Heating assistance a lifeline in winter

With temperatures dropping, we have again reached that time of year where many residents of the state have to worry about how they’re going to pay to heat their homes.

A lot of people rely on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program known as LIHEAP, which helped 36,000 households in the Granite State last winter.

Census data tells us there is an average of just under 2.5 people per household in the state. That means about 88,000 people were kept warm for at least part of last winter by LIHEAP money, which represents about 6 percent of the state’s 1.3 million people.

LIHEAP is a federal program funded by Congress, and New Hampshire’s allocation for fiscal year 2016 was $23 million.

LIHEAP grants range from $75 to $1,125, depending on the income of the applicant – and lest you think anyone is getting rich off this program, the average New Hampshire grant in FY 2016 was just over $600.

But the program is about more than just numbers. It helps people earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, including parents, children, seniors, the disabled and the working poor, none of whom should have to choose between heating their homes and eating.

A family of four can earn up to $48,500 annually and be eligible for fuel assistance, as can a family of two making no more than $31,860.

One of the best things about the LIHEAP program is that it’s administered at the local level and there’s not a lot of red tape. The money flows from the feds to the state Office of Energy and Planning, then to a series of community action agencies, which do the heavy lifting.

In Nashua and the rest of Hillsborough County, Southern New Hampshire Services (889-3440 or 1-877-211-0723) processes applicants.

They assisted more than 3,300 Nashua households with more than $1.1 million in heating assistance money this past year.

The feds released the money earlier this season than in past years, which is good news.

"When the federal government releases the money early, we get it earlier, and we’re happy about that," said Tracy Desmarais, the energy/crisis coordinator at the Manchester office of Southern New Hampshire Services. She said they launch a robust outreach program each year to make sure people know there’s help available, spreading the world through a variety of community events.

Less well-known, perhaps, is that the agency also runs a weatherization program to help people save energy dollars over the long term.

People who sign up for fuel assistance can check a box to also be put on a waiting list for weatherization, said Ryan Clouthier, Southern New Hampshire’s energy director.

It starts with an energy audit to determine where a dwelling might be leaking heat. Improvements are then made – at no cost to the homeowner – to make the home energy-efficient. They include repairing, caulking and adding weatherstripping to windows and doors, wrapping hot water tanks with insulation, sealing off drafty areas, installing "low-flow" shower heads, or something as simple as putting in energy-efficient light bulbs.

"It’s continually paying back," said Clouthier. "There are savings year after year after year."

The fuel assistance and weatherization programs are valuable programs that serve a lot of people in the state. We would encourage anyone who thinks they might qualify to sign up.