Cindie Reshel got a housewarming party three years after she bought her house. Thanks to a federal home weatherization program, she just got a new furnace, insulation in her attic, a chimney repair and other help, all for free. The decades-old federal weatherization program typically helps about 220 low-income households a year in Winnebago and Boone counties. But thanks to an extra $4.2 million from the federal stimulus package, three times that many will get fixed up in each of the next two years.

Cindie Reshel got a housewarming party three years after she bought her house.

Thanks to a federal home weatherization program, she just got a new furnace, insulation in her attic, a chimney repair and other help, all for free. With winter coming, she already sees her heating bills cut in half.

“I can turn the furnace on one day and leave it off three days and it stays the same temperature,” the Belvidere resident said. “They’ve got this place so airtight, it’s unbelievable.”

The decades-old federal weatherization program typically helps about 220 low-income households a year in Winnebago and Boone counties. But thanks to an extra $4.2 million from the federal stimulus package, three times that many will get fixed up in each of the next two years.

“Adding things like insulation and making improvements to heating systems aren’t necessarily things they have money to do, but will have huge and long-term benefits,” said Mark Bixby, energy director for the city of Rockford’s Human Services Department, which administers the program in the two counties. “That allows money that might be going to wasted energy to go for ... food, clothing, medication and other things.”

The goal is to cut residents’ heating bills by at least 30 percent through the upgrades, which could mean hundreds of dollars in savings each year.

It’s open to any kind of home, from mobile home to apartment to single-family dwelling. And because of the stimulus money, for the next two years, landlords won’t be required to pay anything to get low-income rental units weatherized.

“The administration in Washington feels strongly that weatherization benefits most the person who is paying the actual utility bill,” Bixby said.

For Reshel, the Belvidere resident, the help comes at a time of great need. She lost her savings thanks to identity theft, she said, and now faces house payments that eat up nearly all her income.

“Every penny, I scrimp to save,” she said. “This is something I could have never ever done. It saved me a ton of money I don’t have.”

The stimulus funds will also help the Human Services Department wipe out its waiting list, which ran two to three years deep.

Shirley Miller of Rockton had been on the list for a year. Her mobile home got a new furnace and windows this year.

“Sometimes you would have to turn it up to 80 to get warm,” she said. “Now, it’ll be on just a few minutes, and the whole house gets warm and keeps it.”

And the boost in the program is a boost in business for the contractors, who can give their employees more consistent work.

“In this economy, every portion, whether it’s 5 percent more or 100 percent more, every bit counts,” said Bill Taylor, owner of Taylor Made Carpentry in Rockford and one of the program’s contractors. “Most importantly, it is a better opportunity for more clients of the weatherization program. We’re going to serve a lot more people now.”

About 30 percent of energy use in a low-income household is for space heating, and another 15 percent is for water heating, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The program is particularly helpful in colder areas such as Rockford that also have a lot of low-income residents, Bixby said. This set of stimulus funds will help those who need it the most, he said.

“This is long-lasting and the materials that go in are quality materials installed by licensed contractors,” Bixby said. “This work is done right, and it’s made to last.”

Thomas V. Bona can be reached at (815) 987-1343 or tbona@rrstar.com.

Cheap and free fixes
Here are some easy ways to cut your heating bills outside of the weatherization program:

Free:
Wash clothes in cold water instead of hot, which can save up to $40 a year for a family.

Lower your water heater to 120 degrees, which can save up $33 a year for a family.

Clean air vents and dryer vents.

Open curtains through the day, close them at night to keep heat in.

Reverse direction of ceiling fans to circulate heat.

Low cost:
Have your furnace checked and cleaner, which can cut heating bills 10 percent or more.
Replace furnace filters.

Use a programmable thermostat to set temperatures back 10 degrees at night, saving 5 percent to 15 percent.

Weatherstrip your doors and windows, which can save 5 percent to 10 percent.

Put plastic sealing on windows.

Put a water heater blanket on water heater.

Source: Nicor Gas