The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) on Tuesday released the results of its annual Cold Weather Survey, which showed that about 15,983 households will enter the winter season without heat-related utility service, compared to 17,475 this time last year.

“We are pleased to see the number of those entering the winter months without heat-related utility service has decreased this year,” said Commission Chairman Robert F. Powelson. “With the coldest months of the year are still ahead, it remains critically important for consumers without heat-related utility service to learn about their options for reconnecting service.”

The PUC encourages consumers without utility service to know their rights and responsibilities. Consumers should obtain information about programs available to help them restore and maintain utility service. Consumers with a seriously ill resident in the household or a protection from abuse order may have additional options for service restoration.

Consumers should call their utility first to make arrangements to pay their bill. If they are unable to reach an agreement with the utility, the PUC may be able to provide assistance. The PUC can be reached toll-free at 1-800-692-7380.

In accordance with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Code, the state’s electric and natural gas distribution companies under the PUC’s jurisdiction must survey residential properties where service has been terminated in 2012 and has not been reconnected during the course of this calendar year. The survey assesses the number of households without heat-related service entering the winter months. Some households may be without both electric and natural gas service, resulting in a double-counting of some households.

Every December, the PUC releases those cold weather survey results. As part of the survey, the utility or its representative must make four attempts to contact consumers who are known to be without heat-related utility service. The attempts may include telephone calls, letters and personal visits to the residence and are done on different days of the week and different times of the day. If the first three contacts are unsuccessful, the PUC requests that the fourth attempt be an in-person visit to the residence.

Homes using potentially unsafe heating sources also are counted separately because the home is not relying on a central-heating system. According to the National Fire Protection Association, potentially unsafe sources of heat include kerosene heaters, kitchen stoves or ovens, electric space heaters, fireplaces and connecting extension cords to neighbors’ homes.

An additional 2,142 residences are using potentially unsafe heating sources, bringing the total homes not using a central-heating system to 18,125 according to the 2012 survey. The total number was 20,034 in 2011.

The 2012 survey results also show that as of Dec. 17:

•4,986 residential households remain without electric service; 11,203 residences where service was terminated now appear to be vacant; and 226 households are heating with potentially unsafe heating sources. The total electric residences without safe heating are 5,212.

•10,997 residential households that heat with natural gas are without service; 5,718 residences where service was terminated now appear to be vacant; and 1,916 households are heating with potentially unsafe heating sources. The total natural gas residences without safe heating are 12,913.

•PGW reported that 7,742 households that heat with natural gas are without service - the highest number of all utilities. A total of 10,415 or 57 percent of the total off accounts that have no service live in the Philadelphia area.

In an Oct. 9, 2012 letter sent to electric and natural gas utilities under its jurisdiction, the PUC asked utilities to join it in reaching out and educating consumers as part of the PUC’s “Prepare Now” initiative. In its 10th year, the message is simple: “Prepare Now” for high energy costs this winter. Learn about changes in the law related to utility shut-offs and know your rights. Save money by learning how to conserve energy. Heat your home safely. Explore budget billing options.

PUC urges consumers to look into programs that help low-income customers restore and maintain service. Visit www.puc.pa.gov, and click on “Prepare Now” or call the PUC at 1-800-692-7380.