At this time last year, Inez Goodwin was heating her Baltimore home with the gas stove in her kitchen.
Dangerous, yes, but her old furnace had broken down and, at a price of more than $4,000, a new one was too expensive for the 48-year-old Baltimore cook who makes $9 an hour. Then she found out about the state's weatherization program, and this month, instead of reaching for the stove when the skies turned cold, she reached for her new thermostat and the free new furnace that came with it.
Every year, the state of Maryland and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. help more than 800 families like Goodwin's insulate their homes against the cold. This year, with a colder winter season expected and the rising price of energy, more and more families have called looking for help.
"The gas stove heated my home just fine, but it was pretty risky," said Goodwin, who lives near Clifton Park in Baltimore with her 29-year -old daughter, 18-year-old son and five grandchildren. "Thank goodness for this program, especially now that it's cold again."
The national weatherization program, which is funded with about $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, is open to low-income families across the state. The program runs in conjunction with up to $2 million that BGE places in its Conservation Home Improvement Program, or CHIPs, which was mandated by the Maryland Public Service Commission to help low-income customers in Central Maryland save on their energy bills.
Eligibility is based on the monthly income and number of people in a household, and priority is given to homeowners who may be elderly or disabled, have families with children or have the highest energy consumption. Those who qualify for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program - which helps low-income families pay utility bills with grant money paid directly to the power company - can also apply for the weatherization program.
Together, the utility and the state help poor families replace furnaces, caulk windows, insulate attics and water heaters and buy energy-efficient equipment.
The effort can save a family hundreds of dollars a year, program officials said.
"Demand is really high this year," said Jim McAteer, weatherization-program manager for the state department of housing and community development. "Interest picks up this time of year, but it has especially this year since energy bills have really gone up. The worst is probably coming in January and February.
"The program is really important because we're providing energy conservation. We're providing a more comfortable, affordable home for customers. We test for carbon monoxide levels. We reduce the emissions produced by furnaces. We make a home safe and livable for people."
Many home fires are started when families try to keep warm with gas stoves. And unvented kerosene heaters render the air unhealthy to breathe for very long, McAteer said.
In Goodwin's case, not only did the program provide her with a new furnace, but it also sent contractors from Blue Ridge Fuel Co. in Baltimore back to her home last week to wrap insulation around the water heater pipes in her basement and install new, energy efficient light fixtures in her home.
The price tag: more than $4,500 worth of parts and labor.
"Would I have been able to afford all this myself? I don't think so," Goodwin said.
Mark Cavanaugh, program administrator for CHIPs, said the average amount spent to weatherize a home is about $1,950.
"It can get pretty expensive," Cavanaugh said. "But if there's air leaking out of the home through cracks or holes in the roof, that's money going out the door. We make the home more airtight so that it results in lower utility bills."
For example, to replace a furnace costs about $3,000 or more. To insulate the attic costs about $1,000. Conducting air sealing tests throughout the house and repairs costs another $1,000 or more. Changing faucets to change the flow of water, wrapping insulation blankets around water heaters and replacing light bulbs can all add up.
"We had that cold spell last year when my furnace blew," said Velma Weems, 67, of Annapolis, who received a new furnace in February. "I had never heard of the program before, but a friend of mine told me about it. So I called them and they called me back four days later. They came right over and fixed everything."
Weatherization Assistance Program services are provided to eligible customers through a network of 17 local government or nonprofit organizations that serve all 24 political subdivisions. The following is a list of local contacts:
Anne Arundel 410-626-1939
Baltimore City 410-396-6046
Baltimore County 410-285-6700
Prince George's 301-422-5114
Queen Anne's 410-778-6000
St. Mary's 301-870-3770
Provided by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development