SOUTH STARKSBORO — For the 11 years Christine Chaloux has lived in her remote South Starksboro home, she’s relied on fuel from three large kerosene tanks to keep her warm through the winter. Her steep driveway is all but impassable at this time of year, so her fuel arrives before snow flies, and then the 46-year-old woman keeps one eye on the thermostat and the other on her fuel tanks.
Restocking on fuel part way through the season just isn’t possible, Chaloux explains, practically or financially speaking.
And when the power goes out — as it is wont to do in this high, hilly terrain — Chaloux is out of luck. Kerosene lamps and candles dangle from hooks around her living room. She warms her hands over the lanterns when the heat cuts out, puts an extra blanket on the bed, and keeps a leery eye on the finicky propane heater she’s fired up in the past for emergencies.
But that’s changing. Chaloux, who is on an extremely fixed income (most of which is diverted every month to pay her mortgage), is now part of a pilot project run by the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative (VSHI), which is placing pellet stoves in low-income homes.
For Chaloux, who was diagnosed in October with incurable small cell lung cancer, the pellet stove — and the attention of the high school and college students who make up VSHI — is a “godsend,” one that will hopefully ease the financial and physical burden of keeping her home warm through the winter.
“I can’t sing their praises high enough,” Chaloux said.
On a sunny February afternoon, 17-year-old Courtney Devoid sat down at Chaloux’s kitchen table while the two hashed out details about Chaloux’s new stove.
Mount Abraham Union High School senior Devoid is at the forefront of VSHI, and was in on the project when it started, a few years back. The students’ goals were modest at first: They wanted to start a small pilot project to transition families receiving fuel assistance money from the state to more sustainable heating technology.
They started with three pellet stoves, but earned a $20,000 grant from the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity that let them expand the project to 13 sites. So far the students have installed 12 pellet stoves in homes throughout the Champlain Valley, choosing families that expressed interest in the project after a survey went out with fuel assistance applications a few summers ago.
Every household that participates receives money from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.
Chaloux says the program is a win-win situation. The pellet stoves are more environmentally friendly than heaters that burn fossil fuels, and pellets are produced domestically, which keeps more money in Vermont and the United States.
Heating with pellets is cheaper, too, Devoid said, which saves LIHEAP money. Most families use between three and four tons of pellets each year. On average the cost per million British thermal units (BTUs) is $20.96 with a pellet stove, as opposed to $25.36 per million BTU for No. 2 fuel oil when fuel oil costs $2.73 a gallon.
There are kinks in the pilot program to be worked out. Students are still learning where in homes the stoves can be installed to be most effective. In Chaloux’s case, the students have had to move the stove from its original position to a place in the basement, where they hope the circulation will be a little more effective.
Devoid is also passionate about making changes to the way heating assistance is distributed. Right now, LIHEAP recipients have to designate where that money goes. It heads directly to their heating provider, and there’s relatively little flexibility for setting up multiple kinds of fuel.
Even families that receive pellet stoves still need to keep their old fuel systems up and running. For some, the other systems act as a back-up in case the pellet stove goes down. In Chaloux’s case, her kerosene heats her hot water.
But without a “dual fuel” program, families are left paying for one form of fuel out of pocket, something Devoid would like to see changed.
BECOMING A NONPROFIT
Meanwhile, VSHI is at a moment of transition. The group has depleted most of the funds it has raised paying for installation costs of the 12 pellet stoves it has given away so far.
Now, group members are focusing on getting VSHI certified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would mean donations to the group would be tax-deductible. They’re also hoping to run a feasibility study this summer to explore the possibility of producing pellets locally in Addison County.
Devoid admitted that the work can be hard to fit in among the rest of her high school schedule. On the day she visited Chaloux, her Subaru was loaded down with 400 pounds of pellets, which were donated to VSHI by a local community member. The light was beginning to fade when she left Chaloux’s home. She left a few of the 40-pound bags with Chaloux, and then made her way to another home in Starksboro for a second delivery.
Speaking glowingly about VSHI’s work, Chaloux over and over again chided herself not to cry: Her lung cancer makes it difficult to breath if she does.
But retelling the story of Mount Abe physics teacher Tom Tailer’s generosity, Chaloux began to tear up. The teacher, who supervises the students who run the VSHI project, made the trek up to Chaloux’s home shortly after Christmas. Students had installed a back-up system with Chaloux’s stove so the stove could run off a battery pack if the power went out, but the converter they installed wasn’t powerful enough to start up the stove.
So Tailer dipped into his own reserves to give Chaloux a bigger converter, she said, forgoing one of his own Christmas gifts to make sure her stove would keep running.
For Devoid, gestures like Tailer’s get at the heart of the VSHI initiative, which has changed over time.
“This project started as a way for us to transition people to sustainable fuels,” Devoid said. “But it’s turned into this whole realization of, right in our own backyards, how desperately in need people are and how much this sustainable stove can help them.”
A HEATING SCARE
With the battery system now in place, Chaloux feels safer in her home. She won’t have to rely on the Mr. Heater propane heater she kept around for emergencies, the same heater that just a few weeks ago gave her a scare.
The house was freezing, she remembered. Chaloux, who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time, just couldn’t get warm. She piled on leggings and socks and slippers and extra sweaters, but still she was bitterly cold.
So she fired up the portable propane heater downstairs, near her bedroom and bathroom. She stepped into the bathroom, closed the door, and heard a noise: Bang!
When Chaloux hurried out of the bathroom, she saw that flames were shooting out of the heater, coming from the propane tank. She screamed, and tried to turn the heater off, but Chaloux was so weak from her chemotherapy that she couldn’t shut off the valve.
Luckily her sister and boyfriend were in the house at the time, and came flying down the stairs and shut off the heater.
No more, Chaloux said.
“I can’t say enough about what these people have done for me,” Chaloux said.
VSHI is accepting donations and is looking for used batteries to help build more back-up systems to keep pellet stoves running in the case of power outages. More information is at www.sustainableheatingvt.org.
Kathryn Flagg is at firstname.lastname@example.org.