A little army arrived at 83-year-old Carolyn Howell's Tampa home, and she got a bit worried.
With her heart condition and lungs that function at 25 percent, she wasn't in the mood for foolishness.
Sitting at her kitchen table, the frail but feisty gray-haired woman watched as the men ran a giant tube into her attic, toted a cover to wrap her water heater and nailed rubber strips around her doors.
"If there's any cost, then you're out of luck," Howell shouts at the workers. "Everybody's always got their hand out, asking for something."
But this $700 worth of work won't cost her a penny. She's one of the first to receive a free weatherization package for low-income homeowners from Tampa Electric, part of an expansion of the utility's energy-efficiency programs.
For the new program, Tampa Electric, a subsidiary of TECO Energy, is targeting low-income homeowners in the Sulphur Springs and Tampa Heights communities. The weatherization program is expected to save the average customer about $100 a year.
Progress Energy and other utilities across the state run similar programs to help conserve energy. All customers can receive a free home energy audit to check for areas where they can save energy.
The state requires utilities to set goals for energy conservation. A portion of customers' bills helps pay for the programs, but the utilities note that the programs help everyone.
"All of our customers benefit, if we can delay building new power plants," said Cherie Jacobs, a TECO spokeswoman.
Environmentalists tout such programs as the key to combating rising energy costs at a time when utility companies are pushing construction and expansion of multibillion-dollar nuclear plants as well as natural gas plants that can carry volatile fuel prices.
Energy efficiency can include programs such as weatherization, use of solar water heaters and refrigerator buybacks.
A 2011 study by Synapse Energy Economics, a research and consulting firm, stated that a comprehensive energy-efficiency program could reduce Florida's projected future electricity use by almost 20 percent. Establishing a widespread efficiency program would cost less than a quarter of the price of a new nuclear plant, according to the study.
"Energy efficiency is the quintessential low-hanging fruit," said Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a group that promotes energy efficiency.
Homeowners who do not qualify for the low-income weatherization program could hire someone for about $700 or do it themselves for much less. Utilities sometimes offer rebates and incentives if customers get the free home energy check.
Alternative Energy Applications workers examined Howell's air conditioner, installed florescent lightbulbs, replaced shower heads, checked windows and doors for caulking and weather stripping, and pumped insulation into her attic.
The three-bedroom, one-bathroom frame house in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood of Tampa, just off Interstate 275, had long needed upgrading.
Finances are tight for Howell, who lives on a fixed income of $1,166 a month while paying $322 a month on her electric bill.
Howell was happy for the help.
"Much of the time over the years," Howell said, as tears welled up in her eyes, "we have always done for other people."
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.