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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Avoided Through Weatherization

October 5, 2010 - 10:56am

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"If we'd had a couple cold nights where I would've had to use my heat more than usual, it probably would've put me to sleep and left me there -- it was just too much carbon monoxide coming out in the house," says Mark Pickartz, of Van Buren, Ark.

Pickartz's home was weatherized in February by his local community action agency, Crawford-Sebastian Community Development Council (C-SCDC). When energy auditors arrived to his house, they found that his home's heater was severely leaking the poisonous gas. C-SCDC, based in Fort Smith, Ark., provides two counties with weatherization services, helping low-income families save money on their energy bills. The community action agency also saves lives because of mandatory health and safety inspections that take place during the process. The agency says it recently discovered a string of homes leaking carbon monoxide, a deadly gas.

Through Recovery Act funding, the agency has hired three energy auditors, two office assistants and a materials handler. Additionally, it has gone from working with one contractor that weatherizes homes to three, all of which have had to add crews to keep up with the work of weatherizing more homes than in previous years. Under normal funding, the agency was slated to weatherize 39 homes, but it's able to reach 233 more homes under the Recovery Act, for a total of 272.

With additional funding, the agency can continue to save more lives than ever before. The Recovery Act has allowed the agency to expand its services, helping more residents and even providing a boost to the local economy.

Catching a killer

Last winter, C-SCDC saw several homes with dangerous levels of carbon monoxide leaking from heating systems in recipients' homes.

"We had a chain -- one right after another," says Debbie Biggs, weatherization director for C-SCDC. "One had carbon monoxide levels so high we told the man to shut down everything and get out until we could get there to fix the problem."

In most cases, the agency is able to get to the root of the problem, install a solution and provide the homeowner with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in a matter of days.

Burning eyes

"When you have levels as high as we've seen, it's a wonder that some folks weren't dead. They call carbon monoxide a silent killer, and it really is," Biggs says. "Every client we helped in regard to carbon monoxide problems had a story to tell about how they had been sick or how their eyes were always burning. Within a week of their units being replaced, they were fine and couldn't believe it."

"I'd had some symptoms, but I'd really not been using the heat more than I had too because it was too expensive," Pickartz says. "I had been using it some, along with some space heaters, and thought I was getting the flu. When the weatherization team found out what the problem was and got it fixed, my symptoms just went away."

The heat exchanger in Pickartz' heating unit had cracked and was becoming progressively worse each day, leaking more carbon monoxide into his home.

"[The weatherization crew] told me at the time they tested it not to use the unit," he says. "I shut it off, and they went to bat for me and got everything lined up in a couple of days and started working so I could have heat — this was in February, so it was cold. They really hit this project with some attitude and got it done."

More comfortable

Not only did the heating fixes improve his health, but also the other energy efficiency improvements the C-SCDC staff provided have made his house more comfortable and cut Pickartz' energy bills in half. Those retrofits included new windows and insulation in the attic.  According to the C-SCDC, most clients see a 30-to-50 percent decrease in energy costs.

Pickartz says he thinks the weatherization program is a great benefit to the community and its residents. "To me, the major impact was in my health, and saving $100 on electricity every month, well, that definitely helps folks like me living on a fixed income that the utility bills go way down."

Many of the supplies used by C-SCDC come from local companies such as Harry G. Barr and Rheem Manufacturing. Read here about the impact the increase in weatherization work has had on a local window manufacturing company in being able to keep its plant running full-time.

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