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Bracing against the chill: Programs are available in Tulare County to winterize homes, at low cost or no cost

Saturday, November 19, 2011

With fall getting chillier and winter coming, Claudia Alattorre figured it was time to get her gas wall furnace ready to warm her small Tulare home.

That didn't happen. A Southern California Gas Co. technician who was called in to light the old furnace's pilot determined it was unsafe to turn on and needed to be replaced. To make matters worse, he also checked Alattorre's unreliable water heater and said it also needed to be replaced.

"I was without the water heater and heat in the house," said Alattorre, 31, the mother of two young children.

The fix-it skills she has developed over the 11 years she has owned the house didn't extend to appliance repair.

And on her salary as a dental assistant, she didn't know how she might afford $1,200 to buy and replace her water heater, along with another $1,800 to replace the wall heater.

"It would have been hard to come up with that much money all at one time," said Alattorre, who worried she and her children might have to move in with her boyfriend and his mother for a time if she couldn't get the money to replace the appliances.

The Gas Co. technician told her there were programs available that might help her pay for some of the costs, and after doing some research, Alattorre called the Weatherization Assistance Program for low-income households, operated for the last decade by Community Services Employment and Training Inc., the Visalia-based nonprofit known as CSET.

"The Weatherization Program is a program where we help residents in Tulare County. We help to make their homes more energy- efficient by installing weatherization measures in their homes," said Lily Rivera-Graves, director of energy and housing for CSET.

And it's all done for free.

Alattorre said her water heater and furnace were replaced at no cost and technicians also inspected her home for areas where warm air can escape on cold days or infiltrate the home on hot days and worked to fix those problems.

This included patching a large hole in a bedroom wall with a piece of drywall and sealing a window casing that had been exposed after Alattorre ripped out the trim during a home improvement project.

"Our job is to fill the shell of the house for any infiltration of air coming in," said David Garcia, a general contractor who used to build new homes before the housing bust and now supervises a CSET weatherization team.

His team is comprised of members of the Sequoia Community Corps, men and woman ages 18-24 who split their time developing work skills on the job and attending classes to obtain their high school diplomas.

The team also checks for high amounts of carbon monoxide in homes that can be caused by faulty heaters and other appliances.

"About 20 [percent] to 25 percent of the homes have high carbon monoxide," Garcia said of the homes he and his crew visit.

Occasionally, people tell him they've suffered headaches or felt sick and suspected breathing in the gas was the cause. At high levels, exposure to carbon monoxide can be deadly.

For more technical work, including repairing or replacing appliances, heaters and air conditioners, CSET contracts with local professionals.

To be eligible for the weatherization program, applicants undergo reviews of their incomes to determine if they meet low-income guidelines. For example, a family of four with a combined gross monthly income at or below $3,985.16 would qualify, Rivera-Graves said.

And it's not just homeowners like Alattorre who are eligible. Weatherization, repairs and appliance replacement can be done in rented homes and apartments if the landlords allow CSET to do the work, she added.

But it's the finances of the tenants that determine if a home is qualified, not the property owners' finances.

"Sometimes I have to explain to the landlord it's a free service and won't cost them anything," she said, adding that the program is really designed to help the client. "And the client is asking for the service because the client is paying for his own utility bill," she said.

As the weather gets colder, CSET's crews are getting busier because more people seek help when the weather changes. The Weatherization Assistance Program is paid for through U.S. Department of Energy dollars distributed by the California Department of Community Services and Development.

Currently, CSET has a $5.2 million contract to weatherize and improve energy efficiency in homes over 27 months.

Other programs offer help
CSET's program, available throughout Tulare County, isn't the only one helping people weatherize their homes.

Proteus, Inc., another Visalia-based nonprofit, offers Energy Savings Assistance Programs, which does free home heating, cooling and energy-use assessments as well as many of the same sorts of free improvements and appliance replacements as the CSET program.

Those services range from putting caulk and weather stripping on doors and windows to installing attic insulation.

But there are differences, as Proteus' program not only is available to people meeting its low-income guidelines but also to people on some financial assistance programs that include Medicaid; categories A and B of Healthy Families insurance; Women, Infants and Children food and nutrition services; and federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

In addition, Proteus' program will replace older, inefficient refrigerators with new, energy-efficient ones, while CSET's program will repair ovens or replace them with new ones if they can't be fixed.

Proteus' program isn't funded with federal money but rather by a "public purpose programs" surcharge tacked on to California gas and electric bills to fund efforts to achieve energy savings in low-income households.

"Basically, we provide electrical and gas energy education and energy-efficiency installations to families in order to save money on their utilities" and reduce energy consumption, said Staci Chastain, energy programs manager for Proteus.

But her program isn't limited to Tulare County.

Proteus' energy teams also weatherize homes in Kings County and parts of Kern, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

Chastain said Proteus' energy program has worked on about 55,000 homes in the past three years, more than 30,000 of them in Tulare County.

She estimated that the combined reductions in electrical and natural gas use in those homes are equal to the annual average energy used by about 1,200 homes, she said.

In Tulare County alone, the work resulted in more than $22 million in savings for Proteus' clients, Chastain estimated.

"Last year, we saw well over 500 homes," Rivera-Graves said of CSET's weatherization program. "This year, we're already approaching 600 homes, and we're in November."

In March, Fresno received a $1.9 million federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to reduce energy consumption and reduce people's utility bills in Fresno and Kern counties.

An additional $500,000 has allowed the program to expand to Tulare and Kings counties since October.

Spokeswoman Marianne King said that for those who want to reduce their energy consumption, knowing where to start is the hardest part.

But unlike the Proteus and CSET programs, the Fresno program conducts free, detailed "Home Energy Tune-Up" assessments to show people where they are wasting energy and suggesting how to fix the problems without doing any repairs or upgrades, King said.

"If you're interested in saving energy, it's a game plan," she said of the assessment.

Savings for clients
Chastain said Proteus' work can reduce energy use in homes by 20 percent, on average, which can result in big savings for tenants and property owners.

Anna Kaloustian, 75, of Visalia said that's one of the reasons she called CSET, which in August replaced most of the old, single-pane windows in her home with new, energy-efficient ones.

Her electric bill used to average more than $125 a month in the summer because she had to run her air conditioner so much, and in the winter, her bill was about $120 a month because the old windows didn't hold the heat inside very well.

"I am finding the difference already," she said, as the new windows are doing a better job of keeping out the cold, and her late summer electric bill didn't exceed $80.

She'd known for a long time how much the old windows were costing her, but after being laid off in 2009 from her job as an escrow secretary because of the housing bust, Kaloustian said she couldn't afford to get the work done.

"And I heard about CSET and their programs and how they handled people, and they were very outstanding," she said.

"They checked my vents, air conditioning, heating units, lighting, made sure everything was working ... put some weather stripping on my doors and installed some [high-efficiency] light bulbs," Kaloustian said. "I was surprised they could do so much. I didn't expect that."

Requests for help are on the rise
Operators of the CSET and Proteus energy programs said they're seeing more requests this year for help weatherizing homes and cutting energy use, because more people are out of work and looking to save money on their utilities but can't afford to make the home improvements on their own.

"The average we can spend in a home is $6,500, including assessment, labor and replacements," said Rivera-Graves, who urged people to call and see if they qualify for help.

And if they don't, officials with the CSET, Proteus and Fresno programs said they can refer people to other groups that may offer some assistance in home weatherization.

They include a second program CSET operates -†the Sequoia Energy Services Program -†offering home energy testing and upgrades for people who don't meet the low-income requirements.

The program also does full home energy assessments for free but charges for repairs, replacements and other work, said Jennifer Taylor, vice president of sales and marketing for CSET.

"We're not the cheapest,because we do really quality work. We don't cut corners," she said, but the program works with Energy Upgrade California, also funded by the utility companies, that provides up to $4,000 in incentives based on how much Sequoia Energy Services improves a home's energy efficiency.

The Fresno program also can help people get the same incentives for the energy improvements they make in their homes.

"Replacing a duct system would save you 15 percent air efficiency, which translates to $1,500 in rebates," Taylor said, adding that the incentives can offset some or all of the improvement costs. "Some people actually make money."

David Castellon