New furnaces, air conditioning help cut utility costs at Columbia Housing

May 16, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Keshia Webb couldn't understand why her utility bill was nearly $250 a month for her small Columbia townhouse.

"I was always asking why my utility bill is so high," said Webb, 39, who has lived in the Columbia Housing Corp. unit off Harper's Farm Road since 2005. Her home, which she shares with her 9-year-old daughter, has a living room and kitchen on the first floor, and two bedrooms and a small bathroom on the second.

A new furnace, water heater, air conditioning unit and newly sealed cracks and crevices in her attic, part of a weatherization makeover, are likely to help.

Webb's townhouse, built in the late 1960s like 300 other Columbia Housing subsidized homes, still had the original gas furnace and air-conditioning unit, and large gaps in the attic allowed warm air to escape in winter. Federal and state weatherization funds are enabling much-needed upgrades that will help tenants lower their utility bills, said Grace A. Morris, executive director of the nonprofit.

"In the end, it is going to be very significant," she said.

On Monday, four workers from Edge Energy of McLean, Va., were caulking and sealing Webb's attic. Jason Dispenza, the firm's owner, said he was able to train four workers and hire one because of the federal funding.

Thomas Scheiman, 20, of Laurel was one of the four workers who received training for the job, which pays $17 per hour.

With the help of $383,000 in Maryland Energy Administration Funds channeled through Howard's Community Action Council, 43 homes are getting major upgrades that the private nonprofit that owns them could not otherwise afford. Another 152 homes owned by individuals are getting energy-saving weatherization help through a separate $1.1 million that is Howard's portion of Maryland's $61 million in stimulus funding, officials said.

Columbia Housing contributed $150,000, said Bita Dayhoff, director of the county's Community Action Council, the nonprofit anti-poverty agency that is administering the weatherization programs and chose Columbia Housing to receive the assistance.

"We decided that it provided us with a targeted number of homes that were older and met the qualifications, and the residents met the qualifications," Dayhoff said. "It was a perfect fit."

The program took months to get moving because the federal money came with strings that delayed its use, but the work is well under way now, officials said.

"It's been rough," Morris said. "There's a lot of auditing."

Bill Ariano, deputy director of community development for the state's housing agency, said the work is progressing.

"It's moving along well," he said, with 330 homes weatherized around the state in April alone. Of those, jobs, 282 were paid for with the federal money, he said.

Deepak Chadha, 69, a retired business manager, is the volunteer program manager for the CAC's weatherization programs, working five days a week on the project for the past two years, he said.

The Community Action Council is using money from state housing and energy agencies for the Columbia Housing work, he said, with one paying for the furnaces, water heaters and air conditioners, and the other for the attic sealing, weather-stripping and energy audits.

The CAC gets an independent energy audit after the major appliances are replaced and then brings in a contractor such as Edge to help seal the house. Chadha said the Community Action Council has not been replacing doors and windows because the fixes are expensive and not as cost-effective. More efficient heating and cooling appliances will pay for themselves in energy savings in a decade, he said.

Financially unable to upgrade all of the Columbia Housing homes, the agency is concentrating on those in which senior citizens and children live, he said.

Webb said she's pleased with the improvements and the professionalism of the work crews, both from BGE and Energy Edge.

Webb suffered a heart attack in 2007 and says she has been unable to return to work as a state correctional officer or to her part-time security job because of concerns about her pacemaker. She now works three nights a week at a movie theater and volunteers as a clerk at a county social agency.

"I like to work where there is a lot of action," she said.

Across Harper's Farm Road, Mildred Hardy, 81, a Columbia Housing resident since 1976, is pleased with her townhouse's new furnace and air conditioner, and is adjusting to her new electronic thermostat.

"So far, I love it, if I can get used to the thermostat," she said, chuckling, adding that the electronic temperature gauge helps her adjust the heat and cooling better.

Chadha said Hardy's home is still awaiting an energy audit, which she hopes will lead to the closing of the gaps around her ill-fitting front door that force her to retreat from the cold in her neatly kept living room in winter.

"I mostly stay upstairs in the winter," Hardy said.

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