News Column

City Helps with Home Retrofits; Lowers Bills, Raises Heat

Jan. 8, 2013

Cyndy Cole

Carole Niejadlik, 76, works part-time at Flagstaff's Adult Center, and she wondered if there was a catch when the city said it was looking to replace appliances in her home -- for free.

"'Free' is a four-letter word I love," as someone depending largely on Social Security income, said Niejadlik, a former teacher, banker and Daily Sun employee in the 1960s.

Now, she's got a new fridge, oven, stove, water heater, security door and more insulation in the attic -- all energy-efficient. Her bill? $0.

Owners of 374 homes took advantage of the city program funded by the federal stimulus over the past couple years to have homes revamped for energy efficiency (with improvements made on a sliding scale based on homeowner incomes). The city of Flagstaff finished spending that $757,100 with local contractors from April 2010 to August 2012.

Now the city is offering another program -- along with UniSource Energy -- to help cover the costs of a new furnace, water heater, or more insulation in the attic.

It's more of a cost-sharing or rebate idea than a full suite of upgrades, however -- $350 toward an energy-efficient water heater, $600 to $850 for an energy-efficient furnace, and $1,100 for more insulation in the attic.

This smaller push leaves aside a much larger loan program the utility has not implemented to date due to lack of action from state regulators.

That one proposed to have Unisource loan the full costs for new furnaces and insulation, and have homeowners pay back the loans over time with what they saved on bills.

MORE EFFICIENT HEATERS

Today's offerings are what contractors found were most needed in 90 percent of the homes they visited: more efficient water heaters or furnaces, or better insulation, said Lucy Huffman, of the city of Flagstaff's sustainability program.

Applicants must live in the city, be in homes of 3,500 square feet or less built before 2005, be UniSource customers, and obtain energy audits.

Debbie Farnam lives in Flagstaff's downtown historic district, in a house built in the late 1920s or early '30s.

She spent $400 for work to correct lines into a gas fireplace and a wall heater; the city covered another $1,000 worth of work sealing up windows, adding caulking, venting her hot water heater, and sealing up electrical outlets.

Farnam thinks her gas bills might end up about a third lower than they were last year, and she noticed that the house felt warmer earlier this year, before this recent and intense cold.

"Certainly in the fall, in the cooler temperatures, it felt better," Farnam said.

She's told her friends about it.

The city expects to put insulation or a new furnace or water heater in about 80 homes. About 10 have signed up to date.

LOAN PROGRAM STALLS

These programs don't include having utilities offering loans of $1,000 to $10,000 for improvements or appliances like new furnaces that lower gas bills, then have those loans pass from one person to the next as they're repaid.

So a homeowner needing $5,000 worth of insulation in the attic could get it, and save some $35 on gas bills monthly over 12 years.

That homeowner's bills would remain the same, with the extra $35 per month going to pay off the loan.

The Arizona Corporation Commission approved the plan in December 2010 as part of a movement toward less natural gas and energy use, and UniSource had planned to start signing homeowners up for the loans in 2011.

Groups backing it calculated homeowners could save on average $400 on utility bills annually.

But it hasn't started.

UniSource Energy has since offered no loans in Coconino County, according to filings with the Arizona Corporation Commission; it awaits approval of a financing agreement with a lender, and Arizona Corporation Commission final approval of any plan.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2013 The Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff, Ariz.)