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Tips to turn down the heat on high energy bills

9/25/2017

In Aberdeen, Washington, NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor County is located 100 miles from Seattle, where several wild and scenic rivers converge into the bay and flow into the Pacific Ocean. Despite being the closest port to Asia, this rural community also is an economically depressed area, with an aging housing stock mostly dependent on electric heating.

Elderly white woman stands next to her new HVAC unitAs a result of the high utility costs, many residents of Grays Harbor County resort to dressing in warm layers before turning on an electric furnace or baseboard heating unit. In some cases, however, residents' monthly power bills have become more than the cost of their mortgage payment. It is particularly difficult for lower- and fixed-income residents to afford heat in their homes, which affects their health and forces them to rely on subsidies during the damp winter months.

The Grays Harbor Public Utility District (PUD) wanted to help improve the quality of life of its customers, so it partnered with NeighborWorks Grays Harbor County to help those hardest hit by heating costs.

The existing PUD energy-efficiency programs, such as rebates for weatherization and installation of ductless heat pumps, were too expensive for many residents' budgets.

"The rebates were not effective for our many low- to moderate-income homeowners and renters, because they couldn't afford to make the necessary improvements," says Dave Murnen, Executive Director of NeighborWorks Grays Harbor County.

To meet this challenge, PUD collaborated with Murnen's organization to implement a new program in which PUD provides and installs heat pumps at no cost to qualifying owners or renters.

NeighborWorks Grays Harbor County's HUD-certified housing counselor plays a key role in determining eligibility for all of the energy-assistance programs. In addition, the nonprofit's construction manager maintains partnerships with local contractors and building departments. Together, a successful plan was designed to effectively target the right demographic markets to meet project outcomes, without overwhelming the resources of either organization.

An initial pilot program to install 20 heat pumps soon led to an additional 90 being installed this year.

"The secrets of our success are found in marketing to tightly targeted areas to produce the greatest efficiency for our construction management team," Murnen says. "The contractor can then lower the unit cost by making volume purchases, and it also allows the municipal inspectors to conduct same-day inspections of multiple units."

This program has positively impacted NeighborWorks Grays Harbor County's housing counseling and construction management goals at a time when many residents of this rural community are still struggling to make ends meet. The result has been more comfort at far less cost for recipients. Future plans to install thousands of these units over the next several years are on track to make a substantial impact on residents' quality of life.

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