Help is out there for people whose homes are cold, drafty

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Old man winter is coming, and that means higher energy bills. Image: Pixabay

By Kaley Fech
Capital News Service

Old Man Winter is an expensive guest in a home that hasn’t been weatherized.

“The first time they think about having to turn the furnace on, people start to panic,” said Steve Taylor, home improvement programs manager at the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency in Traverse City.

One way low-income families can reduce their energy costs is through weatherization, the process that makes homes more energy-efficient.

Michigan’s Weatherization Assistance Program provides free home energy conservation services to low income residents. These services reduce energy use, which helps to lower utility bills.

“A weatherization service provider can come into your home and see how energy efficient your home is,” said Bob Wheaton, public information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. “They can assist you with things like air sealing, improving the ventilation and adding installation.”

Weatherization in cold states can reduce heating costs an average of 30 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Up here in northern Michigan, it’s a lot colder than other places,” said Valerie Williams, the housing and client services director at the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency in Alpena. “If you’re spending over six months of the year running your furnace, it should be efficient, and you should be able to keep that heat inside instead of it leaving through the cracks in your home.”

More than 1,500 Michigan homes have benefited from the Weatherization Assistance Program, Wheaton said. More than 300,000 homes have been weatherized since the program began in 1976.

The Health and Human Services partners with community action agencies to provide weatherization services across the state.

The Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency serves 10 counties in the Lower Peninsula, including Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Emmet, Wexford, Missaukee and Charlevoix counties.

“In our region, with high rental rates, higher home prices and a predominance of propane as the source of home heating fuel, our program is extremely important for maintaining and creating affordable housing for people,” Taylor said.

This year it has the budget to weatherize 68 homes in 10 counties and have completed 18, Taylor said.

The Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency weatherizes roughly the same number of homes, between 65 and 75, across the 11 counties it serves.

Taylor said more requests for weatherization come in each day. In some counties, there is a four-year waiting list.

“In some of our counties we have probably 70-80 people waiting,” Taylor said. “Overall we probably have roughly 300 people on waiting lists throughout the 10 counties.”

Counties served by the agency have long waitlists too, Williams said.

In Ottawa County, 96 people are waiting to have their homes weatherized, said Michelle Brothers, weatherization coordinator at the Ottawa County Community Action Agency.

Wheaton said the department is working on reducing the waiting lists to help create more realistic expectations for customers.

Brothers said the number of houses the agency is able to weatherize each year fluctuates. Last year it completed 50, but she said because of a reduction in funding, this year it will do between 35 and 40.

Williams said the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency spends an average of $6,000 per home. Some of the work that goes into this cost include replacing the furnace, putting in wall, attic and foundation insulation, sealing windows and doors and replacing appliances such as  refrigerators.

Michigan’s Weatherization Assistance Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Funding varies from one agency to another. To be eligible for the program, a household income must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means their annual income must be under $49,200.

The program is not an emergency repair service, Taylor said. The process can take up two months.

The earlier a request is made, the better, he said. Homes can be weatherized all year long, and if it is done before temperatures drop, the homes will be more energy efficient when the cold weather hits and people begin to turn on their heat.

Wheaton said a weatherized home can save families up to $450 each year in energy costs.

These savings can prevent a family from having to turn to the Department of Health and Human Services for assistance in paying their energy bills.

“Our department often has to assist people in situations where they have fallen behind on their heating bills, have had their utilities shut off or are at risk of having their utilities shut off,” Wheaton said. “Weatherization can keep people from reaching that point.”

Taylor said he has experienced this in the counties he serves.

“We have numerous stories from people who used to require assistance paying their heating bills, are now proud of the fact they can pay their own bills,” he said. “People who used to seal off part of their home in the winter because they couldn’t afford to heat them can now use their homes.”

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