With hundreds of calls coming in daily, the State Emergency Operations Center is extending the propane hotline hours to include the weekend, and state leaders are extending a state of peacetime emergency.
In addition to the previously announced hours for Monday through Friday, the 3-day-old hotline will now operate on both Saturday and Sunday between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. as well.
Twin Cities metro: 651-297-1304
Greater Minnesota: 1-800-657-3504
In the first two days of operation, the hotline received more than 550 calls from Minnesotans concerned about the price and availability of propane from their suppliers. Many callers said they could not afford minimum orders and were looking to find other resources.
On Saturday alone, operators helped 250 callers learn about local resources and point those who do not qualify for the state's low-income heating assistance program toward not-for-profit organizations that can also provide aid.
PEACETIME STATE OF EMERGENCY EXTENDED
On Friday, Gov. Dayton and other members of the state's executive council placed a unanimous vote that will extend the emergency executive order Dayton issued via executive order by another 30 days.
"We will certainly do whatever is necessary until we get warm weather and get through this crisis," Dayton pledged.
Dayton has been working with Texas Gov. Rick Perry to find ways to make transporting propane to the state more streamlined while ordering Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman to use the authority of his office to stop suppliers from price-gouging during the shortage.
On the federal level, the Obama administration recently released $450 million to address the propane shortage. Of that sum, $15.8 million went to Minnesota and $14.2 million went to Wisconsin.
In Minnesota, more than 200,000 homes rely on propane as their primary source of heat. In Wisconsin, roughly 250,000 households rely on propane.
LOW INCOME HEATING ENERGY ASSISTANCE PROGRAM
Those who need financial assistance with their heating bills can get help via the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which is administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
The Minnesota Energy Assistance Program also was granted a funding boost from Congress, and is increasing crisis payments from $500 to $1,000 for households struggling to pay propane or heating oil bills.
Money is still available for households that have not already applied. Additional information on how to qualify for assistance can be found online or by calling 1-800-657-3710.
SALVATION ARMY ADDS $100K TO HEATSHARE FUND
In response to the increasing costs of propane throughout the state and neighboring communities of Fargo and Grand Forks in North Dakota, the Salvation Army is adding an additional $100,000 to its HeatShare program that helps low-income residents, including:
- Residents with disabilities
- Families in dire circumstances
"There aren't other options for people who depend on propane to heat their homes," said Lt. Colonel Robert Thomson, Salvation Army Divisional Commander of Minnesota and North Dakota. "The facts are heating bills are going from $200 a month to $900; It would strain even a middle class family's budget."
Officials say requests for help have increased and are threatening to drain its reserves.
"We are especially concerned with seniors on fixed incomes," Thomson continued. "They are often the population that is the last to ask for help. It breaks our heats to think of our senior population struggling to stay warm in these dangerous temperatures. We pray that these weather conditions moderate or we will run out of funding well before the crisis is over."
The HeatShare program is primarily funded by individual donations made by utility customers as well as corporate gifts from various utility companies. Last year, the funds were used to pay the heating bills of more than 4,000 homes at a cost of $1.5 million -- but even then, nearly 40,000 requests could not be fulfilled.
The injection of funds is being distributed to Salvation Army Centers in the following cities:
- Brainerd, Minn.
- Cloquet, Minn.
- Duluth, Minn.
- Fargo, N.D.
- Fergus Falls, Minn.
- Grand Forks, N.D.
- Grand Rapids, Minn.
- Hibbing, Minn.
- International Falls, Minn.
- Virginia, Minn.
- Willmar, Minn.
Tax-deductible donations to the HeatShare program can be made online or by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY. Checks can also be mailed to a local Salvation Army center with HeatShare in the memo line.
WHAT ELSE CAN PROPANE USERS DO?
Public safety officials say those who rely on propane for home heating can take several steps to help alleviate the burden of the shortage. Those include:
1. Conserve energy as much as possible. Turning down thermostats and bundling up will stretch fuel use. Winterizing a home by covering windows, covering cracks under doors and closing off drafty areas will help improve heat efficiency as well.
2. Closely monitor propane use. With the colder-than-average temperatures lingering for weeks this winter, many families are using fuel supplies more quickly than normal. Keeping a daily record will help propane customers budget their needs and avoid running out unexpectedly.
3. Communicate often with family members, neighbors and friends. Keeping in contact is not only one of the most basic means of ensuring the safety of loved ones, but it is also an opportunity to make sure anyone who needs help can have a local support system that can point them to heating alternatives or other resources, including those offered by the state.
4. Utilize the state hotline and other resources as needed. Calling the hotlines listed above is a good way to get additional information on the propane shortage and learn about what options are available to those requiring help with home heating bills
ALTERNATE HEAT SOURCES
When the mercury plummets, many people turn to supplement their home heating with energy-efficient devices or alternative heat sources. The State Fire Marshal recommends using appropriate caution, but the following options are available:
- Portable electric heaters
- Liquid fuel heaters
- Waste oil
- Solid-fuel heating
- Wood burning
- Pellet burning
Any heating appliance that involves open flame must be vented to the outside since it will give of carbon monoxide, which can build up to deadly levels inside a home.
Fire safety is also a concern when additional heating sources in a home. State officials offer the following safety tips to those who do use space heaters:
1. Keep anything flammable -- including pets and people -- at least 3 feet from heating equipment.
2. Ensure portable space heaters have an automatic shut-off.
3. Turn off portable heaters when leaving the room or going to sleep.
4. Check cords frequently to check for frays or breaks in the insulation near the wires.
5. Ensure the cord and outlet are not overheating periodically. If it feels hot to the touch, discontinue use.
6. Keep heaters on level, hard, nonflammable surfaces and not on rugs, carpets or near bedding or furniture.
7. Only use heaters that have been tested against safety standards and are certified by a nationally-recognized testing laboratory.