still put out heat only so far.”

Now the Zooks are worried they will get a pro-rated gas bill for the month the meter might not have been working and all their conservation efforts will have been for naught. The family is already applying for assistance to get the $343 bill and any future high bills paid.

One thing that might help struggling gas customers such as the Zooks is that January was much milder than December, when the Lawrence area experienced snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. And February has started off similar to January.

The Zooks haven’t received an electric bill since they bought the two $35 heaters, but said they would be surprised if it was anywhere close to their latest gas bill. A spokeswoman with Westar Energy said there were two many variables involved to determine what effect the heaters would have on the bill.

The mild weather should bring some relief for gas customers, utility officials said, and a monthly adjustment to the price is made depending on supply and demand. But it is not clear yet how much of a decrease there will be, Long said.

Aquila makes its money from gas delivery and customer charges, not the price of gas, Long said.

“There is no profit made from the cost of gas, whether it goes up or down,” she said.

But because warmer weather has lessened demand, that also affects volume and delivery. How that might affect Aquila’s bottom line remains to be seen, Long said.