CHICAGO (WLS) -- With many people staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic, their electric and gas bills may have grown. And with winter approaching, they could climb even higher.
At the same time, the pandemic has tightened finances for many people and families. But there are millions of dollars still available through state programs in Illinois to help homeowners with heat, energy and other household costs.
There are also steps you can take in your home right now to possibly save a bundle on your energy bills.
Jeremi Bryant from the nonprofit energy savings group Elevate Energy showed the I-Team several energy and home heat hacks.
First, you can put inexpensive socket sealers under each of all your electrical outlets.
"What you want to focus on around this time of year is what is actually a term called air sealing, which is more so just sealing up around where you would find air passing through," Bryan explained. "If you're going through a home and you're looking to where to feel that we call those areas bypasses."
Make sure your attic and basement are insulated, then look for other cracks to caulk.
"In addition to that, you also want to be sure that the area around your windows and doors has been properly sealed with caulk insulation," said Bryant. "They also have these weather strips; weather strips actually are very good for keeping air out of your window."
You can also try to take the casing off around your door to check if it's properly insulated, and turn down your hot water a heater; it should not be set over 120 degrees
"One thing that is highly recommended, is that people get their furnaces and boilers cleaned and tuned, and this will help keep them regulating efficiently, or it might also reveal some type of health and safety issues," Bryant added.
A dirty filter can reduce airflow by 35%, so change your furnace filter every 30 to 45 days, Bryant suggested. Turn down your thermostat a few degrees, wear warmer clothes and use more blankets.
John Gay recently added weather stripping and LED lights to save on gas and electricity in his North Kenwood home.
"30 percent of people are floored to hear the electric bill is $100-150 a month for a 7,000 square foot home," said Gay.
Another electric savings tip: look for items plugged-in which you aren't using, and unplug the "vampire power suckers" such as unused phone chargers or appliances.
If you're behind on bills you'll also get a break. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a moratorium on utility shut offs.
Statewide, the vast majority of utilities like ComEd and Peoples Gas will enroll you in a program and keep your service in place, but you can't ignore unpaid bills.
"The other thing people can do is just conserve energy, and we have an energy efficiency program called the home jumpstart, so people can sign up for an audit or an assessment at our website to receive free energy saving equipment, and a whole audit of how they can save energy at home," said Danisha Hall of Peoples Gas.
Illinois Legal Aid Online told the I-Team that in October and November alone utility resources and financial assistance has been used by 9,000 people, averaging 1,230 people a week. And they recently saw a 20% increase from people needing assistance.
"Many of them are using more energy even now because of school, right, so folks are mainly going to school online in their homes. So they're spending a lot more time during the day in their homes than we have before. And that has an effect on your energy," said Teri Ross, Executive Director of Illinois Legal Aid Online.
Another state program is Help Illinois Families, which includes energy assistance, and has expanded funding and eligibility with money through the federal CARES Act.
Statewide the Help Illinois Families program has helped more than 100,000 households already. An estimated $170 million in funds remains for heat and energy help. It will continue to accept applications and make payments through May.
Energy saving tricks can lower electric, gas bills; programs offer help paying utility bills