Front Porch Blog

Energy bill acrobatics

Balancing the Family Budget with High Electric Bills

Click the arrows to scroll through the slide show. The Schmidts of Tazewell, Tenn. have to keep their home carefully temperature controlled for the health of their son, C.J., who has Down syndrome.

For the Schmidt family of Tazewell, Tennessee, managing their budget is a delicate balancing act, and one they have become very good at. But high electric bills can make that balance tricky to maintain, sometimes leaving very little in the way of emergency funds, much less for the home repairs they need that could actually lower their energy use.

Liana Schmidt says her electric bills can reach up to $300 in the winter, and fluctuate between $100 and $200 the rest of the year. For Liana, a full-time dietary technician at the Claiborne Medical Center, and her husband Carl, having to pay those bills on such a tight budget can be hard.

“I have kids,” she says. “It’s hard to do and get things for them ‘cause I have to worry about my bills first. You know? Like clothes… or you know things that they need or whatnot. That’s the hardest part.”

The tension between getting by and financial emergency became that much tighter last month when the transmission in her car went out and the brand new well pump in their home broke again. “I have four kids; two of them live with me, and he has Down syndrome,” says Liana nodding her head at 8-year-old C.J. who has abandoned a puzzle to play with a plastic fire truck on the floor of their sunlit kitchen. He is the light of her life, she says, adding quickly that she loves all her children, but a hug from C.J. when she walks in the door can turn her entire day around.

C.J. is susceptible to infection, so regulating temperature in their home is a matter of keeping her son healthy. “I have to make sure that he doesn’t get overheated or too cold or whatever the case may be ‘cause he can get sick very quickly and he is allergic to just about everything. So it’s a struggle.” Just in the last year, C.J. has been hospitalized twice for pneumonia.

When every bit of money saved counts, medical expenses, even with insurance, can add up. Liana’s husband Carl served in the Navy for 20 years, and was exposed to asbestos sometime in the 1980s, which has significantly impacted his health and makes it difficult for him to work full-time. All this has been made much more difficult since the Schmidts were informed in July by their insurance that all of their doctors and their hospital are now out-of-network. They will have to drive almost an hour to receive medical care.

The Schmidts could benefit tremendously from having a more energy-efficient home, to save money on their electric bill and to ensure healthy conditions for C.J. But having the time and money to make the initial investment seems impossible. “If I could just save a little more, just replacing my windows would be a huge huge deal… that would be awesome,” says Liana.

Liana and Carl have done some energy efficiency improvements in their 23-year old house, like replacing all the lightbulbs with compact fluorescents and hanging heavy light-blocking curtains in the living room. “We’ve been trying to do little things here and there,” says Liana. “Even our dishwasher is eco-friendly and our refrigerator is, just about everything that we have is energy efficient. I don’t have a dryer because I like to hang my clothes out and in the wintertime I have a rack so I put everything on a rack.”

Still, Liana knows that to really lower their electric bill, they are going to have to do some more significant upgrades. She points to her kitchen windows saying, “I would love to be able to change these windows but they’re a little expensive right now for us.” Moving over to the windows, Liana says “If you look, you actually can see it,” and pushes her hand against the window to reveal a sizeable gap between the pane and the frame.

Liana heads outside. It’s 92 degrees and the midday sun has no mercy, even the plants in her well-tended garden are drooping as if to say “too much!” It’s clear from the landscaping, which includes a small fruit orchard in the backyard, that the Schmidts put a good deal of time and energy into making their house feel like home.

“We own the land and the house. We have four acres,” says Liana. Gesturing to the wide open space and empty road surrounding their property, she laughs, “It’s awesome back here. My neighbors are cows.” Around the side of the house, she points to a spot close to the roof where some of the siding has come off, revealing a hole a little larger than a softball. It looks like an animal might have created it, but it’s hard to tell. Liana is smiling, but there is exasperation and worry behind her smile when she explains how her husband’s health keeps him from fixing it.

Liana continues to the back of the house, where she opens the door to the crawlspace It’s clear why the Schmidts can feel cold air coming through the floor in the wintertime. Insulation is hanging like pink curtains, rather than being packed tightly in between the joists. Homes can lose up to ten percent of their heating and cooling through uninsulated floors.

Back inside the cool respite of her house, Liana looks up from removing her shoes. “The two biggest things right now is my roof and my windows because I got shingles that are coming off my roof from the wind and whatnot.”

Rural Appalachia has a high concentration of aging and manufactured homes — like the Schmidts’ home — which often lack proper insulation, or their structures have settled allowing air to escape. The culmination of all these factors is that Carl and Liana aren’t the only ones facing high electric bills with little to no resources or access to upfront financing that might provide some relief.

Some utilities have a program called “on-bill financing” which offers people like the Schmidts financing to cover the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades and pay back the money on their monthly bill, using the savings. When asked what it would mean her family to have access to this kind of program, Liana replies, “What would it mean to me? It’d mean a whole lot! Having a Down’s kid, I could do a whole lot more with him. If I could save more money and with my older son, I’d be able to do stuff with him as well. Right now we can’t do a whole lot. That would save us so much more, our bill would definitely drop, and we would be able to do a whole lot more with our kids. Family means everything to us, at this point in time, family is everything. You just never know when your time is up.”

Visit our Energy Savings web page for information on how to start this conversation with your utility.

Raised in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina, Lou is serving as our 2015-16 OSMRE/VISTA Tennessee Outreach Associate in Knoxville, Tenn.


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