It's about keeping warm

Opportunity Council staffer Lisa Clark looks at a history book featuring Doris Matz
Opportunity Council staffer Lisa Clark looks at a history book featuring Doris Matz' historic Langley home. On Monday Matz, who has taken to living in just one room of her home during the winter to cut down on heating costs, was the 1,000th homeowner to receive free weatherization help from the council.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Langley resident Doris Matz is looking forward to living in more than one room of her house this year.

Matz, who lives in one of the oldest homes in her South Whidbey neighborhood, has spent the past eight winters huddling against the cold and the high price of heating her two-story home, which was built in 1910. Without so much as a single bat of insulation in her walls, attic or underneath her house, she can only watch nervously each winter as both her propane tanks and her checking account drain precipitously.

With the heat seeping out of the walls almost as fast as her propane stove can make it, Matz has taken drastic measures to stay warm.

"I live in one room or another, depending on which tank is full," she said this week.

But her days of shutting off portions of the house may be at an end this winter. On Monday, a weatherization team from the Island County Opportunity Council drove up to Matz's old house and began pumping every cubic inch of space in the exterior walls full of insulation. The team also put insulation in the attic and in the home's crawl space.

Every bit of it was free, because in the minds of the people at the Opportunity Council, winter weather may be cold, but one's home should not be.

With sponsorship from a number of sources, including Puget Sound Energy and the federal Department of Energy, the Opportunity Council -- a nonprofit organization based in Oak Harbor -- will weatherize about 48 homes this year. Matz's home, which got the full insulation treatment on Island County's Weatherization Day, is the 1,000th Island County home to get some sort of weatherproofing or updating from the council.

The day was intended to demonstrate the benefits of weatherizing, did not draw a crowd as Opportunity Council officials had hoped. But it did make life warmer for Matz.

According to Dave Giese, the council's energy program's coordinator, this work -- plus money the council pays out to assist low-income people with their winter heating bills each year -- ensures that hundreds of county residents in need of help don't go without heat. On average, he said, low-income families pay 14 percent or more of their incomes for energy, compared with 3.5 percent for families with higher income.

This is where the Opportunity Council steps in. The council well help anyone with heating bills who has an income equal to or less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

"The idea is that we want to help them pay that overdue heating bill, but also help them make that home more efficient in the future," Giese said.

The program Giese runs, the Weatherization Assistance Program, was established in 1976. By insulating homes, installing better windows and making other structural improvements, the program has made energy cost reductions averaging 25 percent. Giese said these households save an average of $218 annually on their energy bills after weatherization.

For Matz, the savings promise to be huge. She said she pays up to $120 a month to heat her home during the winter.

Her house, which was fully insulated by the end of the day Monday, is atypical of those worked on by the Opportunity Council. Council director Dave Finet said about 75 percent of the homes that receive improvements through the weatherization program are mobile homes.

Many of the homes Dave Giese and his team of weatherizers work on come as referrals from other agencies. Matz learned of the Island County program through Langley's Help House, but was familiar with the Opportunity Council through the work it did on her late mother's home in Bellingham a few decades ago.

When at a work site, weatherization workers also stay on the lookout for other safety concerns, such as lead paint exposure and poor ventilation which can cause carbon monoxide risks.

Giese said he hopes Weatherization Day alerts more people to the opportunities provided by the program, especially senior citizens who might be reluctant to ask for help with their homes.

"We just try to encourage people to come in," he said. "They've been paying taxes their whole life, and maybe it's their turn to get something back."

South Whidbey Record editor Matt Johnson contributed to this article.

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