by Ann M. Colford

The Northwest has been blessed for many decades with relatively inexpensive and abundant energy sources, but events over the last few years -- natural, economic and political -- have shown that no one in the region can take energy resources for granted. Avista Utilities is taking a lead role in promoting energy conservation among its customers.

"Energy conservation is something we've been involved with as a company for a long time," says Catherine Markson, Avista's communications manager. "With our knowledge of the energy industry, we have a lot of expertise."

Why should a company that sells energy try to help customers use less? "It's all about the wise and prudent use of energy resources," Markson says. "And then saving on your bill." Investing in new equipment -- i.e., new power plants -- is expensive, so everyone benefits if Avista doesn't have to expand capacity.

For low-income customers in its service area, the company provides funding for weatherization programs through the community action agencies in each county. If you think you may be eligible, but you're not sure who to call in your area, check in with Avista at 800-227-9187.

In Spokane County, the weatherization program is run by SNAP (Spokane Neighborhood Action Program) and its Housing Improvement Program (HIP). Thanks to effective marketing, there's now a one-year backlog of applicants for consultations, but eligible residents are welcome to call in and file an application over the phone, says Kristi Sherlock, SNAP's administrative services coordinator. Renters or homeowners whose monthly household income falls below 50 percent of median household income -- $1,358 for a family of one; $1,942 for a family of four -- may apply by calling 744-3370.

Under the program, conservation education specialists visit and study the home, handing out some quick-fix supplies like weather stripping, rope caulk and compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) right away. The specialists may then recommend adding insulation, repairing leaky windows or replacing the furnace, with all costs paid by the program (for one- and two-family homes). Multi-family homes may be covered by the program, too, if half of the residents meet the eligibility guidelines.

For all customers, Avista offers many suggestions for saving energy -- and money -- on the company's Web site (, ranging from no-cost or low-cost options to major changes requiring a contractor. Customers may log onto the Home Energy Audit online and get advice for savings based on their own history of energy usage, or use the Energy Savings Calculator to figure out just how much that extra refrigerator in the basement is costing every year. With so many suggestions, it's hard to know where to begin, but Markson says a few relatively simple steps can make a big difference in your home energy bills.

Watch That Thermostat -- Setting your home thermostat no higher than 68 degrees is probably the most effective step in the effort to reduce your household's energy consumption, Markson suggests. Avista recommends a minimum setting of 60 degrees overnight or when no one's home; dropping lower than that means your heating system has to work harder to reheat the home and generally does not translate into higher savings. Households with frail or elderly residents may have to keep the thermostat at 72 degrees for comfort, but for everyone else it's a good idea to grab a sweater.

"Obviously, we don't dictate temperatures to anyone," Markson says. "But four degrees on the thermostat makes a big difference in energy costs."

Remembering to adjust the thermostat can sometimes be a problem, but a programmable thermostat can take care of it for you. The devices allow you to pre-program the operation of your furnace according to the times when heat is needed most. Avista offers a rebate of up to $40 for customers who install a programmable thermostat; details of this and other Avista rebate programs, such as for insulation and heating system conversion, are available on the company's Web site or from Avista Customer Service at 800-227-9187.

Plug Those Leaks -- "If you feel a draft, you're losing heat," Markson advises. Something as simple as placing a rolled-up towel at the base of a door or closing the drapes at night can reduce energy consumption. Weather stripping, caulking, door sweeps and plastic window liners help even more. Insulation is a bigger investment, but the payback in cost savings is substantial. Rebates are available for qualified new insulation installed in attics, walls, floors and around heating ducts.

Turn Down the Water Heater -- Sure, a steamy shower feels good on a cold winter day, but does the water really have to be that hot? Turning down the temperature on your water heater just a few degrees can save utility costs, whether the water is heated by gas or electric. But if you're choosing between the two, remember that a gas water heater is more efficient than an electric one.

A Tuneup and Filter Change -- A clean, well-tuned furnace runs more efficiently, says Markson, and that translates into cost savings. Avista recommends an annual cleaning and suggests that customers change the furnace's air filters monthly. "Buy 12 at a time," she suggests. "That way, you always have one on hand, all through the year."

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