If your winter electric bills are making you tighten your belt, it’s probably time to tighten your house — and your utility can help.Plugging holes around doors and windows, adding insulation, replacing an air conditioner or even installing solar panels can lower bills. All these measures and more can be paid for in part or in full by pairing local contractors with energy-efficiency programs by Oncor Electric Delivery, which operates the power lines and poles serving most of North Texas.Oncor expects to start its annual energy-efficiency incentive program for all households regardless of income next week, spokeswoman Jeamy Molina said. This year, the program has $12.6 million, she said, up $2 million from last year and enough to cover about 19,000 homes.April 1 marks the start of Oncor’s $6.3 million weatherization program for low-income households. To qualify, your household income must be at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, or $22,980 for an individual and $47,100 for a family of four. Oncor’s residential solar panel program, which began in December, has spent $2 million, but it has $3.3 million left for installations, according to D.J. Douglas, owner of AffordaSolar in Fort Worth, one of the certified contractors in the program.All three programs, along with similar efforts for commercial properties, are part of a state mandate for all 10 regulated Texas utilities to help homeowners and businesses with energy efficiency. They are funded by electric bill payers, costing homeowners in North Texas around $1 a month, said Terry Hadley, spokesman for the Texas Public Utility Commission.“To the extent that the program can lower the level of demand, especially during peak power needs that could require additional generation, we feel it is significant,” he said. “Overall, we believe the program is getting better.”The PUC hired an outside contractor to review energy-efficiency programs and found that Oncor’s contributed the largest percentage of statewide kilowatt savings in 2012.“That makes sense because we are the largest utility in the state,” Molina said. “We cover one-third of the state.”This year, Oncor is providing marketing materials to help contractors inform potential customers about the program. Several contractors said they often have trouble convincing homeowners that the program is not a scam.“Some tell me to come today, but others, we have to sell them on it,” said Kenneth Andrade, owner of 1st Green Solutions in Fort Worth. “Once I walk them through it and give them the website and a project manager to talk to, they usually call a week later and say, ‘OK, I’m ready.’ ”All-electric homes are eligible for the largest incentive because the difference before and after efficiency measures is bigger than with gas homes, Andrade said. The more energy savings, the bigger the offset to the cost of the work.“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it,” Andrade said. “If you have a leaky home, you could save $50 to $100 a month on your electric bill.”But understand that not all contractors pass on all the savings. Be sure to ask several contractors and get their bids on paper. By state law, the contractors do not have to pass the savings on to consumers, but they can use the money for training and other improvements to their businesses.Brandon Smith, owner of AAA Efficiency in Arlington, another Oncor-certified contractor, said his company works on 200 to 300 houses a year with the program and passes out 2,000 fliers a week when the program is running.“The programs are 80 percent of how we get our business,” he said. “It’s so much more difficult when we have to charge full price. This program pays half or more of the cost — and all of it when it’s the low-income program.”Smith said the average home has only 6 inches of insulation when it should have 14 to 18. His company also looks for leaks in the ventilation system and in the house.“Some people are blowing air conditioning in the attic through leaks,” he said. “That’s why you get a $500 or $600 electric bill.”Smith’s company helps educate the consumer on habits to lower their energy needs, like closing the fireplace flue after the season is over. “People often still have their flues open in summer,” he said. “It’s like leaving a window open.”Oncor’s energy-efficiency programs usually run out of money later in the year, so Molina suggests that homeowners act quickly before funding runs out. Several contractors using the program will be at the Fort Worth Home and Garden Show on Feb. 21-23 at the Fort Worth Convention Center.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net