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Texas' $23 million in appliance rebates is gone in hours

In less than eight hours, $23 million in rebates for energy-saving appliances was gone, pleasing tens of thousands of Texans who snagged the money-saving offers but also frustrating tens of thousands more, some of whom endured busy signals and blank Web pages for hours.

At the end of the day, the state had taken reservations for 38,864 rebates. An additional 59,600 went to consumers on a waiting list, who could receive rebates if those at the front of the line fail to complete their purchases in time.

Under the program's rules, those with a rebate reserved must buy a qualifying appliance between April 16 and 25 in most cases.

"Unfortunately, some people were not able to get on the reservation list," said R.J. DeSilva, a spokesman for the Texas comptroller's office, which runs the program. "We appreciate their patience, but one of the factors was there was a huge amount of demand for this set amount of funds."

Today, the comptroller's office is asking residents to comment on the program via a feedback form.

The comptroller's office began accepting reservations at 7 a.m. Wednesday as part of a program designed to help Texans make their homes more energy-efficient. The program, funded through the federal stimulus package, offers rebates of $45 to $1,600 on appliances such as air conditioners, refrigerators and water heaters.

But many were unable to get through the toll-free phone lines or Web site to reserve a rebate because of high call volume and Internet traffic. The Web site was shut down for 21/2 hours before being reopened shortly after noon to limited traffic.

DeSilva said the agency had 550 operators taking phone calls, which poured in at 1,000 a minute at the peak. The Web site received about 2,400 hits a second Wednesday morning and was overwhelmed.

One of those shut out was Keller resident Chris Dedera, who was on a business trip in Indiana but still hoped to secure a rebate for a new central air conditioner. Despite trying online and on the phone, as well as having his wife make attempts, he was unsuccessful.

"I didn't know if I would be able to get a rebate, but I also didn't expect to spend six hours trying," Dedera said.

After the Web site crashed, the phone lines offered the only way to reserve a rebate for several hours. As a result, the comptroller's office still had about $17 million left in the program at about noon.

But once the Web site was restored, the reservations began disappearing, well, efficiently. Through its Twitter page, the comptroller gave updates on how much money was available. The balance went from $11 million at 12:30 p.m. to $4.6 million by 1:30 p.m.

Ultimately, 32,283 reservations were made online and 6,581 through the phone bank.

Southlake resident Fred Halfpap was one of the lucky ones, securing not just a reservation but, he was embarrassed to admit, two. That was the maximum allowed per household.

"I'm sure I redialed over 100 times to try to get through," said Halfpap, who finally achieved success by having two browsers spend over an hour trying to reach the Web page. "Somehow my request got in, even when they took the Web site down."

Once all the available reservations were claimed, the comptroller's office said, it began accepting spots on the waiting list at around 3 p.m. But the list was full by 6 p.m., with nearly 60,000 people on it, DeSilva said. Wait-list rebates will be processed in the order they're received by the comptroller's office.

Texas is not the only state to have problems doling out the rebates. Iowa, which went through its full stimulus grant for energy-efficient appliances the first day it offered rebates to the public, also experienced busy phone lines and a crashed Web site.

The federal government issued each state a set amount of funds for energy-efficient appliances, but each state determined how to distribute the funds.

The comptroller's office is investigating a possible attack that may have flooded the reservation system, as one Internet address used nearly 75 percent of the available capacity, DeSilva said. That led to the state's Web site being taken down in the morning to address the problem.

After spending six hours trying to reserve a rebate online, Richardson resident Kyle Young finally got on the waiting list. He plans to buy a washing machine

"The whole process was frustrating and overly time-consuming," said Young, who also made over 100 calls to the toll-free number provided by the comptroller's office.

"It felt like I was calling a radio station trying to win tickets to a concert."

ANDREA AHLES, 817-390-7631

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