Fitchburg, Mass. – Unitil Corporation and United Way of North Central Massachusetts are urging customers to be aware of fuel assistance programs available to assist with heating costs as winter approaches.

That was the message shared with nonprofit and community leaders who attended a heating assistance forum Thursday at Great Wolf Lodge. The forum was hosted jointly by Unitil and the United Way of North Central Massachusetts.

“Unitil has sponsored this annual meeting for seventeen years,” said Phil Grzewinski, president of United Way of North Central Massachusetts. “It has really helped get the word out about the numerous programs available to area residents.”

“Utility customers can reduce the stress of managing their energy bills over a long and cold winter by taking advantage of these programs,” Sue Corson, credit supervisor for Unitil, said.

John Keeney of New England Farm Workers’ Council, which manages the Federal Fuel Assistance program, said a family of four with a household income of $66,115 or less would qualify for the program. For a single person, the income figure is $34,380.

“I can’t emphasize enough for residents to apply for these programs as soon as possible, and please do not wait until you’re in financial trouble before asking for help,” Keeney said.

Corson reviewed the utility company’s budget billing program, which makes monthly utility bills more affordable by leveling out higher seasonal energy bills, which are spread out throughout the year.

In addition, customers may qualify for a discount rate on natural gas or electricity, depending on household size and income. Unitil works with the New England Farm Workers’ Council to approve customers for the discount rate as well as other agencies that provide public benefits.

Customers who qualify for the discount rate, have an overdue balance of $300 or more for their gas service and enter into an agreement to pay their current utility bills on time, may be eligible to participate in the Arrears Forgiveness Program, which provides up to $1,200 in relief per year on their outstanding balances.

Unitil’s Derek Kimball reviewed the federal ‘Weatherization Assistance Program,’ which is managed by the Montachusett Opportunity Council. It provides no-cost energy saving improvements, such as insulation and heating system repairs, to homeowners who meet income guidelines.

For customers who are over the income limit for low-income programs, Unitil offers the MassSave program, which provides a 75 percent rebate of up to $2,000 to install energy saving home improvements, such as insulation, air sealing and Energy Star lighting products. Customers may also be eligible for interest free loans of up to $25,000, for 84 months, on qualifying energy efficiency upgrades.  There are also generous incentives, up to $1,600, for high-efficiency heating and water equipment.

Kimball also reviewed Mass Save’s ‘Renter-Specific Offer’ and ‘Moderate-Income Offer’ programs.

The renter program includes a visit from an energy expert, who will conduct an audit and install instant savings measures such as light bulbs, power strips, gas/water saving aerators and showerheads, and collect energy efficiency information to share with the landlord.

Enhanced energy efficiency incentives are available to moderate-income households. Those who opt for weatherization improvements may qualify for an increased incentive when income is a barrier to proceeding with identified weatherization opportunities.

“Forums like today help get the word out on these programs,” Unitil Media Relations Manager Alec O’Meara said. “All too often, a family which could make use of these services never makes the call, simply because they didn’t know help was available. These programs exist to help you. If you need help, call.”

Maribeth Janssens, director of community impact at United Way of North Central Massachusetts, told listeners about its Emergency Shelter Program, which provides emergency shelter to homeless people during extreme weather conditions. The initiative is managed by United Way, with its community partners, and funded by the Ronald M. Ansin Foundation and the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts. For more information, local agencies can call the United Way of North Central Massachusetts at 978-345-1577 x304.

To learn more about any of Unitil’s programs, customers may call 1-888-301-7700.