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Maine Volunteers Work To Seal Drafty Homes, Save Energy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Preparing a house for the winter cold can be a hardship for cash-strapped families. The problem is especially challenging in Maine, where housing stock is aging and overdependent on furnaces that run on oil - that's an expensive fuel. Maine Public Radio's Fred Bever reports on a grassroots effort to help improve energy efficiency for some of these old homes.

FRED BEVER, BYLINE: In rural Maine, leaky windows are a big problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAT GUN FIRING UP)

BEVER: But at a drop-in center in the town of Moose River, near the Canadian border, a half dozen volunteers are working to solve the problem. They are making custom inserts that fit easily in old window casements. This adds much needed insulation.

BILL TRAHAN: This is one of the larger windows. It gets a little tricky.

BEVER: Bill Trahan, a local retiree from neighboring Jackman, runs a plastic-wrapped wooden frame under a heat gun. The plastic shrinks drum-tight forming an inexpensive double-paned insert.

TRAHAN: I figured I'd have a few windows made for myself. And since they need volunteers to help assemble these, I said, you know, sign me up.

BEVER: Residents in Maine are more dependent on oil heat than in any other state. That helps explain the growing popularity of this low-tech, communal effort to reduce heating costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

RICHARD CADWGAN: The production went from a few hundred a year at the beginning up to a few thousand a year very quickly. And then it just kept on going.

BEVER: Richard Cadwgan and volunteers at the Rockland Universalist Church started the Window Dressers program, as it's called, eight years ago. Since then, he says they've helped insulate some 30,000 windows. And Cadwgan says just five of these window inserts can save $150 worth of oil each year.

CADWGAN: The customer will just say, you're kidding. And I say, no, we're not.

BEVER: Many low-income households pay less than the 40 bucks or so the inserts cost. And for those Mainers who balk at outside assistance, Cadwgan offers another option.

CADWGAN: Mrs. Jones, this bill is going to be $175.14. We can waive that if you would be glad to provide a crockpot of soup once during the season.

BEVER: Winter can force rural households to make some painful choices.

SUZANNE MACDONALD: People are having to ask the question of whether or not to heat or eat. It's really unfortunately an all-too-common predicament.

BEVER: Suzanne MacDonald is an analyst at the Island Institute, which recently studied home energy challenges in four rural states, from Maine to Alaska. She says the key is...

MACDONALD: Making the barrier to entry low - supporting do it yourself or DIY opportunities is a great way to get people to take a first step and start thinking about how they might prioritize energy efficiency in the coming years.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS UP STAIRCASE)

BEVER: In a rambling farmhouse back in Moose River, Catherine Reed carries a pair of the insulating window inserts upstairs to her drafty bedroom. The 74-year-old widow helped assemble them at the morning workshop.

CATHERINE REED: Living on an hill, it's an old house - 1842. The wind blows right through the walls. So this should help me. And I'm just so pleased and blessed to have them.

BEVER: And plugging her leaky windows is just the first step. Next on her agenda - a home energy audit. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POSTAL SERVICE SONG, "WE WILL BECOME SILHOUETTES" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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