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Are You Eligible for a Piece of the $4.5B Energy Assistance Program?

If you're struggling to afford heat this year, we'll help you find out if you qualify for assistance.

Hand over a heating radiator in a darkish room.
Heating bills can be expensive, but there's some help available.
Mikhail Mikheev/EyeEm/Getty Images

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

As the northern hemisphere heads into winter, people are firing up their heaters. But electricity prices have increased close to 15% since last year and natural gas prices have risen about 25% during the same time, so heating your home costs significantly more. 

The increase is especially difficult for people with low incomes. About 40% of low-income households  more than 10% of their income on their energy needs. Even though you can cut back on your energy use in a lot of ways, you may not be able to save enough energy to cover the increased cost.

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If you find yourself struggling to pay for heating costs this winter, you may qualify for energy assistance. The federal government distributes assistance funds -- this winter's amount is $4.5 billion -- that go to households that need a bit of help. States, territories and tribes each get a portion to distribute. We'll explain how you can apply, lay out what you can use the money for and touch on a few other possible sources of assistance.

You can lower your energy bill right now by adopting a few energy-smart practices. Find out how to lower your water heater temperature, look into an energy-saving smart device and heat and cool your home more efficiently. You can also set your smart thermostat to the ideal schedule for staying comfortable and saving money. Check out CNET's Home Tips collection for more ideas.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program: How to apply

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, is a program run by the US Department of Health and Human Services. In 2021, nearly $4 billion from LIHEAP was distributed among states and from there, distributed to low-income residents. That year an estimated 4.9 million households received LIHEAP money.

States set the income limits for each of their programs, but can't set it above 160% or below 110% of the federal poverty level. The poverty level in 2022 is at $13,590 of yearly income for a single person; $18,310 for two people; $23,030 for three people and up from there.

To access LIHEAP funds, you'll have to apply through your state. You can find state and territorial contacts and tribal contacts on LIHEAP's website. 

Some state websites include links to third parties (often charities or non-profit organizations) that can help you navigate the application process to receive funds.

States can also offer assistance through LIHEAP to low-income households for weatherization projects. Weatherization means plugging leaks and insulating your home against hot and cold temperatures outside. Weatherstripping, insulation and new windows and doors might be part of your state's LIHEAP program. More incentives outside of LIHEAP, in the form of rebates and tax credits, are coming or are already in place, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. Weatherization projects can provide energy bill relief year after year in both the summer and winter.

How to find utility company and other incentives

As utilities are required to shift their energy production, some have begun offering discounted or free smart energy devices and energy efficiency measures that can save you money in the long run. Before you buy new energy efficient light bulbs or water efficient shower heads, check in with your utility to see if they're offering discounts.

One utility in New Jersey offers free home visits on the basis of income that include basic upgrades, like light bulbs and water heater pipe insulation and additional, later upgrades that could include improved insulation, sealing of air ducts and tuneups for heaters and air conditioners. Depending on your income, you might get these upgrades completely free.

This type of support is different from LIHEAP benefits, which offer financial assistance for your actual bills. Energy efficiency upgrades like a smart thermostat and insulation will help lower your utility bills over all and into the future.

Utilities may also offer payment plans for people struggling to pay their bills. Plans will vary in details and availability, so be sure to check in with your utility.

There are also charitable organizations and nonprofits that offer help. These programs will vary by location but some national organizations like The Salvation Army offer assistance. While it's hard to predict what exactly is available from one state or city to another, be on the lookout for programs like these in your area.

There are plenty of ways to keep your energy bills a little bit lower. From relatively inexpensive but surprisingly effective fixes, like turning off the lights or adjusting your thermostat, to more expensive ones like installing solar panels.