Armitha French is the kind of woman that reminds you that there are beautiful people walking around on this earth. Although at 83 she seems fragile, her spirit must surely be stronger than her bones. Gently, with even breath and a strong desire to hold back her tears, she talked about how several years ago she had been forced to retire after being diagnosed with ruptured tendons in her arms, a condition that permeates nearly every corner of her life.
"My ability to reach up there, to that second shelf, and get a glass out," she said as she motioned to a kitchen cabinet, "I can't do that. I can't sip, I can't button, I can't reach above my head, I can't lift. And then I have arthritis too, in my fingers, in my lower back, in my knees. I hurt constantly. I'm on a lot of medications. I just won't give into it. That's why I keep moving; I keep active. But it's just too painful, so I just keep quiet. And I try to keep going, because that's my life."
In addition to Social Security, she barely scrapes in $300 a month from retirement benefits, while "the bills keep coming." Ms. French worked for 17 years at the city's office of senior affairs, devoting her life to helping the elderly. She never expected to be the one needing a favor. Yet, with bills piling high and the winter months coming, Ms. French decided to ask for help.
She learned about a Weatherization Assistance Program offered by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority (MFA) that will weatherize the homes of lower-income and disabled citizens for next to nothing. An outside company, in this case the Central New Mexico Housing Corporation, performs the actual work, making the home more energy-efficient, more comfortable, and cheaper to heat and cool.
Last week, the MFA partnered for a day with the Ad Council to hold a media event at Ms. French's humble home. The focus of the event was to highlight a new Ad Council campaign on energy efficiency (this is the same outfit that brought us such memorable slogans as "Smoky Bear" and "Your Brain on Drugs") by showing what can be done to make a typical single-family home more energy efficient.
The Energy Efficiency Campaign started in March when the Ad Council teamed up with Energy Outreach Colorado, a nonprofit organization that raises money to help lower-income Coloradoans pay their energy bills, to offer lessons on energy conservation. They then partnered with 20 state agencies around the country, as well as other local nonprofit organizations, and are trying to educate the public about energy-saving practices. The campaign has a great interactive website (www.energyhog.org) aimed at kids that shows how to hunt down energy hogs that lurk in the home through a series of fun games and trivia.
The New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department is one of the campaign sponsors in Albuquerque. Christopher Wentz, director of the state agency, said the state's involvement stems from Gov. Bill Richardson's interest in energy conservation after serving as Secretary of Energy for a number of years. Currently, Wentz said, there are a number of diverse, renewable energy projects starting up throughout the state, ranging from a biomass-fired heating system for the Jemez Mountain School, to extracting methane from cow manure to create electricity near Las Cruces.
"If there's one truth that was evident in the events of the last year, it's that America needs to become energy-independent, and I am committed to making New Mexico a leader in that effort," Richardson said last week at a press conference highlighting the positive economic prospects for more wind energy development in the Southwest. Richardson also noted that his administration has created six separate energy task forces in the state to create a broad range of proposals to conserve energy as well as convert to nonpolluting sources.
According to the Alliance to Save Energy (www.ase.org), the average home annually produces twice as much greenhouse gas pollution as the average car. It's estimated that the national demand for electricity will rise by 45 percent over the next 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. These are statistics not lost on Armitha French who sees her newly weatherized home as doing her small part to make the world a better place.
"I'm just so thankful for it," said Ms. French, "because there are people that still care. I was beginning to think there wasn't anymore. It's just nice to know that someone's there for you."
Paul Kriescher, president of Lightly Treading, Energy & Design, hosted the event at Ms. French's home in the Northeast Heights. He highlighted simple things that homeowners can do to increase energy efficiency.
Take your windows, for example. People think that if they buy those pricey new panes that suddenly their energy woes will be solved. But Kreischer says that this is not so. He said older windows can certainly be an energy hog, especially the single-pane, metal variety, but that they are a relatively small hog. The much bigger issue is making sure that your walls are well-stuffed with insulation. Kreischer notes that many older homes, such as those in the University area, are made from adobe-masonry or cinderblock that only have an R-4 or R-5 value. The R-value, by the way, refers to the resistance to transfer of heat. The higher the R-value, the longer it takes for heat to transfer; therefore, the longer it takes for the cold winter air to seep into your home. Kreischer says that in a region such as ours, ideally, our walls should have a value of R-13 or higher.
There are a couple ways to up the value of your walls. If your house is built in the adobe/cinderblock style, you can add a couple inches of Styrofoam (which comes in the typical white and flaky variety as well as denser forms) to the exterior of your walls and then restucco the outside of your house, Kriescher said.
Making sure that your attic is well-insulated is also a top priority. Heat rises, so make sure that your attic and/or ceilings have a value of R-30 or higher. Also, depending on where your furnace is stored, if it's not properly insulated, and if the ductwork's not insulated, you could be wasting a lot of energy there as well, Kriescher said.
The best way to find out what the R-value is on your walls and ceilings is to hire an expert to come out and evaluate your home. Kreischer warned people to be wary when shopping around for a company—if they make you any promises on how much you will save before they even get to your home, or are pushing new windows on you, they might be ripping you off. Kreischer says that before anyone can talk about savings, a full evaluation of the house needs to be done, a process that costs about $250 for smaller homes and up to $500 for larger homes. With this, you get a full computerized model of energy use in your home, which lets both you and the experts know what needs to be done to make your home more efficient.
If you don't qualify for the Weatherization Assistance Program, meaning that you have to pay for your home improvements yourself, there are more tips available from the state energy department to help weatherize your home that don't take a lot of cash up front and will save you money in the long run
Buy a new fridge. OK, that sounds expensive. But, consider the fact that if you're currently using an older fridge, or one of those large-standing freezers with the mustard yellow doors left over from the '70s, it costs about $100 a year to operate. Energy-star fridges cost about $40 a year to operate. If you simply must have extra freezer space, consider buying a new chest freezer instead of a free-stander, which only cost about $20 a year to run. Sure, the initial investment will cost you a couple hundred dollars, but over a few years you'll pay yourself back (and help the environment while you're at it).
Get a cover for your water heater. Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents. Weather-strip your doors and windows. Change your furnace filter.
If you want to find out about more energy-saving info, visit the New Mexico Energy, Mineral and Natural Resource Department at www.emnrd.state.nm.us/
To find out if you're eligible for the weatherization program, call the Central New Mexico Housing Corporation, 345-4949.