Low-income older adults find warmth in cold winter months

Story and photo by Lee Horton

Many older adults are faced with dilemmas they never imagined they would have to confront. Should they pay to eat or buy medicine? Or should they pay to heat their home?

The Community Action Program, located at 764 S. 200 West in Salt Lake City helps weatherize the homes of low-income older adults.

“When (older adults) were working, they expected Social Security to solve all of their needs,” said Dale Canning, a deputy director at the Salt Lake Community Action Program (CAP). “That isn’t possible.”

Heating a home, though important, falls behind food and medical care in order of importance. Through the Weatherization Assistance Program, CAP helps heat low-income households by implementing cost-effective solutions.

“Our goal is to make it so they can afford to pay their bills,” Canning said.

The Weatherization Assistance program was started by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1976. It has three main goals: to save energy, to save money and to decrease greenhouse gases. The program is for low-income households, especially those with elderly or disabled residents. Canning estimates that half of the people who receive the benefits of the program are older adults, with a fairly even mix of couples and single individuals.

Many older adults don’t need the helping hand of the Weatherization Assistance Program. “Luckily, most seniors don’t have big house payments,” Canning said.

But not all are so fortunate. “We will go into homes where people are sitting around the house in blankets,” Canning said. “Their furnace won’t start or they will have broken windows, but no money to fix them.”

In 2008, the program helped 340 households save an average of $300 each by reducing their energy consumption, Canning said.

There are many ways CAP helps decrease heating bills through the Weatherization Assistance Program. They fix what Canning called “dangerous furnaces.” These furnaces have high carbon monoxide levels, don’t vent properly, have broken heat exchangers or don’t start at all. If a furnace is operating at 80 percent efficiency it will be replaced at no cost by a furnace that runs at 90 percent or better.

Some houses will have a set-back thermostat put in. These thermostats have a timer that automatically turns the heat down at a preset time at night and turns it back on at a desired time in the morning. This helps reduce energy use without forcing residents to remember to control the temperature themselves.

CAP will also implement cost-effective air sealing measures so that a house doesn’t lose its conditioned air. When necessary, CAP will insulate a home, fix broken or cracked windows, install compact fluorescent light bulbs and exchange shower heads.

Often CAP will install carbon monoxide and smoke detectors when doing the other improvements, “just to make their house a little more safe,” Canning said.

The benefits of the Weatherization Assistance Program are free for those who qualify. To be eligible, a household must be at 150 percent of the poverty level or lower. Older adults who work can have 20 percent deducted. Those who pay for their medical expenses with their own money can receive credits that go toward the services of the Weatherization Assistance Program.

Before CAP begins the weatherization work, a house must go through an energy audit. The audit suggests improvements that the home needs to be more energy efficient and cost-effective. CAP doesn’t just go through and fix everything. They need to make sure the improvements are worthwhile.

“Everything we do needs to pay for itself before it stops working,” Canning said.

While CAP does the labor, the work is funded by many different organizations. The bulk of the money comes from the U.S. Department of Energy. Funds are also provided by the Department of Health and Human Services through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) nationally, the Home Energy Assistance Target (HEAT) program locally, as well as Questar and Rocky Mountain Power.

CAP will also get money this year from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Canning expects the ARRA stimulus will enable the Weatherization Assistance Program to help up to 1,000 people in 2009.