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Weatherization program helps lower energy costs for McDowell

Monday, December 31, 2012

McDowell County has the highest number of substandard housing units of any county in the state, according to a recent housing analysis. Sometimes the homes are deemed ‘too far gone’ to be helped.
Lola Cook lives alone in a single wide trailer in McDowell County. The home is more than 40 years old with plenty of drafty areas.

"There was a hole so bad right here a crack so back right here,” she said, “and a caved in place right here you could see the ground.”

Cook says the holes in the floor were fixed by church groups. They had to be fixed before her home qualified for the Council of Southern Mountains Weatherization Program that helps elderly and low income residents in McDowell County lower their energy costs.

Weatherization Coordinator, Curtis Lindsey says mostly the program provides services to install insulation.

“From previous years you just would think that if you put anything in the attic or in the walls it would be sufficient but it’s not,” Lindsey said.

“The more you have the better off you are and you can do a house today and go back the next day and they can tell you that my furnace didn’t run as long last night that it made a difference that the house is actually holding the heat now. So on the flip side of that in the summer if it’s holding the heat than it’s going to hold the cold.”

Although there can be up to a three year waiting period for the program, Lindsey says many residents are turned away. The money put into the house should be recouped within the next year by energy savings. He says in many cases, the damage is so bad, the work is not worth the investment.

“If the house is too far out of whack too many issues with it," he said, "we classify it as beyond the scope, which means we can’t work on it because we can’t get a savings to investment ratio."

"If we put too much money into it than the money won’t turn back over for the homeowner.”

“It’s heartbreaking.”

The majority of the houses in McDowell were built in the 40’s and 50’s when coal was supplying an abundance of jobs and opportunity to the area. Many residents lived in coal camps supplied by the companies.

Lindsey says those houses create a whole different set of challenges.

“In this county when we run into these old coal company houses that were just thrown together," he said, "they’re not perfectly square the floors are off center. You buy the widest insulation that you can to put in the floor and it just doesn’t meet the rafters so you have to do more work as far as a lot of cutting and making things fit.”

Several factors play a role in the housing issues in the county. The most develop-able land is owned by the railroads or coal companies; forcing residential housing to locate on hills or around flood basins. Norfolk and Western Railroad and Pocahontas Land Co. own approximately one third of the surface land in County.

Five coal companies own approximately 10,000 acres of land in McDowell County. In 2001 and 2002 about 4,600 homes were wiped out or destroyed by major floods.

There are close to 9,000 housing units containing lead-based paint.

Nick Melnik is the auditor for the weatherization program. On average he says he sees about one house per month that’s deemed ‘too far gone.’

“It’s really saddening when you see how people live,” Melnik said. “Some of it can be helped and some people are just they don’t get enough income to really do much with what they get. They pay their bills and have to pretty much let their structure go to keep the lights on in it.”

Melnik says in his five years on the job the most common barrier he sees is knob and tube wiring; an early standardized form of electrical wiring that is no longer approved by building inspectors. He says sewage issues are also prominent challenges.

“I would say I’ve seen about 10 or 11 of them that went straight into the creek," “Melnik said.

“A lot of people maybe not know what’s going on underneath their home; don’t check it and you’ve got to keep an eye on that stuff if it’s leaking it can’t do anything but get worse."

"That’s probably I’d say half of our issues revolve around water issues leaking pipes water issues something like that.”

“Most cases that I’ve seen it’s simple cases like the pipe is still there it just fell apart just come unglued at an elbow or something like that. A lot of times you see that issue and it’s kind of simple fix had the homeowner been on top of that and been aware of what was going on it wouldn’t have evolved into such a bad problem for them or us.”

In McDowell County, about 37 percent of houses have been deemed by the assessor’s office as being in poor or unsound condition.

“Say you had big gaping holes in the floor weak spots stuff like that," Melnik said, "that’s kind of something it’s beyond something that we can handle as far as cost allowance savings to ratio."

"We would be putting more money in the house than we would actually be able to save the client in the long run."

The holes in the floor of Lola Cook’s single wide trailer deemed her home ‘too far gone’ until church groups worked to fix the holes.

After waiting for more than a year, Cook’s home is being weatherized by Lindsey’s crew. A man basically covered from head to toe with blue plastic is drilling access holes in the ceiling. They’ll use a machine to blow insulation in the ceiling.

Another man is moving plastic around the house to catch the debris. Cook is blind with serious health issues, so her heating options are limited.

"I was using portable electric heaters because I can’t use nothing with fuel like propane or kerosene because I have a weakness in my respiratory system," she said.

"If I use anything that has a flame it keeps that messed up and I’m scared of fire anyway."

"It’s just a God sent blessing," she said, "and it’s going to mean a lot to be blessed this way to have a warm home to live in."

Jessica Y. Lilly
McDowell County, West Virginia
West Virginia Public Broadcasting