Editorís note: A shorter version of this column ran on Sept. 18, 2016 and will be updated monthly with the current SCO price. The information in the column, which covers natural gas and electricity, remains accurate.

The hint of some crisp weather days after our recent heat waves is a good sign that itís that time of year to think about winter heating bills.

I know, way to burst your bubble.

But seriously, this has become a rite of fall: to do a check-up of sorts on our natural gas choices to heat our homes.

For some time, Iíve been recommending the Standard Choice Offer (SCO) via Dominion East Ohio. The SCO is a monthly variable based on a state-approved formula. Prices for some time have been at historic lows and the forecasts are that they will continue to stay low. The SCO price continues to beat most fixed and variable offers from competitors and most community aggregation prices.

This year is no different. After some analysis and a check-up on rates, Iím still comfortable staying with the low rates of the SCO. Itís done really well, especially with the historically low rates and the below wholesale rates that are being used for the formula in determining that monthly rate.

However, a nice surprise this year is that there may be some options for decent fixed rates that are pretty close to the current SCO from marketers, if you are looking for a fixed rate. In previous years, the marketerís fixed rates have been so much higher than the SCO that it just didnít make sense to lock in. If you take that fixed rate, know that the SCO since it changes monthly, could drop lower than the fixed price.

Since none of us have that crystal ball to know exactly what will happen with prices this winter, I canít give you the slam-dunk answer. But what I can tell you is that the difference in our bills if you stick with the SCO, like me, or take a fixed rate, is pretty minimal, so we are not talking about hundreds of dollars difference.

Where there may be hundreds of dollars of difference is if you are still stuck on a high fixed rate that you never got around to checking on or if you are with a marketerís own variable rate, which can sometimes be quite high.

Last spring, for instance, I wrote a column filled with statistics showing that Ohio consumers were overpaying for their natural gas by millions of dollars because they hadnít updated their choices or adequately shopped.

So while like I feel like a broken record, or a nagging and concerned wife, itís time for you to pull out your gas bill and make sure youíre getting the best deal or to confirm that what you think you are signed up for is really what you are getting.

Often I get people thanking me after they finally got around to pulling that bill out, only to be shocked by the prices they really were paying because they let life get in the way. Just the other day, I had an email exchange with a reader who said she knew she should be on the SCO, based on reading my columns, and thought she was. But after we investigated with Dominion, she had called to cancel her community aggregation rate with that gas company, which sent the cancellation notice to Dominion. But she never called Dominion directly to tell them she wanted the SCO and she ended up with a rate called the Monthly Variable Rate (MVR), which can be much higher.

I totally get it. Iím a working mother of two teens and we are constantly on the run. Heck, if I didnít keep track of natural gas prices for a living, maybe I wouldnít have gotten around to pulling out my bill.

So go grab your bill and letís walk through what you need to do.

And as Iíve said before: If you make a different decision than me, Iím not going to be hurt. Some people like to find a fixed rate that they think is fair with a low cancellation fee and forget about it.

What is the SCO?

The SCO is determined by using the closing price on the third to last day of the previous month on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) plus an ďadder,Ē which is determined every April in a supplier auction. This yearís adder was a historic 5-cent credit, which means we are paying below wholesale rates.

In the last year, the SCO price has had a low of $1.73 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) in March and a high of $2.87/mcf in July.

Hereís the latest SCO price:

Effective Feb. 14, the SCO will be $3.34 per thousand cubic feet (mcf). Though higher than the previous February rate of $2.21/mcf, the February 2017 rate is still lower than the average February for the last five years of $3.77/mcf, according to Dominion East Ohio.

The average SCO/SSO residential customerís bill for the month of February will be $93.42, up $23.98, or 34.5 percent, from $69.44 a year ago.

All Dominion East Ohio residential customers also pay two state-approved charges directly to Dominion, regardless of their supplier to pay for delivery and other utility costs.

Customers pay a fixed $26.16 for the basic monthly charge and a usage-based charge, which is increasing by 9 cents/mcf.

I continue to recommend sticking with the SCO. While some readers have asked me if Iím nervous that the price has inched up this winter, I have told them that I am still comfortable with the SCO. While the price is higher than last winter, last winterís rates were also 35-year-lows and prices this winter are still below the price two years ago and lower than five-year averages.

Hereís some historical prices for the last year or so: January 2017: $3.88/mcf, December 2016: $3.18/mcf, November: $2.71/mcf, October $2.90/mcf, September $2.80/mcf, August $2.62/mcf, July $2.87/mcf, June $1.91/mcf, May $1.95/mcf, April $1.85/mcf, March $1.73/mcf, February $2.21/mcf, January $2.39/mcf, December 2015 $2.23, November 2015 $2.05/mcf

(If you live in the Columbia Gas territory, your pricing structures are different, but the principles are the same and the SCO would also be my choice.)When I consulted with Jeff Murphy, Dominion East Ohio vice president and general manager, he said he often will take a look at the NYMEX futures prices for the upcoming winter and come up with an average to use as a ďmarkerĒ when looking at fixed rates.

This year, there are a few fixed rates on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohioís Apples to Apples chart, www.energychoice.ohio.gov or 800-686-7826, that could be competitive. This week, I saw one fixed price from Santanna Natural Gas Corp. for $2.59/mcf for 12 months, but it does carry a $100 cancellation fee. AEP Energy had one for $2.79/mcf for one year with a $10 cancellation fee. I am aware that there are other low rates that have been mailed to homes, and my advice is the same. Take a look at the term and cancellation fees. (Update 10/26/16: That Santanna rate is no longer the same price. The 12 month public rate is now $2.78/mcf. Rates change often, so you need to doublecheck before you commit or as you shop around).

But then there are some that are much higher. I saw one two-year deal for $5.59/mcf fixed with a $200 fee. Some of the monthly variable prices also looked to possibly be beating the SCO this month, but keep in mind most of the marketers donít have a formula they will share, so their prices could swing or they could offer a cheap price one month and high the next.

I did crunch some numbers and utilized an archive website that let me look up those NYMEX futures prices from previous years. I then took the average winter price, adjusted it with the ďadderĒ at the time, and compared it to the SCO prices for every year since 2012.

In looking at four yearís of winter data, 2012 through 2015, the average SCO beat the average adjusted futures price three out of the four years. It beat it by 83 cents in winter of 2015, 62 cents in 2014 and 66 cents in 2012. In 2013, the SCO was 20 cents higher than the adjusted futures average, but thatís still not too bad, in my opinion.

Murphy said itís important to remember that the Nymex is just an indicator of what the market believes prices will be. ďVariables like weather, storage inventories, use of natural gas for power generation and the like will inevitably cause actual prices to differ from those Nymex projections.Ē

Prices look to be moderate by historical standards, both with the SCO and fixed prices, he said.

In some ways, weíve gotten spoiled with these low prices because we forget that there were many years when we thought a $9.99/mcf or even a $12/mcf price was cheap while other prices soared to $16/mcf.

How do I know if Iím already on the SCO?

You can also use an educational website Dominion has set up, www.tinyurl.com/domeducate, with pictures of sample bills, to help you find where your supplier costs are. You are looking for the price you pay, which is close to the MCF usage on your bill. Bills vary, but look on the left-hand column above ďtotal current chargesĒ for the correct section.

If your bill has the letters ďSCOĒ next to a supplier, you are good to go and you donít have to do anything. As long as the bill says SCO, the supplier itself doesnít matter. Every year in April, Dominion randomly re-assigns the winning bidders in the auction to customers, so you may see a new name on your bill next to the SCO, but it should make no difference to you.

You will continue to get the SCO unless you choose your own provider for a fixed rate or a variable rate from another marketer or through an aggregation, which is a government bulk-buying group.

How do I get the SCO?

As you spot-check your bill, if you are still on a fixed rate, or higher than the SCO, find out how much time is left on your contract and if there is a cancellation fee. Some fees can be hefty ó but you likely will save ó if your rate is high.

The average household uses about 100 mcf of gas a year. Take the difference between prices and multiply by 100 to see the savings.

To switch to the SCO, call Dominion at 800-362-7557 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Mondays tend to be the among the busiest days, so perhaps pick a different day to call.

Tell Dominion you want to cancel your current provider and switch. You have to specifically ask for the SCO, or Dominion will move you to the nonregulated MVR by the third month instead of the SCO, which you donít want because they are those unregulated variable rates.

It will take up to two billing cycles to switch to what is called an ďSSOĒ (the same price as the SCO). If by the third month, you see ďMVRĒ instead of ďSCO,Ē call Dominion.

During the time you have the SSO, donít worry that the price looks higher.

Despite my advocating for Dominion to change their bill, it does not give you a separate line item for delivery charges, so that SSO price includes both the SCO and delivery charges, which everyone pays. In small print, it will list the SCO price. One note: a PUCO change a few years ago means nonresidential customers are no longer eligible for the SCO and must choose their own provider or pay the MVR.

What about aggregations?

Iíve written a lot about aggregations, or bulk-buying via communities, but there still seems to be confusion about them. Community officials created aggregation groups in the early 2000s, after voters passed ballot measures allowing the groups to be formed. Officials have told me over the years that they do their best to get the best price, but thereís no guarantee that the price is the best or will beat what you can get on your own, or lately with the SCO. Aggregations automatically include community members who havenít actively chosen their own fixed rate or variable rate supplier. For those of us on the SCO, though weíve ďchosenĒ that, for aggregation purposes, weíre still included in the aggregations, unless we opt-out, so make sure you donít ignore those notices.

Akron voters approved a ballot issue in March to create a gas aggregation. City officials tell me they are still working on getting that set up and will have options by next spring. So that is not a factor for this coming winter season.

If you inadvertently get switched to an aggregation, call Dominion and say you want to switch back, but you will have to go through the process to switch and remember, you must request the SCO. Aggregation contracts typically donít have cancellation fees, so you can always join ó and if the SCO continues to beat it, you can leave.

Aggregations are on different cycles, but many renew in the fall.

Iíve done spot checks on many of the communities that either have the contracts coming up for new prices or the prices communities are paying on aggregations. Nearly all of the aggregation prices are still higher than the SCO. One exception is NOPEC, which is a consortium of more than 200 governments, including some communities in Northern Summit County and Portage County. It has two options: a variable rate that is guaranteed to beat the SCO by 2 cents/mcf and a fixed rate that is set every 60 days or so. It is currently at $2.61/mcf, which is good, but that rate also was higher than the SCO for several months. You specifically have to ask for the guaranteed variable rate and it does not automatically renew.

Permanently opting out

Customers on the SCO or those who donít have their own contract with a natural gas provider are automatically included on lists Dominion is required to share with retail marketers and aggregation groups. If you donít want on those lists, opt out through Dominion. Go online to www.dom.com, call 800-362-7557 or write Dominion at Box 5759, Cleveland, OH 44101-0759.

Iíve done this so that I donít accidentally get grouped into my communityís aggregation contract, if I happen to miss the opt-out notice in the mail.

This doesnít mean all gas offers by mail will end. I still get some offers, likely because Iím still on some mailing lists as a former customer.

Budget billing explained

Budget billing is an option offered to give customers a way to have consistent payments by estimating usage based on normal weather, historical consumption and the customerís rate at the time of enrollment or during the annual review in May. A review is also conducted in November to make any necessary adjustments to minimize large over-or underpayments for the annual true-up in May.

Itís a way for customers to spread out the costs of their heating bill over the course of a year where they will be paying the same amount year-round instead of paying the high actual costs during the winter. It also means that during the summer months when very little natural gas is being used, youíre paying a higher amount.

I have been using budget billing for years and find it very helpful so I donít get huge swings in my bills during the winter heating months. Plus, for the last several years with SCO rates being so low, my budget bill amounts have been incredibly low. In fact, this year, I went four months this summer not having to pay anything since I had a balance and now my budget has been adjusted to just under $50 a month.

Dominion has put together a really helpful handout explaining a few scenarios for changes in budget billing and you can find that in the box that appears with this column labeled ďDominion East Ohio Budget Billing Explanation 2016.Ē

What about nonresidential, nonprofit, church or small-business accounts?

If you are a small business or nonresidential account, such as a church, the state eliminated the SCO choice for you in 2013.

The PUCO allowed Dominion to eliminate the SCO for commercial or nonresidential customers. Consumer advocates at the time said removing the benchmark was unfair, and the system wasnít broken. Dominion officials said the market could become more competitive if the SCO wasnít available to commercial customers.

For those customers who canít get the SCO, you are getting a Monthly Variable Rate (MVR), which is a non-regulated monthly variable if you havenít made your own choice. MVR rates can be high, since there are no regulations, so keep an eye on them.

There is no site where you can compare the MVR or nonresidential rates but you can use the PUCOís chart at www.energychoice.ohio.gov as a starting point to see residential prices and phone numbers to consider what companies to call and ask for their nonresidential rates.

Another option is to check with an association, such as your church denomination, regional conference, or other small group, to see if they have created an aggregation group or bulk buying group to save on utilities. Some church denominations participate in aggregations. If you do choose a variable, since wholesale rates are cheap now, know that most companies donít share how they determine their variable rates, so youíll have to keep an eye on them.

If you donít want to do that, or need some stability for your budget given the lack of transparency with the SCO pricing, then consider finding a fixed rate with a cancellation fee your organization can live with (or just stick with it for the contract term length) or try the MVR and keep an eye on the pricing, though thatís tougher.

What about electric?

Choosing your electricity provider is not as simple as gas; youíll need to shop around for the best price at www.energychoice.ohio.gov.

Take a look at your ďprice to compareĒ on the first page of your bill, which is individualized to your usage.

Remember that only about 55 percent of an electric bill, called the generation portion, is ďshoppableĒ for customers looking for the best rate. The other 45 percent is set by regulators and cannot change.

Most communities are on an aggregation with FirstEnergy Solutions, getting 6 percent off your ďprice to compareĒ through 2018 with a $25 cancellation fee.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her†@blinfisherABJ† on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty