ST. PAUL-As temperatures drop and heating bills rise, the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday issued a reminder about the state's Cold Weather Rule and Energy Assistance Program.

The Cold Weather Rule protects residential utility customers from having their heat shut off during the winter months. The Energy Assistance Program helps eligible Minnesota homeowners and renters pay for home heating costs.

"The Cold Weather Rule and our Energy Assistance Program are here to help Minnesota families who struggle with home heating costs to get through our cold winters," Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, whose agency includes the state energy office, said in a press release. "We want to make sure Minnesotans are safe and warm in their homes this winter."

The Cold Weather Rule takes effect on Sunday, Oct. 15 and continues through April 15. To prevent heating disconnection under the rule, customers must first contact their utility to establish and maintain a monthly payment plan. All electric and natural gas companies are required to offer this protection.

Under the rule, utility customers who have a combined household income at or below 50 percent of the state median income ($48,077 for a family of four) are not required to pay more than 10 percent of their household income toward current and past heating bills. Others are also eligible to arrange a Cold Weather Rule payment plan.

Minnesotans who need to re-connect their service for the winter should contact their utility now to take advantage of the payment options, the release said.

The Cold Weather Rule does not apply to delivered fuels such as fuel oil, propane or wood. But Minnesotans who use these fuels are encouraged to contact the companies serving them to discuss payment options if they are concerned about their ability to pay this winter. For example, a state law requires that propane distributors offer all customers a budget plan.

The Cold Weather Rule is administered by the Public Utilities Commission. More information is available at the Commission website or by calling (800) 657-3782.

Minnesota's Energy Assistance Program helps homeowners and renters earning at or below 50 percent of the state's median income ($48,077 for a family of four) pay their heating bills. The average annual payment per household last year was about $520. Households with seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and children are especially encouraged to apply.

Minnesotans who use delivered fuels to heat their homes are eligible for Energy Assistance Program grants even though they are not covered by the Cold Weather Rule.

Applications were recently sent to Minnesotans who qualified for energy assistance last year. Others who may qualify are encouraged to apply by contacting the local service provider in their county by calling (800) 657-3710. Information is also available at the Commerce Department's Energy Assistance Program webpage.