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Weatherization helps low-income Gwinnett residents

LAWRENCEVILLE - When Ida May Simpkins' air conditioning went out last summer, the 80-year-old Lawrenceville resident needed some help.

A staff member at the senior center she volunteers at suggested Simpkins call the Partnership for Community Action.

The group didn't help her with the air conditioning, but they did weatherize her house, filling cracks around pipes, wrapping the water heater and weather stripping her doors.

Paul Najjar, the weatherization and housing director for the partnership, said he expects the changes saved the woman who lives on her social security checks between $25 and $30 a month.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, but it really is pretty significant," Najjar said. "While making her home more energy-efficient, we also help her stretch out her dollars."

The 32-year-old program serves low-income residents of four counties, including Gwinnett. Last year, 250 homes were updated with insulation and caulking, but Najjar said the organization still has nearly 200 applications on-hand - and a waiting list on top of that.

About 25 homes were weatherized in Gwinnett last year, Najjar said.

To be eligible for the weatherization program through the agency, residents must be at or below 150 percent of the poverty level. There are 22 similar agencies that work in other counties throughout the state.

As the weatherization program starts, workers come in and depressurize homes, seeking leaks and spots that can be fixed to be more energy-efficient.

That includes empty spaces around pipes, cracks around windows and doors or appliances that use too much energy.

Najjar said the Partnership for Community Action is considering opening up its services to more people, for a fee, to help fund the free service for low-income people.

Simpkins said when she called, she wasn't sure what she was getting into. But she said her house seemed warmer during January's cold bursts than it had in the past.

"June or July, when it was real hot, I really just wanted to get some help 'cause I was desperate," she said. "I really wasn't calling for what I got, but I was glad to get it."

The program is funded through the Department of Energy and local gas and power companies, which help foot the cost. Improvements include the addition of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors to warn residents of fire or the gas' presence in their homes.

Najjar said he also exchanges regular light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs, which last longer. Najjar said the average cost of work on a home is about $2,900. In Simpkins' house, the $1,449 project reduced her energy use by 19 percent.

With simple solutions, those levels can be reached by homeowners everywhere, he said.

Najjar said caulking cracks around windows and doors can help keep heat and air inside the house. Tubes of caulk are $2 apiece, and weather strips for doors are $10. Door sweeps, which fill in the space at the bottom of a door frame, sell for $5, Najjar said.

"Those things can save significantly," he said.

Najjar also suggested that people can help keep their energy costs low by turning off the lights when they leave a room, keeping the coils on the back of the refrigerator clean, keeping their water heater's temperature at or below 120 degrees and using low-flow shower heads.

Using appliances like a dryer, which make a home warmer, should be done when it's cool and not during the heat of day, Najjar said. And people should keep their heat no higher than 68 degrees in the winter and their air conditioners no lower than 78 degrees in the summer.

"It can make it more comfortable and healthy as well," Najjar said.

SideBar: Energy saving tips

Paul Najjar, the weatherization and housing director for the Partnership for Community Action, says there are things everyone can do help protect their home and save money on energy costs.

· Turn off the lights when you leave a room.

· Keep the coils on the back of your refrigerator clean.

· Keep you water heater's temperature at or below 120 degrees.

· Use appliances like a dryer (above), which make a home warmer, when it's cool.

· Use low-flow shower heads.

· Keep your air conditioners no lower than 78 degrees in the summer

and no higher than 68 degrees in the winter.

· Caulk cracks around windows and doors.

· Use weather strips or door sweeps, below.