Carbon monoxide was silently seeping from Samantha Behenna's furnace and polluting her St. Charles home.
She and her family were clueless until Community Contacts, in the process of making their house more energy efficient, discovered the dangerous leak.
The nonprofit, Elgin-based organization replaced the furnace and removed the threat through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Community Contacts specializes in assisting low-income individuals and families from Kane and DeKalb counties in making their homes safer and more energy efficient with LIHEAP, the Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program (IHWAP) and the Housing Rehabilitation Program. The group helps keep residents from spending a bulk of their income on utilities.
Typical yearly savings per household are $400 to $500 per year or about 30 percent on energy bills, according to Program Director Lowell Tosch.
"I decided to do the program because of financial stress," Behenna, 40, said. "Sometimes I had a hard time keeping up, and what was going out was more than what was coming in. I heard about LIHEAP and the weatherization program and just took the notion to do it."
And the programs did much more for Behenna's family than she anticipated.
Individuals and families qualifying for LIHEAP receive one-time assistance paying their winter energy bills. The amount of the help is specific to the need. The program also fixes and replaces malfunctioning or inefficient furnaces, like the one in Behenna's home.
Behenna's family also received a new refrigerator to replace their broken appliance and got their air conditioning system fixed.
IHWAP is also for low-income families. A weatherization team inspects a home to determine where energy is being lost and tackles the issues. Weatherization can include adding caulk or insulation, replacing windows and fixing or replacing furnaces.
"We try to help everyone we can possibly help," said Brian Kuglich of Community Contacts. "Every house has different needs. We make sure each house is as efficient as possible and as safe as possible. Safety is our first concern."
Last year, nearly 7,000 families were assisted through LIHEAP and nearly 600 homes were made more energy efficient with IHWAP, according to Tosch. Funding comes from the federal Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, plus a small portion of state dollars. In 2009, the programs were given $523,000 from the DOE, $356,000 from HHS and $143,000 from the state. With help from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the programs' funding increased to nearly $5 million to spend over two years.
"I think there's a (governmental) emphasis on cutting dependency on foreign oil and making homes more energy efficient," Tosch said. "And this is a way for us to put money into the local economy."
With the additional funds, business is booming for Community Contacts, and it is sharing the wealth.
Once program inspectors determine the specific needs of a house, it hires local contractors to carry out repairs. The use of local staff, contractors, vendors and suppliers add jobs and stimulates the local economy. This positive economic ripple effect, Kuglich said, is one of the programs' main goals.
Helping people like Behenna keep money in their pockets and maintain safety in their homes remains Community Contacts' objective. Even if there are not enough funds to help all qualified applicants, the organization will do its utmost to see those in need do not go unassisted, Kuglich said.
"We don't turn anyone away," he said. "We try to help or refer everybody. I know I make a difference in clients' lives, and I know every time I leave a house it's as safe as possible."