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A helping hand against cold weather
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It seems winter weather has finally arrived in Georgia with this week's snow and sleet. Oxford resident Sue Bartlett feels blessed finally to wake up in a warm home after nearly 50 frosty winters.

Bartlett is one of many Newton, Rockdale, Gwinnett and DeKalb county residents who have taken advantage of the Partnership for Community Action's weatherization assistance program.

"Previously, it was known as the weather stripping program," said Paul Najjar, PCA's weatherization department director.

Najjar has worked for PCA, which has an organizational goal to help low-income people and families attain self-sufficiency in housing and education, since 1977.

Najjar said the weatherization program originally only installed weather stripping and caulked around doors and windows.

"Since that time it has become a full-blown, whole house assessment of energy efficiency," Najjar said.

In 2006, 82-year-old Bartlett sought assistance from PCA for a $200 utility bill. She receives $600 in Social Security every month and said it is especially hard to stretch that amount in the winter months.

This past summer she received a telephone message from PCA explaining a new program for people they help with utility bills to assess their homes and make them more energy efficient.

"I let my kids listen to the message, and they said, 'leave it alone - it's something phony,'" Bartlett said, "but I called them anyway."

She knew cold weather would be setting in soon, and having lived in the home since 1960, she recalled how frigid the nights are in a home which has never had insulation installed.

"Before, if there was any water left in that kitchen, it would be ice in the morning," Bartlett said.

Heather White, Bird Family Insulation employee and sub-contractor for PCA, came to Bartlett's home a few weeks later to perform the inspection. White tested the home for carbon monoxide levels and performed a "blower-door test" where a tarp is placed over a door and a fan sucks air out of the home. Computer readings will determine the home's "tightness" or ability to retain air.

"When you try to explain it to a client over the phone, they usually have no idea what you're talking about," White said.

Numbers from the initial inspection coupled with the cubic volume of the home allow the assessor to calculate a target for tightness and devise a plan on how to reach the goal.

White estimated she has inspected more than 500 homes in the less than two years she has sub-contracted for PCA. Through her inspections she has learned the most common areas a home loses hot or cool air.

"Believe it or not, it's usually the windows or doors," White said, "or people don't realize they leave the flue open in the fire place, and a lot of times older homes don't have any insulation in the attic."

Because Bartlett's home had no insulation of any kind PCA contractors ripped the old siding off of the exterior, installed wall insulation, replaced the siding and blew in insulation in the attic and crawl space of the home as well.

"As part of the heating system, now we do seal and wrap the ducts," Najjar said, "and that can be very significant as far as air leakage goes and can be helpful to air quality as well."

Bartlett also received a brand new gas heater. After she expressed concern about it not having an automatic cut off when a certain temperature was reached, Najjar replaced it almost immediately.

She said she no longer wakes up in the morning shivering.

The PCA crew worked tirelessly at Bartlett's home to complete the other weatherization projects quickly.

"They were the workingest people you've ever seen in your life," Bartlett said. "They didn't slow down for nothing."

White said the carbon monoxide readings from Bartlett's gas stove and water heater were too high once the windows, doors, ducts and plumbing penetrations were properly sealed.

"You can actually get a house too tight for the number of occupants living in it," Najjar said.

White said this is common in the homes she inspects, and, therefore, crews install kitchen exhaust fans as well as fans in bathrooms.

"When I first started, I thought it was just for smells," White said, "but it's really for ventilation to prevent mold from growing from the steam in the bathroom."

PCA crews also wrapped her hot water heater to conserve energy and installed compact fluorescent light bulbs.

"They put those in so I wouldn't burn so much juice," Bartlett said.

Occasionally, when a homeowner has an older, energy-hogging refrigerator, they will replace it as well. Bartlett is now the proud owner of a new refrigerator and stove.

Najjar said with the work done on Bartlett's home, it is estimated she will save 32 percent on her utility bills. He said PCA weatherized homes typically save between 20 and 60 percent on energy bills.

Bartlett said early winter felt like spring so she could not see a difference in her gas bill because she did not run her heater.

Since that time Newton County has experienced freezing temperatures and Bartlett has had plenty of opportunities to test the heater.

Her last utility bill was $63.06.

She said she was very appreciative of the work done by PCA as well as Najjar's efforts to ensure her satisfaction.

"I would have never been able to pay for all of that," Bartlett said.

White said often clients call her to thank her.

"You can go in and help people even if they don't understand what's happening until they get their bills," White said, "and they're just amazed at the difference it makes."

Najjar said winter is when most of the calls come in requesting home weatherization and said PCA continues to accept applications even though there is currently a waiting list for inspections.

"Most of the people that we deal with are seniors or disabled persons on a fixed income, and any way we can help them to stretch that limited dollar we try to do," Najjar said. "Also, we do it so they can be more comfortable in their homes and help them to live in a healthier environment."