"I want to know why I just got an electric bill for more than $1,500. The electric company says it was my heating system. You need to get someone over here right away and fix this thing. And, I want to know how much you will charge me before you send someone because I'm a widow and I won't stand for being ripped off."

So there I sat, somewhat stunned by her anger. At first I assumed she must be a previous customer and signaled Lois to run a check stat while I began asking leading questions.

This brutal winter took its toll on folks who had been lulled into energy bill complacency by the past decades of mild winter weather. Elizabeth's answers revealed she had moved to a condominium complex where we have a number of customers and had been referred to us. Knowing that, I knew she had an older 10-SEER heat pump with an air handler recessed into the hall closet ceiling (read: PITA to work on or replace!) with a 10-kW electric-resistance back-up heating elements. Drop below 40°F outdoor air temperature and you heat your home with those resistive electric elements — the most expensive way to heat.

Electrical utility companies in our area often avoid overhead by estimating customers usage for billing. Elizabeth emphatically stated she had never had a bill for electric usage that exceeded $80 per month. She had moved here two years ago after her husband of 55-years had died. Had she called the power company?

"Yes, but they say I owe the full amount."

Had she checked the previous months’ bills to see if they were estimated or actual readings? Confused regarding how to determine that, I offered to stop by — at no charge. Turned out the previous four months were all estimated billings, and this was during the months when the mercury had dipped to -6°F and stayed there for days at a time.

ASHRAE guidelines indicate we need to design our heating systems for a low of 13°F in our area, Southeastern, Pa. We remained well below 13°F for weeks on end and Elizabeth's heat pump ran as a straight-electric heater for many weeks this past winter. Estimated utility bills (electric and gas) are based upon the previous year's usage and the previous winter had been unusually mild. Oops... To say that Elizabeth was mad would be a gross understatement, and judging by other calls and the local news, she had plenty of company. The Pennsylvania legislature launched an investigation into the billing practices of numerous electric suppliers. Elizabeth had no access to natural gas and zero interest in spending any money to invest in a better more energy efficient system.

Elizabeth was just the tip of a very large iceberg and was representative of one bookend.

Meet Nate, who was representative of the other bookend. He and his wife are just getting started on their life's journey. They are energetic, hard-working and smart. Their first child is due in a few months. Money is tight, but their all-electric home is wrecking their budget. Electric baseboard heating with an electric water heater: the first and second largest expenses for virtually every home. There is no natural gas available — just like our new friend Elizabeth. One major difference: Nate was ready to invest in reducing their budget-busting energy hogs, but only if it made sense and cents!

Next year's energy bills, for this young family of three, will be slashed dramatically. The electric baseboard heating has been summarily booted out the door by the installation of several exceptionally efficient inverter mini-split heat-pumps (27-SEER, 16-EER, and 12.5-HSPF ) that will sip just the energy required to meet comfort demands without the need for any back-up heating and do so at outdoor temperatures well below 0°F. The DHW is now being frugally produced with a heat pump water heater — the lowest cost method for any utility-based fuel source available and an EF (energy factor) of 2.4.

The inverter mini-splits each qualified for a $50 rebate while the heat-pump water heater nets a $300 rebate from the utility company. The entire job was smartly financed through the Pennsylvania Keystone Home Energy Loan low interest program. A painless way to upgrade their home's operating efficiency because the reduction in their energy consumption will help to offset their monthly payments.

Working for them brought back a flood of memories of our own life's journey from newlyweds to where we are now with children grown up and on their own. You and I are blessed to be in a position to help our customers lead better lives while improving their safety, comfort and financial future.

All Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor's Website is protected by Copyright 2014. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine. Please contact via email at: dave.yates@fwbehler.com.