Jeannette woman takes on Columbia Gas after weatherization woes

Says her home so well insulated it won't vent

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Shirley Surrec was tired of paying high heating bills for her red-brick, Cape Cod-style home in Jeannette, so she called her gas company to complain. More than a year and a half later, she wishes she never picked up the phone.

That phone call led Ms. Surrec to weatherization renovations – sponsored by Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and installed by the Westmoreland County Weatherization Program – that she says have made her house almost unlivable. The home is now so well insulated that it isn’t venting properly.

Her windows bead with water and freeze over in the winter. Her carpets and sheets are damp to touch. Her bathroom walls have started to crack, expanding because of the moisture. Her dehumidifier fills rapidly with water – almost a pint every two hours.

“All I want is my house to be livable so I can stay here,” said Ms. Surrec, a 65-year-old widow.

Since the installation, she has developed an upper respiratory infection and has been prescribed an oxygen tank. The moisture is also affecting her rheumatoid arthritis, she said.

After trying to fix the issue with Columbia Gas and the Westmoreland County Weatherization Program, Ms. Surrec filed a formal complaint against Columbia Gas with Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission.

“I’m not mad at anyone,” she said. “I’m not trying to make any money out of this.”

In her complaint, Ms. Surrec asks that the insulation be removed from her house and money for damages to her walls and belongings.

Rachel Ford, a spokeswoman for Columbia Gas, said the company is “following the formal complaint process as established by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and will continue to work with the PUC, Ms. Surrec and the local weatherization partner to resolve her concerns.”

The PUC requires all utilities to administer some type of low-income energy reduction program. When Ms. Surrec called Columbia Gas last winter, she seemed an ideal candidate for Columbia Gas’ WarmWise: Low Income Usage Reduction Program. The Low Income Usage Reduction Program is a statewide, utility-sponsored program to which Columbia contributes $4.5 million per year.

Columbia Gas spends an average of $5,000 to weatherize a home as part of the program. Ms. Ford said it spent more than $8,000 on Ms. Surrec’s home.

“This has been our first experience of a complaint with a Columbia Gas customer,” said Katie Clawson, director of the Westmoreland County Weatherization Program. “This is a unique situation because usually people are so happy to have insulation and they tell us their house is warmer and their utility bills have gone down.”

The Westmoreland County Weatherization Program, an arm of the Westmoreland County Housing Authority, is one of 12 subcontractors that conduct energy audits and weatherization installations for Columbia Gas. A representative of the program met with Ms. Surrec at her home in August 2013 to conduct an energy audit.

Since Ms. Surrec had recently installed windows and a furnace, he determined the best course of action was to blow in cellulose insulation in Ms. Surrec’s attic, add weather stripping to her doors and install large foam insulation padding on a door leading to her attic and underneath her stairwell.

Installation took three days in early September. Workers also installed a ventilation fan in Ms. Surrec’s downstairs bathroom.

In the first month, Ms. Surrec started to notice problems. She complained to Columbia Gas, and representatives from the company and the Westmoreland County Weatherization Program visited the house in October to investigate. Later that month, they sent an independent auditor to the house, and his recommendations spurred the installation of a power-vented water heater “to see if that would help rectify the problem,” Ms. Clawson said.

“Actually,” she said, “we thought it has.”

Ms. Surrec disagrees. The dispute reached an impasse this spring when Columbia Gas declined to take any more measures to alleviate the situation.

Working without a lawyer, because she can’t afford one, Ms. Surrec filed a formal complaint against Columbia Gas with the PUC, asking that her home be returned to its previous condition. A lawyer for Columbia Gas argued that since Ms. Surrec’s complaint deals with work performed by the Westmoreland County Weatherization Program, not Columbia Gas, the PUC lacks jurisdiction.

An administrative law judge recommended the PUC dismiss the case because installation of insulation “is not an essential part of the [Columbia’s] utility service to the public.”

Ms. Surrec filed a handwritten appeal, and the PUC granted her a reprieve. Since she is operating without legal counsel, the PUC has asked the administrative law judge to take another look at the case and requested Ms. Surrec present her case directly to the judge, either in person or by phone.

That hearing has not yet been scheduled.

In an order issued last month, the commissioners said they believe they have jurisdiction in the matter since they mandate and regulate low-income energy reduction programs.

The PUC does not have the authority to award monetary damages, but it can require Columbia Gas to return Ms. Surrec’s home to its previous state, PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said.

Ms. Clawson said the Westmoreland County Weatherization Program has not heard from Ms. Surrec in several months and was surprised to hear the problems persisted.

“This has been going on for a while,” she said. “We’re trying to hopefully be able to rectify the situation with her. Obviously, the ultimate decision will be up to Columbia Gas to decide what they want us to do.”

Ms. Surrec is not sure what she will do if she loses the case. She does not have the money to pay a lawyer to take either Columbia Gas or the Westmoreland County Weatherization Program to civil court. And she said can’t afford what it would cost to fix her house.

But, on the bright side, her gas bills are lower.

“You don’t get nothing for free,” she said. “My dad always told me that.”

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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