Utilities prep for cold; Customers should prep for higher bills

Heating home can cost 2 to 3 times more than cooling, utilities say

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Utility customers across Jacksonville and surrounding areas will be cranking up the heat to stay warm as temperatures drop overnight.

And the cold is expected to last into the weekend.

That means customers should expect to get higher-than-average bills next month, utility officials said.

Heating a home can cost two to three times more than cooling it. That’s why JEA and FPL both recommend setting the thermostat to 68 degrees. That way, the house will stay warm enough without using too much power.

“It’s not the time to be walking around in shorts,” JEA spokeswoman Gerri Boyce said. “You might want to put on a long-sleeved shirt, put those yoga pants on or those sweatpants on.”

Utility companies expect everything to run smoothly, but they are making preparations so there are no issues with the increased usage. 

Right now, the maximum expected usage for JEA will likely be about 2,845 megawatts, below the record peak of 3,250 megawatts set in 2010. 

Boyce said the utility can generate around 3,300 megawatts of power. During the extreme cold, one megawatt serves about 200 homes. 

JEA crews will be spending the next couple of days at service centers and the rest of the company’s crews will be on standby. JEA representatives said any power outages will be handled as quickly as possible, making sure people are able to heat their homes.

JEA is also asking people to use caution with their pipes to avoid major issues.

“If you have a backflow preventer, the pipes that come out and look like a bridge, for people who have wells or irrigation systems, make sure you protect those as well,” Boyce said. “Several years ago we had widespread freezes and everyone was really good about protecting the pipes to the house but they forgot about backflow prevention devices and many of those throughout our service territory burst.”

FPL representatives said the utility has enough power to meet the estimated demand, but has plans in place in the event usage exceeds expectations.

One other piece of advice that may save on the bill is to change the air filter, which will help the system run more efficiently as it's used over the next few days, FPL officials said.

Expert advice to save money

Mirza Pilakovic, owner of Bold City Heating and Air, said by 9 a.m. Tuesday his company had already received more than 60 calls as winter weather puts a strain on heating systems across the area.

He suggested some simple steps to keep warm that will take less than five minutes but could make a huge difference in the bill next month.

“The first thing that you should do is go to your breaker box (and) just make sure that they are not tripped,” Pilakovic said. “If they are, resetting it could solve your problems.

The HVAC system is working harder than usual, pulling lots of power, which is why the fuse box needs to be checked.

If the system is still having problems, the unit might need to be restarted.

“You should turn it off, let it settle down for a second and then reset it,” Pilakovic said. “About five to six minutes.”

A well-maintained system should last 13 to 15 years, but elements can stop working, Pilakovic said.

“If the temperature outside is below 32 degrees, your coil will freeze,” he explained, adding that the outside unit needs to be checked over the next few days. “You want to make sure that your fan blades are free of any object, (like) ice. We’ve seen ice buildup on the inside due to a bad defrost board, and the fan blade can get damaged by hitting the ice at a fast speed. You want to make sure that it’s free to rotate.”

If the unit is filled with ice, it could mean the heat strips no longer work or the unit has a leak. Low temperatures can cause pipes to freeze or burst. Call a professional to prevent further damage if ice is spotted.

If a system hasn't been turned on for a while, you might notice a weird smell when you flip it on. That’s OK, Pilakovic said, it's just dust settling. 

If the outside unit gives off steam and smoke, that’s also OK, because it’s the system defrosting itself.

If you’ve tried these steps and still can’t get heat in your home, you need to call a professional. 

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