Advocates work to help people stay warm this winter


Staff Writer

As fuel costs escalate this winter and the temperature outside dips, Island advocates are working with local agencies to ensure residents can afford to heat their homes.

New this year on Vashon is a Puget Sound Energy (PSE) program that rewards its customers for making the energy-efficient decision to weatherize their homes.

PSE and King County weatherization representatives, as well as contractors specializing in weatherization, will hold a community meeting at the Vashon Library on Wednesday, Jan. 23, to inform Islanders of how they can better keep the cold out and the heat in.

PSE’s weatherization rebate program puts Island renters and homeowners in touch with a contractor who will perform weatherizing work on the residence, and after the work is done, PSE picks up part of the tab.

The program is open to all PSE customers, but no agency-approved contractors were willing to come to Vashon until Islander Hilary Emmer got the ball rolling last year.

“I am community-minded, and when I saw the notices for weatherization rebates included in my bill, I called just to find out the process,” Emmer said. “I was amazed to find out Vashon was not included in the program because they could not get contractors who would make the trip over here. I saw a hole in their system and wanted to get it corrected for the residences on our Island.”

She then met with an agency representative at Strawberry Festival who began the process of finding contractors who’d ferry to Vashon for a job.

Because of Emmer’s persistence, PSE employees found three off-Island independent contractors who agreed to make the commute to Vashon. No Island contractors were interested, she said.

One contractor who has yet to work on Vashon but is ready to do so explained the weatherization process.

Insulating crawl spaces and attics, wrapping water pipes and foaming cracks — as well as ceiling, wall, floor and window insulation — are all part of a full weatherization job, said Viktor Raatz, owner of RCC, a contracting company that often works with PSE and is one of the companies now willing to visit Vashon. Raatz and his insulation and weatherization supervisor will be on Vashon Jan. 23.

“There’s a lot of things to include in a fully weatherized house,” he said. “It makes so much difference. It’s the most energy-efficient thing you can do.”

Raatz said homeowners and renters typically recoup the costs of weatherization in three to four years.

Some Islanders have already taken advantage of PSE’s rebate program, using the new contractors to get work done on their homes.

“We’ve had a handful go through the program already, and we’re hoping to reach out to more at the Jan. 23 meeting,” said Bill Taylor, program manager for PSE’s Energy Efficiency Services.

He said the weatherization program began in 2005 in response to rising fuel costs, particularly natural gas, and has taken off. In the last two months, more PSE customers have had their homes weatherized than during all of the previous year, he said.

When it is coldest outside and there is peak demand for heat, it costs PSE more to purchase the necessary energy to heat its 60,000 to 70,000 residences and businesses, said Michael Wehling, program manager for PSE’s Energy Efficiency Services.

“What we’re able to do with energy efficiency is identify things like weatherization, which we can purchase for a lower cost,” he said. Not only environmentally friendly, “it’s a very cost-effective strategy for PSE and the customer. You’re not purchasing energy you don’t need to get the job done.”

Taylor and Wehling will be on hand Jan. 23 as well.

Here’s how the PSE weatherization program works:

A PSE customer calls the company, requesting an energy audit. A representative comes to the residence, and gives estimates for weatherizing the home’s ceilings, windows, walls, floors and ducts if the home has any. PSE matches the customer up with a willing contractor, and once the contractor finishes their work, they bill the homeowner or renter their part, and PSE their portion.

Emmer said she asked for an imaginary audit, for a 1,500-square foot home, and received an estimate of $5,000 to fully weatherize that home.

After PSE is billed the maximum it could pay out according to program guidelines — $400 apiece on the ceilings, windows, walls and floors for a total of $1,600 — the homeowner or renter would be billed the remaining $3,400.

Advocates, however, point out that PSE’s program is out of reach for some low-income Islanders. In those instances, King County’s Housing Authority will perform similar weatherization tasks at no cost to qualifying county renters and homeowners.

Under this program, a family of four making less than $3,246 a month qualifies for improvements like furnace repairs, sealing against drafts and insulation installation.

Additional programs — such as the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program — offer discounts on energy bills for low-income residents, said Nancy Vanderpool, president of the Vashon Interfaith Council on Homelessness.

“(Low-income residents) are able to get assistance with their energy bills, which makes the difference between having power, energy, heat, et cetera and having it turned off, so it’s very important,” she said. She added that the interfaith council has seen more requests for heating bill assistance this year than in prior years, due to the increase in fuel costs.

Vanderpool said the rising energy costs have affected some Islanders more than others. While the costs of heating have risen — 11 percent nationwide since last winter, according to the nonprofit advocacy group the Alliance to Save Energy — the monthly cash flow of those on fixed incomes or Social Security has not.

She said the PSE bill-assistance program and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program could be invaluable in pulling an individual or family through a cold winter.

“For instance, recently I talked to a person who’s a single person with an income that was definitely below (the qualifying income of $1,276 or less),” Vanderpool said. “This person was awarded $400 towards their energy bill. That might get them through two or three, maybe even four months of a higher energy bill.”

Learn more

Interested in weatherization?

Come to the meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, at the Vashon Library.

PSE, King County Housing Authority and several contractors will be in attendance to discuss weatherization. Or, call PSE’s energy advisors at 1-800-562-1482, and inquire about the weatherization rebate program.