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Valerie and Jerry Pogue of Ashland are among 440 low-income residents this year who have lower utility bills, thanks to the ACCESS Inc. Weatherization Program. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Getting with the program

Their poorly insulated mobile home in Ashland was "a leaky sieve," Valerie and Jerry Pogue say, with heat gushing out windows and ducts, and an ancient electric heater that continually came on "sounding like a jet taking off," as it tried to replace lost heat.

That was before they heard about the ACCESS Inc. Weatherization Program. The Pogues responded to notices taped on their mailboxes, and within days, contractors had installed new floor and ceiling insulation, sealed leaks, replaced single-pane windows, put in a new roof and installed a quiet, efficient refrigerator and heat pump.

"It's like winning the lottery — something you didn't expect at all," says Valerie. "It's better than the good fairy. It's huge, right up there with miraculous. ... It was quick and painless and no three-year waiting list."

Installing modern heating and cooling technology costs $10,000 to $20,000, said Joe Vollmar of ACCESS. The money came from federal, state and utility conservation funds for low-income people, including Sustainable Energy Resources for Consumers, a fund created in 2010 from federal stimulus money.

There is no cost to the homeowners, who must receive less than 50 percent of state annual median income, Vollmar said. The gross income ceiling is $22,493 for a single person, $29,412 for two and $43,256 for four.

ACCESS in 2011 has done 215 energy makeovers, including 112 new heating units, helping 440 people in Jackson County. ACCESS is on track to complete 300 homes by year's end, said Vollmar, adding that another 800 have been approved for the project.

The mobile home had energy problems typical of older units: poorly fitting doors, single-pane glass, skimpy insulation in floors and ceilings, and heaters and appliances manufactured before strict government energy standards.

The energy makeovers cut utility bills by an average 22 percent, significantly easing the impact of utility costs on low-income folks, Vollmar said. They pay an average 14 percent of their income on energy, compared with 3.5 percent for the population as a whole, he said. Cutting energy costs also lessens the nation's dependence on coal and foreign oil, improving the environment, he added.

The Pogues, who are retired (though Valerie is now looking for work), say they typically kept the heat at 62 degrees in winter and bundled up, watching TV under blankets. Now, Jerry said, it's comfortable when they wake up, and the heat pump comes on occasionally to keep it that way.

"This has been a real blessing," said Jerry, a retired house painter. "We weren't expecting a heat pump. We felt the difference right off the bat. It's warmer, and the temperature is constant and quiet. The old furnace was like a jet engine taking off and our neighbor let us know about it."

"That's the main thing we hear, that it's comfortable, and the house doesn't cool down to 30 degrees at night — and it's quiet," Vollmar said.

Valerie said she and Jerry had no idea about the energy help available from the government at no cost.

"Most people don't know about it because they used to be able to pay the bills, but the recent economy has changed things," she said.

Such weatherized homes save $437 or more a year, a total of $2.1 billion nationally, said Vollmar, adding that each weatherized home prevents carbon emissions of 2.65 tons a year.

In the past two years, low-income weatherization has created 33 jobs and helped contribute $3.5 million to the local economy through the purchase of materials and services, according to an ACCESS release. It created another 20 jobs through a ripple effect, it said.

"Everyone should have the opportunity to live in efficient, healthy and comfortable homes," said Cindy Dyer, ACCESS housing director, in a statement. "Weatherization makes home energy more affordable, allowing a low-income household to use their limited financial resources on other basic necessities, medicine or groceries."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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