Furnace Failure Means a Difficult Winter Until Foundation Offers Family Aid

Furnace Failure Means a Difficult Winter Until Foundation Offers Family Aid

Anita I. and her family had to be innovative to survive a winter after experiencing a furnace failure in their Dunbar, West Virginia, home.  

Anita placed small heaters in bedrooms and the living room, but the electric system in the home couldn’t handle any more, leaving other parts of the home, such as the kitchen, unheated during one of the coldest winters in nearly a decade. 

“No matter how I moved them around, there was no power to heat the kitchen,” Anita said.  

Heating the home that she shares with several of her grandchildren with space heaters was also anxiety-inducing for Anita, despite having no heat because of the furnace failure. 

“I was so scared that the house was going to catch on fire,” she said. “I didn’t sleep well at all. I was constantly getting up in the middle of the night to check on them.”  

Additionally, because her furnace failure, her home got so cold that her water lines froze six times.  

“We had no water at all – thank God that it didn’t last for days at a time,” she said. “We kept bottled water for the kids to drink, and we got smart and would plug up the sinks to keep enough water to flush the toilet and tried to be inventive. We would pray for it to warm up, because we didn’t have water anywhere in the house.”  

Anita was dreading the prospect of facing another winter without heat, little sleep and freezing pipes because. 

“My daughter and I have been praying,” she said. “We called in a company, and they said it would cost $6,000 to fix our heater, and there was no way I to come up with that money. I just started thinking: how can I go through another winter like this?” 

Then, Anita’s daughter spotted an article online about the HomeServe Cares Foundation, the charitable arm of HomeServe North America. Among other community outreach projects, the Foundation provides free emergency home repairs to qualifying homeowners that address safety and sanitary issues or improve quality of life. Anita and her daughter reached out to the Foundation for help, and Tamara (Tammy) Gross, a HomeServe customer experience specialist, was assigned to assist them. 

“Tammy made me feel so wonderful,” Anita said. “I didn’t want to feel like I was begging, and she didn’t make me feel that way.” 

Tammy connected Anita with McAtee Plumbing Heating and Cooling, a contractor with whom HomeServe regularly works, and a technician was sent out to evaluate her furnace failure. They found that the unit was over 30 years old, and it would be unsafe to repair it, so it would have to be replaced.  

“The first gentleman who came out to check and see if it was repairable, as he was leaving the house, I told him, ‘Please pray that it goes through,’ and he just gave me the biggest smile and said he sure would. The young men they sent out were very respectful.” 

The Foundation agreed with the assessment that the furnace needed to be replaced and covered the entire $3,100 cost of parts and labor. 

“God has to have his hands over your company, because I am in awe over what you did for me,” Anita said. “You were such a blessing to me and my family. I thank God for you and call you angels because you are angels to me. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but now I’ll be able to sleep at night.”  

To learn how you can help your customers avoid furnace failure and get a good night’s sleep, contact us.

LMI Households Face Obstacles to Achieving Energy Efficiency

LMI Households Face Obstacles to Achieving Energy Efficiency

Low- and Middle-Income (LMI) households have historically faced obstacles to becoming more energy efficient, despite the outsized impact efficiency measures would have for this population.

Low-income households pay more than 7 percent of their income on energy bills, three times that of higher income households, and if LMI households could reach average efficiency, their bills would be reduced by a third. However, many LMI households don’t have the savings or the credit to implement energy efficiency measures and aren’t aware of programs and incentives that could make efficiency more affordable.

Programs like the Weatherization Assistance Program and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program are operated by different federal departments, and a lack of coordination between programs in some areas make it difficult for LMI households to apply or leverage the programs to the best advantage. For example, if a household is consistently applying for LIHEAP funds, it may be an indication that weatherization would help lower the overall energy bill. However, if the same entity isn’t administering both programs in the community, then that connection made not be made.

Program awareness is made more difficult through a lack of trust in low-income neighborhoods, where predatory financial lenders have made residents wary of free or low-cost measures and there is a reluctance to allow people from outside the community into their homes, said Tony Reames, director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Diversifying the workforce that conducts onsite energy efficiency measures and working with long-standing and trusted community partners, such as community centers or churches, is one way to elicit more trust and participation, he added.

Because of their struggles with affordability, one in five LMI households have reduced spending on food or medicine and 10 percent keep their homes at unsafe temperatures to reduce their energy bill. And, similar to food deserts, energy efficiency is often a costlier or more difficult to procure option in low-income neighborhoods than in more affluent neighborhoods. Many low-income communities have older homes that have not been updated because systemic policies such as redlining, resulting in housing stock that has poor efficiency.

Some states are addressing the financial obstacle by allowing on-bill financing or recovery, which allows rate payers to pay for efficiency upgrades over time, such as New York’s “bill neutral” program, established through the Green Jobs-Green New York Act and the Power NY Act. The two-tier program offers private market loans to those who can meet the credit requirements and a second, utility-financed tier for those who can’t. Those on the utility-financed tier also receive a lower interest rate, based on an area’s median income.

Oregon’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Technology Act offers a state loan program with an on-bill financing, that offers loans between $2,000 and $30,000 for efficiency and includes a free energy audit as part of the financing process. The Help My House program, launched by a group of South Carolina co-operatives with U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program funding, also utilizes on-bill financing to fund a whole-home energy efficiency approach. Those who participated in the pilot are paying off the 10-year loans through a surcharge on their bills. However, because they’ve saved so much through whole-home efficiency, there is an average $25 savings each month, even with the loan.

Legislators and regulators also expect utilities to include energy efficiency programs for LMI households in their portfolios. A partnership with HomeServe can help proactively address energy efficiency and safety for your LMI customers with a suite of optional home repair policies that cover every energy contingency, from gas lines to exterior electric to HVAC and water heaters.

LMI households will often not address maintenance and repair issues, even if it means their whole home systems are not working efficiently, because they can’t afford to address them. For example, an annual HVAC system tune-up can ensure that systems are working at an optimal level and that small issued are addressed before they become big problems. Water heaters also require regular maintenance and lose efficiency over time, with most having only a useable lifespan of only 10 years.

HomeServe policies can address all these issues for your LMI customers and help them keep their home energy systems in the best shape possible. For more information about how we can help your customers improve their energy efficiency, contact us.


Gas and Electric Utilities Have Important Roles in Decarbonized Energy

Gas and Electric Utilities Have Important Roles in Decarbonized Energy

The power generation sector has made great strides in creating decarbonized energy, with transportation overtaking the power generation sector as the largest CO2 producer in 2017. This change did not occur as a result of transportation emissions increasing or Americans using less electricity. The decline in power sector emissions is largely attributable to the switch from coal to natural gas and the growth in renewable energy generation, particularly wind and solar.

However, with fossil fuels still generating over 60% of U.S. electricity, and many energy industry leaders publicly pledging carbon neutrality by 2050, the transition toward cleaner energy production will need to accelerate in the coming years, and both electric and gas utilities will be key contributors to this transformation to decarbonized energy.

Many states have prioritized reaching their goals for decarbonized energy.

Many states have prioritized reaching their goals for decarbonized energy.

Throughout the U.S., the energy generation mix varies widely. Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia have established economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets, with some of the cleanest energy states having aggressive goals for 2030 and beyond. California’s goals are the most ambitious, pledging 40% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2045. Washington, Oregon and New York, also among the cleanest energy states, have reduction goals of 40-45% by 2030 and 80-95% by 2050. To achieve these goals, utilities must increase renewable generation, electrify transportation and proliferate energy efficiency programs.

In states where the energy mix is dominated by petroleum and coal, such as in the top coal-consumption states of Texas, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, natural gas conversion continues to be the primary path to decarbonized energy. Burning natural gas for energy results in GHG emissions that are 50-60% less than coal and 30% less than oil to produce an equal amount of energy.

The transportation sector accounts for the highest level of U.S. GHG emissions (29%), and therefore must be a major focus for all utilities. Cars and light-duty trucks account for 58% of total transportation sector emissions, making widespread adoption of electric vehicles essential to decarbonized energy for transportation. Utilities are in a position to drive EV growth, particularly among residential customers, by offering services to address some of the key pain points of EV charging, which is currently a disjointed experience that leaves consumers largely on their own.

A recent survey of North American utility professionals conducted by Bidgely found the primary barriers to greater adoption of EVs are insufficient charging infrastructure in their territory (67%) and lack of customer awareness of EV benefits (58%). A HomeServe 2021 study of prospective and current EV owners found similar results, with nearly 50% of respondents unaware of utility rebates and time-of-use programs. Additionally, 74% of prospective EV buyers responded that they were concerned about the potential for their level-2 charger to break. When EV owners were asked where they turn for electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) support, the number one answer was their utility, more so than vehicle and device manufacturers.

In partnership with utilities, HomeServe offers utility customers first-to-market EV charger support plans. The EV Charger Protection Plan includes reimbursement for a broken charger and coverage for the repair or replacement of wiring and components that are damaged due to normal wear and tear. The EV Charger Convenience Package includes charger installation, protection and guidance on related utility offers including any available incentives, time-of-use rates and demand response programs.

In addition to offering plans that help to increase EV adoption, HomeServe plans protect utility customers against the expense and inconvenience of HVAC, gas and electric lines, water heater and other home emergencies by providing affordable coverage and quality local service from vetted local contractors. As customers with a plan are more likely to repair or replace inefficient systems and proactively address issues, our solution promotes overall energy efficiency, reliability and safety. For more information, contact us.

Extreme Weather, Aging Infrastructure Result in Power Outages

Extreme Weather, Aging Infrastructure Result in Power Outages

Climate change has increased average temperatures, increased the occurrence and length of heat waves, increased drought conditions and increased extreme one-day precipitation events, and those conditions have stressed an already aging electrical grid, causing power outages.

In a review of global climate studies, 70 percent showed events were made more likely or severe by climate change. Of those events, 43 percent were heatwaves, 17 percent were extreme precipitation or rain and 16 percent were droughts. Extreme weather events are the leading cause of power outages, according to the Department of Energy, and a Climate Central analysis found there was a 67 percent increase in weather-related power outages, with 59 percent caused by heavy rains and thunderstorms, 20 percent by ice storms and cold weather and 2 percent by extreme heat and wildfires.

Extreme heat and heatwaves cause problems with both supply and demand – customers crank up air conditioners and powerlines sag – in Portland during the late June/early July heat wave, the power cables for the streetcars melted. Power plants become less effective – a Portland power company had to install cooling systems to prevent overheating – less energy can be transmitted across the lines and make transformer failures more likely. Heat waves are occurring three times more often, lasting longer, becoming more intense, and the heat wave season lasts an average of 47 days longer.

Extreme single-day precipitation events have risen substantially since the 1980s, and nine of the top ten events have occurred since 1996. Wind and rain can send branches or entire trees crashing into transmission lines and flash flooding can impact facilities in low-lying or coastal areas.

Extreme cold brings a different challenge – ice can build up on transmission lines, and, if it gets cold enough, even gas lines can freeze, as we saw in the polar vortex over Texas in February. The southern states aren’t outfitted for extreme cold, and, while climate change has actually reduced the number of colder days each year, it has created more extreme winter weather events and in regions that previously didn’t experience extremely cold weather.

While producers in traditionally cold regions, like the Mid-west and Central Plains are outfitted to withstand up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, polar vortexes brought the temperature down to 44 below this February in the Dakotas and Minnesota. In a National Geographic survey, 40 percent of power outages during the winter are caused by trees falling on the lines and 20 percent from animals taking refuge from the cold.

The industry has taken steps to harden the grid and make it more resilient. Spending to improve electric infrastructure reliability, security and resilience increased from $15.9 billion in 2012 to $21.9 billion in 2017 and spending on distribution systems increased by 54 percent over the past 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Smart grids allow the almost immediate routing of power around problematic areas, avoiding more extensive problems, and collect data on how well the grid is functioning and supply and demand. Hardening the grid and making it more flexible and redundant through microgrids and storage will allow sections of the grid to operate independently during power outages in other sections.

However, the ASCE noted that the grid is aging and gave our energy infrastructure a “C- grade,” noting that much of it has passed the half-century mark that is its usable lifespan and parts of it are even older.

Although the industry has worked to harden the grid by replacing poles and wires, creating ground to sky clearance around transmission lines, moving or elevating equipment in low lying or coastal areas, and upgrading facilities with stronger, more resilient and modern materials, the grid was never built to endure the weather events that are becoming more frequent.

However, there has been push back from regulators who see these necessary fixes as costing ratepayers too much, and from property owners, who, among other things, are often against trimming trees back to the extent needed to prevent line damage.

Although trees have many benefits to a homeowner, they also can be dangerous and expensive if not maintained properly – the University of Connecticut Eversource Energy Center has found that 90 percent of power outages were caused by tree failure during storms in the forested Northeast.

The average cost of a small tree trimming job is $85, but for more complicated or larger jobs, the average cost runs $475. DIY tree trimming is only recommended for small trees – nothing requiring a ladder. In fact, DIYers may only make the problem worse and accidently kill the tree, making it a greater hazard. Additionally, while homeowner’s insurance may cover repairs and tree removal following a windstorm, the costs associated with a fallen tree rest on the homeowner, if the tree hasn’t been maintained.

When utility customers lose power because of an errant tree limb, not only are they without lights, they may be without heating or refrigeration or a surge related to extreme weather may damage or destroy an expensive piece of electronics. Low-income customers also face having to replace an entire refrigerator’s worth of food, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that food for a family of four costs between $146 to $289 a week. If a homeowner needs to relocated to a hotel, it will cost an average of $186 per night. Being without heating, in particular, is dangerous for seniors and other at-risk customers – there was an estimated 700 deaths because of hypothermia in the Texas polar vortex. Most of all, there are a percentage of customers who depend on reliable electric to run life-saving devices that provide oxygen or dialysis – more than 1.5 million adults are on supplementary oxygen and thousands on home hemodialysis.

When a power outage occurs, causing utility customers unexpected expenses and potentially putting them at risk, they will first turn to their utility and expect a quick reconnection. The problem may not be on utility distribution lines, but the customer’s connection to the grid. In that case, when they are already dissatisfied, the utility has to educate them about their responsibilities, and some will be unhappy to learn this information in the wake of a power outage. Additionally, they will be without service until they are able to have the connection repaired.

A partnership with HomeServe can provide protection for utility customers – our emergency home repair plans can shield low- and middle-income customers, seniors and other at-risk customers from the financial shock of an unexpected repair and some of the ancillary costs associated with a lack of power, such as food spoilage reimbursement or hotel stays. To learn more about how HomeServe can help utilities protect their customers, contact us.


Economic Shock Impacts Industry with Unpaid Utility Bills

Economic Shock Impacts Industry with Unpaid Utility Bills

The pandemic has put many Americans into economic shock – the sudden and unexpected loss of income – and millions are struggling with unpaid utility bills because of it.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many states imposed shut off moratoriums to ensure those who were impacted by the dramatic economic downturn this spring would continue to receive services.

As the pandemic has continued and the economy limped into fall with a 7.9 percent unemployment rate, states are now rescinding moratoriums or allowing them to expire, as utilities struggle to meet their service and financial obligations with a reduced cash flow. However, many consumers are still struggling financially, and Congress has not come to an agreement on a second stimulus bill.  

An estimated 179 million Americans are at risk to lose utility service as moratoriums expire and unpaid utility bills come due. Unpaid electric and gas bills are expected to total more than $24 billion by the end of the year, a debt that is four times larger than last year’s. Indicators signal that the economic shock isn’t yet over – a Census Bureau survey reveals that one-third of Americans continue to struggle to pay their bills. Meanwhile, the shift to working and schooling from home means that residential utility bills have climbed and it is anticipated that these costs won’t decrease any time soon. 

Navigating this new normal is a struggle for both residents and utilities, as some communities are offering one-time assistance – primarily through CARES Act funding – for unpaid utility bills, while others are suspending late fees. However, many households have not signed up for payment plans, and utilities – especially smaller, rural utilities –  are nearly pushed to the breaking point, as they lose revenue while still having to maintain normal operations. Municipal utilities also are struggling, especially as many municipal budgets took a one-two punch from lost tax revenue and increased demand on services during the pandemic.  

As we continue to struggle with this pandemic, the way forward isn’t immediately clear – while public health concerns demand that the water and power stay on, those same utilities must be given some sort of relief to continue to operate.

“Their cash flow is becoming more strapped because they’re not collecting that money from ratepayers, but there are still incremental costs to providing service. As you get further down the line, [utility] commissions are having to decide, ‘Do we want to allow to have companies recover these arrearages?’” Lillian Federico, an S&P Global research director, was quoted in the Washington Post.