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Merrimack Valley residents replace appliances

As Merrimack Valley Appliances Are Replaced, Some Residents Want More Energy Efficiency

Laura Howell
Laura Howell with the electric-powered mini-split unit that's heating her ground floor. She argued with Columbia Gas about getting it paid for.
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Merrimack Valley residents replace appliances

As she sat in her North Andover kitchen, Laura Howell said getting her appliances replaced has been a long process.

“I'm feeling pretty exhausted after dealing with this for a month and a half now" she said. "Workmen coming in, no notice, talking to my adjuster, resubmitting claims.”

As if on cue, her doorbell rang. At the door was a Columbia Gas worker, checking in about what appliances they still need to replace, and which ones she’s taking care of and they’ll have to reimburse her for.

“I’m not getting my boiler put in until the first week of December, because Columbia Gas wouldn’t approve my estimate,” she told him.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any information on that,” he replied.

This is what life is like now for thousands of households in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, two months after natural gas fires erupted across the Merrimack Valley. Getting gas service restored is just part of it. Thousands of boilers, hot water heaters and appliances were damaged, and the gas company is now replacing those. But that can be a complicated process. There are so many details and conflicting, confusing conversations behind replacing every appliance. And it’s even harder for people wanting to upgrade to more energy efficient equipment.

Howell decided the best option for heating her home was an electric air pump system called a mini-split. Initially, Columbia Gas told her it would reimburse her for that. So she paid for half of the $6,400 system as a deposit.

“I was concerned about putting so much money out up front on my charge card, and so I got it in writing. And so we moved forward.” But then, things changed, she said. “I had many phone conversations after that with two different adjusters who tried to backtrack and tell me that they were now being told to not approve it, that it wasn't allowed, that it was a mistake,” she said.

Ultimately, Columbia Gas came around. Howell said she finally got payment last week, after a month.

Kate McHugh of Andover also did some research and thought an electric mini-split heating system would be a good option for her.

“I thought it was an opportunity to not only replace, but possibly replace with [something] more energy efficient,” she said.

She thought even if Columbia Gas paid just part of the cost, she could possibly cover the rest with rebates offered by Mass Save, an energy efficiency program supported by the utilities. When she called Mass Save, they told her that in order to get the rebates, she had to schedule a home energy audit.

“And then when I gave my address, she said, 'You're in the affected area.’ And I said, ‘Exactly. This is why I'm pursuing this alternative heating system.’ And she said, ‘We can't. We're not allowed ... to book any energy audits in the affected area.’”

So McHugh couldn’t qualify for the rebates. Ultimately, Columbia Gas rejected her request. She wound up getting a boiler, but doesn’t know if it’s energy efficient, because the one that arrived wasn’t what she picked out.

Columbia Gas spokesman Dean Lieberman says if people want to upgrade to high efficiency equipment, the difference should be covered by Mass Save rebates.

“To get the energy rebate, you do not need an in-home energy assessment or audit,” Lieberman said.

However, when WGBH News called the toll-free Mass Save number, we were told that energy audits are required for rebates on some boilers and furnaces. So, at the very least, there’s a lot of confusion around these questions.

Last week, Columbia Gas announced its efforts to promote energy efficiency.

“We will continue to replace any affected equipment with energy efficient or Mass Save-eligible gas models wherever possible at no cost to the customer,” Lieberman said. The utility also plans to insulate thousands of homes.

Reverend Lee Bluemel is one of about 30 faith leaders in the area who met with Steve Bryant, the president of Columbia Gas, last month. She and another person at that meeting say Bryant estimated that a quarter of the heating equipment installed would be “high efficiency.” Bluemel just got gas back in her own home last Friday.

“In my own experience and that of others, for people who are proactive and want to save on their heating costs and their gas usage, we've been thwarted at every turn, in terms of getting that equipment in,” Bluemel said.

Bluemel is hopeful the utility now stands behind its commitment to replace appliances with energy efficient models. But, she says, she’ll believe it when she sees it.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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