As the owner of Chattanooga Massage & Bodyworks, Dan Brownell helps other people to relax and feel comfortable.
But when he got his electricity bill this month for his 600-square-foot shop, the Red Bank businessman was anything but relaxed.
"My jaw dropped when I saw EPB said I owed $380," Brownell said. "That's double what I expected."
After installing a new heating and air-conditioning unit last spring and closely watching the thermostat to cut energy use this month, Brownell thought he could hold the line against Old Man Winter.
"But this is the coldest winter I remember here, and it really took a hit to my bottom line," he said.
Last week's snowfall may now be melted, but the power bills arriving in mailboxes this month are giving many consumers the winter chills.
With TVA fuel costs up and temperatures in December and January down from year-ago levels, some households and small businesses are getting record-high power bills this month.
"I nearly passed out when I opened my bill in December and they said I owed more than $200 and this month's bill is over $300," said Kirstie Evans, a single mother of two boys who works two jobs to help pay her bills. "I've had to cut down on groceries and every other expense just to pay my light bill."
January's power bill for her two-bedroom apartment in North Chattanooga is nearly as much as her monthly rent.
• Keep your thermostat set at 68 degrees. Your heating costs increase by about 3 percent for every degree above that.
• Install a programmable thermostat.
• Make sure doors and windows are properly sealed with caulk or weather stripping. Also make sure you have adequate insulation in your attic, where much of the warm air can escape.
• You can level your power bill throughout the year under a year-round billing program, or ask for repayment assistance from EPB, by calling 648-1372.
• More help is available at www.energyright.com.
Sources: National Weather Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, EPB, United Way of Greater Chattanooga
"That's just too high," she said.
The Tennessee Valley Authority boosted what it charges for its electricity by nearly 23 percent from January 2010 until this month because of increases in the utility's monthly fuel-cost adjustments. Although still below the peak reached in October 2008, fuel costs have risen steadily as the economy has improved over the past year, TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said.
While rates are higher, colder weather also is pushing up consumption. EPB said overall use of electricity in Chattanooga during December was 11 percent higher than a year ago, even with little or no increase in major industrial and commercial consumption.
The number of heating degree days in December — a measure of how much extra heat is needed to offset colder temperatures — was up nearly 22 percent last month over the same period a year ago, EPB spokeswoman Lacie Newton said.
The combination of higher rates and lower temperatures is squeezing many recession-wary consumers, according to EPB and local relief agencies.
Chattanooga's EPB doesn't cut off power to any homes or apartments when the temperature is below freezing. But EPB still requires customers to pay for the electricity they use. Newton said a growing number of customers is getting on payment plans because they can't afford to pay all of their monthly power bill on time.
Requests for payment extensions from EPB rose by 21.6 percent over the past year, while the number of people seeking assistance from the United Way of Greater Chattanooga to pay their electricity bills last year was up 24 over the previous year, officials said.
Rebecca Whelchel, executive director for Metropolitan Ministries in Chattanooga, said electricity bills are the biggest and most expensive problems for those seeking help from her relief agency.
"People try to pay for their shelter first and then try to buy food or medicine, so a lot of times there is not enough left to pay the power bill," she said. "The bills are often-times so large that there is no way that they can even begin to pay them."
Whelchel said the demand for assistance this winter far outstrips the money available.
"We're all being overwhelmed this winter by these bills, and it's harder to ask to donors to pay someone's electricity bill to EPB compared with buying them food or giving them medicine," she said.