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Weatherization program funding much lower, may be cut altogether

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A program that helped keep heating bills down for more than 700 southeast Minnesota homes last year faces an uncertain future that could leave some residents out in the cold.

SEMCAC, which administers the Weatherization Assistance Program, received nearly $4 million for the program the past few years thanks to a federal stimulus bill, said program coordinator Melissa Feine.

This year, the organization expects about $800,000, she said. And there’s a threat the program — which provides free furnace repair, insulation and other energy cost-saving projects to low-income homeowners — may be cut entirely.

SEMCAC has used the program to serve nearly 750 homes across eight southeast Minnesota counties dating to last fall. If current projections come true, the organization will only be able to serve about 150 homes this year, Feine said.

“We don’t know what to anticipate,” said Gerry Krage, the organization’s community development director. “We’re preparing for the worst.”

To qualify for the program, a household must earn less than half of the state’s median income level — about $43,000 for a family of four. More than 70 percent of those eligible last year in the area were either underemployed or retired, Feine said. Feine said the average client assisted saves about $300 in utility costs each year.

Joe Sobkowiak, who manages Schneider Heating and Air Conditioning in Winona, said many projects SEMCAC contracts with his company don’t just lower heating bills, they save lives.

“Some scenarios we’ve experienced, we took houses that were downright dangerous and made them safe,” Sobkowiak said.

Take carbon monoxide, an odorless and deadly gas that can leak into houses from faulty furnaces. Furnace maintenance, combined with proper detectors — both offered by the weatherization program — provide significant protection from leaks.

If the program’s momentum dies, Feine said, it may never again receive enough attention to fully return.

“We really need to prove that our program is great,” she said. “It could go off the map — and we don’t want it to.”

To apply
Contact SEMCAC in Winona County at 507-452-8396 or visit for a list of contacts for other county offices.

Your heat won’t be turned off this winter, even if you don’t have the money to pay the bills.

The Cold Weather Rule prohibits energy companies from turning off your heat between Oct. 15 through April 15—as long as you call your company and set up a payment plan.

Residents who use delivered fuels like fuel oil, propane or wood are not covered by the rule.

For more information, visit and follow the “Cold Weather Rule” link, or call 1-800-657-3782.

How to (safely) keep those energy bills down

-Turn down your thermostat to 65 degrees while at home and 55 or 60 when away or asleep.
-After snow falls, make sure outdoor vents attached to your drier or furnace are clear of snow.
-Replace or clean furnace filters during the heating season. Depending on the size of the filter, some may need to be replaced as often as every month.
-Place window film on the interior of the leakiest windows.
-Install carbon monoxide and fire alarms.
-Call your utility to schedule a home energy audit.

Adam Voge