UF launches plan to help reduce utility bills for low-income Alachua County residents

September 24, 2018
Allison Vitt

The University of Florida has launched an initiative to help low-income families in Alachua County through a new strategic partnership with the Community Weatherization Coalition, a local non-profit organization focused on improving home weatherization and energy efficiency.

This partnership will address major energy inequity issues identified in a 2017 University of Florida study that revealed low-income households in Alachua County spend an average of 14 percent of their annual income on utility expenses, compared with average-income households that spend just 5.5 percent of their income on utilities annually.

“It’s clear that a substantial number of households in Gainesville are disproportionately impacted by utility costs,” said Charlie Lane, UF’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. “The University of Florida will be supporting and enhancing the CWC’s already remarkable efforts in the community in an effort to address these disparities.”

UF will provide $50,000 in funding for the CWC to reach its 2018-2019 target of 150 homes – an increase of 50 percent from previous years. The funds are earmarked for home energy upgrades and supplies as well as supporting additional staff and interns for the organization, Lane said.

The CWC has conducted more than 900 free home energy tune-ups for local residents since 2008, with a specific focus on helping low-income households save money on utilities each month. Trained CWC volunteer Energy Coaches evaluate homes and install energy-efficient light bulbs and water-saving shower heads, as well as insulate pipes on water heaters and air-conditioning units.

CWC Energy Coaches also work closely with the residents to evaluate additional ways they can save money on utilities, said Alane Humrich, program director for CWC.

As a result, homeowners and renters see lower costs on their utility bills - about 10 percent on average – which is an annual savings of $250 to $300 per household.

“We meet a lot of low-income families who are living in older housing stock, many in East Gainesville, with homes built in the ‘40s and ‘50s that are not built to today's efficiency standards,” Humrich said.

Those homes may not be well-sealed and often have older, inefficient appliances. Additionally, residents on a limited budget don’t have the financial resources to move to more efficient homes or take energy-saving measures such as adding attic insulation, upgrading to Energy Star appliances, or replacing windows, Humrich said.

“Our Energy Coaches spend two to three hours in the home with the resident and talk about everything from the most energy-intensive appliances, to when and how wastewater is charged and the option of downsizing their garbage can to save on waste collection costs,” she said.

Residents who receive tune-ups not only see an immediate decrease in their monthly utility bills, they also reap the benefits of those savings for years afterward, said Marianne Schmink, a UF professor emerita of anthropology and founding member of the CWC.

“Our impact studies reveal that the educational impact of our home energy/water surveys persists in savings five to six years following the surveys, while improving the comfort and livability of our homes and communities and increasing property values,” Schmink said.

Said Humrich: “The CWC is truly a coalition. We have been doing hands-on work to ease the utility-burden for Alachua County residents for the past decade with many wonderful partners. This partnership is going to allow the CWC to serve more families in our community struggling to pay their utility bills - saving money and resources for our low-income neighbors to use on other necessities.”

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