CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thursday was the first day West Virginians could apply for financial help through the Dollar Energy Fund, which helps people pay their utility bills. "It's a huge need," said Jacqueline Roberts, director of the state Public Service Commission Consumer Advocacy Division. "It's a really important benefit for West Virginia residents that qualify." By working with six area utility companies, the Dollar Energy Fund -- acting through the West Virginia Utility Assistance Program -- has restored utility service to 3,677 households and helped 18,000 low-income households avoid having their service cut off in the first place, said Rachel Coffman, Dollar Energy program manager for the Appalachian region. "Utility assistance is a year-long epidemic," Coffman said, "and every year, the demand grows." The program allows households at or below the federal poverty line -- which is $23,550 for a family of four -- to apply once per utility each year to avoid termination. Since 2008, the program has contributed $6 million through grants, fundraising, foundation grants and utility company match programs toward reducing the burden of utility costs for West Virginians in need, Coffman said. Utilities that participate include Equitable Gas, Dominion Hope, Mountaineer Gas, Appalachian Power, First Energy and West Virginia American Water. For customers of most of those utilities, the maximum grant is $500. This year, though, Appalachian Power has reduced the maximum grant its customers can receive to $300. Grants for Appalachian Power customers also won't be available until Dec. 1. "It's not a constant stream of funding," Coffman said of the grants. "It's a one-time deal, just to try and get you back on your feet if you ran into some hard times." American Electric Power, Appalachian Power's parent company, reviewed its grants from the past five years and decided to make the change to more effectively spread out funding, said AEP coordinator Dwight Linkous. "There seem to be more and more customers in need," Linkous said. "We will be better able to meet the needs of those customers during the more critical times when that demand is really the highest for that funding." "The funds aren't there [in the winter months] to get covered," Coffman said. "We're hoping, with the reduction in the maximum amount of a grant to $300 this year, that funding lasts into January and February." West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said the Dollar Energy Fund, combined with a 20-percent low-income discount introduced this past spring, allows the company to help more customers in need. "We are now able to affect two classes of customers," McIntyre said. "Those that need a little bit of assistance each month with meeting their utility-bill needs and those that have a crisis point and need a helping hand in keeping their basic amenities from being shut off." McIntyre said water bills are typically one of the lowest utility bills for a household, but service costs continue to rise, increasing the number of customers needing help. In 2012, 409 West Virginia households received grants to keep the water flowing despite their inability to pay, McIntyre said. "Utilities are something we all need, to get by everyday," Coffman said, "and a lot of families out there are struggling." Since the program's inception 5,941 households in Kanawha County, 1,827 households in Cabell County and 1,134 households in Mercer County have avoided utility termination. Coffman announced a $25,000 grant for the program from the Bernard McDonough Foundation in Parkersburg. Customers can make contributions to the Dollar Energy Fund by calling their utility provider and making a monthly pledge, sending a check directly to Dollar Energy Fund, at P.O. Box 3979, Charleston, WV 25339, or by donating online at www.dollarenergyfund.org. People who want to apply for the program can contact their utility provider or visit the www.dollarenergyfund.org website. Reach Caitlin Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5113.