Air conditioners may benefit from added protection in winter

Home or business owners who use high-end air conditioners may want to make note of a recent rash of crime related to these energy-saving devices in recent weeks. Due to the usually warm winter, it seems some savvy thieves are looking to target these devices while they may be off the radar of individuals who are more concerned with the maintenance of their heating appliances.

On February 26, for instance, the Fresno Bee, a California-based news source, indicated that the theft of metal from air conditioning units is on the rise, according to local law enforcement. Officers say the primary suspects are methamphetamine addicts, who target the machines for their copper wiring components, which they can then strip and turn into fast cash.

"Some of them are very daring," George Tacadena of Donald P. Dick Air Conditioning, a Fresno-based business, told the report. "They pretty much disabled the entire units to get the coils."

Reports indicate that the crime isn't limited to the Golden State alone. Law enforcement agents in Louisiana, Texas and even as far north as Michigan and Indiana are seeing spikes in this type of crime. The Bee spoke to Brad Melton, who runs an air conditioning repair service in California. Melton says he has received one or two calls a week in regards to business air conditioning units that have been hit by thieves.

As a result, home or business owners may want to be on the lookout for low-cost ways that they can secure these essential home cooling items. By removing window air conditioners during the winter months when they aren't in use, these individuals can likely deter theft. However, air conditioner security cages may be a better option for home or business owners who can't remove this unit and want to ensure it is operational come summer.

Early spring leads to big home improvement sales

While I'm not convinced that winter has finally breathed its last gasp – I remember some pretty vicious snowstorms in April, many people are celebrating early by stocking up on summer and spring items at their favorite home improvement stores. The big spending on the part of consumers is due to the fact that scientists are already declaring the "previous" winter one of the warmest on record.

And this is translating into business for certain stores. As of February 27, many experts expect Home Depot and Lowe's Co. to post big fourth quarter profits, as Americans who just can't wait to get outside are flocking to these stores in unprecedented numbers.

For example, while typically one of the worst months for home improvement products, January sales of exterior paint were up more than 30 percent in certain parts of the country, according to Planalytics, a business weather intelligence company.

In addition, Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., the maker of lawn and garden products, indicated that sales of its items had risen by more than 20 percent during the first five weeks of 2012. The Wall Street Journal indicates that Texas and Florida, southern states that saw unusually warm weather, were the biggest drivers of these sales.

As a result, you may want to get a jump on your spring cleaning duties by stocking up on these items while you can still take advantage of off-season discounts. However, while you're there, don't forget to look for discounts on summer home cooling items such as electric fans, air conditioners and dehumidifiers.

By purchasing these products – or conducting price research so you can later find the lowest prices on discount shopping websites – you can ensure you get the most for your home improvement investments this season and continue to save well into the summer.

Choosing hot or cold humidifiers

Recently, I profiled a story by Korky Vann, a correspondent for the Hartford Courant who specializes in shopping issues, and it seems like I wasn't the only one who took notice of her article. On February 19, she wrote a follow up piece due to the overwhelming response she received from readers around the country, as the article was syndicated in several news sources.

One particular question that caused Vann to write a new report was posed by a reader who questioned the safety of cool mist humidifiers. In particular, Vann cited a phone conversation that alerted her to Legionnaires Disease, a sickness that proliferates when people breathe water that has been contaminated by bacteria.

To follow up on whether or not hot or cold humidifiers would most safely prevent this kind of sickness and other ailments, Vann contacted Dr. Howard Smith, a pediatric doctor who practices in West Hartford.

While the issue may still be one of preference – as I believe that either can be used so long as the humidifier is kept clean, Smith cast his vote for warm mist humidifiers as the safest option.

"Warm-mist humidifiers distill the water and only emit water molecules," Smith told Vann in an interview. "It is impossible for bacteria and mold to piggyback on water molecules, and, therefore, the output is completely safe. Cold mist humidifiers, on the other hand, are like paint sprayers, and they take whatever is in the water reservoir and make a droplet out of it."

But, while we may disagree on this issue, one thing is for certain. Those who purchase low-cost humidifiers at discount shopping outlets need to ensure they clean their units regularly. While humidifiers can cut the cost of home heating and provide a host of other health benefits, these products, like most on the market, need to be used and handled responsibly.

U.K. man suffers burns after falling on electric heater

While electric heaters are growing in popularity as energy-saving devices, these helpful tools need to be used appropriately and according to the recommendations of the manufacturers. On this blog, we do our best to inform readers of these incidents so that they can keep themselves and their family members safe while still lowering their monthly bills with electric heaters.

On February 21, an elderly man in the United Kingdom provided an example of how even tried-and-true precautions, such as checking power chords and supervising children around these appliances – are occasionally not enough.

According to reports, paramedics were called to the man's home at 11 a.m., after the 85-year-old was found with third degree burns. The man also reportedly had trouble breathing following the incident. As a result, he was taken to a hospital in Chelmsford, Essex.

A spokesman for the respondents who found the man after taking an air ambulance to the residence described the events.

"The man collapsed on a 'plug-in' electric heater and we believe he rested on it for some time due to the severity of his burns," the representative said in a statement.

Reports say that the man is in life-threatening condition as of February 22, despite the efforts of these respondents.

But, while this example illustrates the extreme dangers of electric heaters, particularly for friends and relatives who have older family members that use these devices to better afford their heating on a fixed budget. By ensuring that this individual knows how to observe proper heater safety tips, they can help him or her avoid an extreme incident such as the one described above.

Avoiding “humidifier lung” with proper home heating precautions

While the weather has been mild in many parts of the country this winter, it seems that a majority of Americans are still suffering through bouts of sickness or the typical seasonal irritations. But, while house humidifiers can be put to use to help soothe cold sufferers, they can also cause more harm than good when used incorrectly.

Seth Brown, a physician who runs The Connecticut Sinus Institute, an organization that specializes in treating patients with diseases and disorders that affect the nose and sinuses, recently spoke to the Hartford Courant about the dangers associated with the improper use of humidifiers.

"Unless you're very diligent about keeping your unit clean and changing the filters, it does more harm than good," Brown told the report. "Bacteria can grow in the tank and then is released into the air."

According to Brown, the standing water and minerals in humidifiers can often introduce bacteria and allergens into the air. Brown says this can occur when humidifiers are run for too long or when homeowners allow the humidity level in an area to surpass 50 percent.

Breathing too much moisturized air can cause "humidifier lung," which brings flu-like symptoms and can even cause a serious infection. However, this typically only occurs when homeowners neglect the devices so much that film or scum appears on the surface of the humidifier water.

Still, when used correctly, humidifiers can help homeowners reduce their energy bills and stay healthy. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that these appliances can be used to help treat viral infections and illnesses, and because of this, are encouraged for use around children.

Humidifiers can perform home maintenance wonders

This morning, a reader passed on a recent article in the Hartford Courant, which included the story of homeowners Michelle and Dan Noehren from Glastonbury, Connecticut. While the article took its time mentioning the benefits of humidifiers – citing their ability to warm rooms, soothe cold sufferers and keep children's rooms safe – the homeowners are the center of the story, comprising a real-life example of the wonders that humidifiers can work when used correctly.

According to Korky Vann, the author of the report, after coming down with a cold, Michelle Noehren had the foresight to purchase a new humidifier for the bedroom. Shortly after, her winter cough, which typically plagues her off and on during the season, completely disappeared.

Due to these results, the Noehrens decided to purchase another unit for their nearly 9-month-old daughter's bedroom. Since this purchase, the happy mom and dad say their baby hasn't suffered from winter colds again, either.

"It's done wonders," Noehren told the report. "We don't cough and the baby hasn't had any more colds."

It seems that many Americans are taking notice of these same benefits, as well. Recent reports indicate that homeowners are purchasing low-cost heating solutions, such as humidifiers, that can reduce their energy bills. For example, the news source cited figures from Consumer Reports, which indicate that retailers sell three times as many humidifiers in the winter as they do in the summer.

With so much demand, consumers may want to save a trip to the store – where they can be met with higher prices and a limited selection – and conduct their shopping at a trusted online outlet.

Mechanic sees Jesus in electric heater

Now, I've heard my fair share of strange electric heater stories, but the one passed on by a reader in Texas this morning just about beats the bunch. According to a report by Dallas-Fort Worth TV news source Fox 4, a mechanic in North Texas recently saw a sign from the Almighty in an energy-saving appliance while on the job.

Gabriel Ramirez, a mechanic who uses a 3 foot-by-3 foot space heater to help heat his workspace, told reporters that he believes the dark spots burned into the unit resemble Jesus. The news source was quick to the scene, taking pictures of the electric heater for those on the internet to see.

"I looked up and I said, 'Is that what I think it is?'" Ramirez said in an interview with the media outlet. "So I go get my friend… He looks and goes, 'Looks like Jesus to me.'"

The report indicated the not everyone thought the image looked like Jesus, some claimed it was just a regular person, or the Virgin Mary.

Now, I'm sure plenty of you will have your own opinions on Ramirez and the pictures, however, the story does highlight one issue that doesn't get much attention – the use of space heaters in workplaces. For example, mechanics often perform their job duties in garages, which aren't the most conducive to energy-efficient heating.

As a result, instead of turning up the heat – and seeing high monthly energy bills – Ramirez's employer made the smart call here to use electric heaters as a way to reduce his costs. While the electric heaters in the story may now be a bit of a distraction, other business owners may want to learn from this example and pursue their own low-cost heating solutions.

Heating costs differ widely in Rhode Island town

In recent weeks, the issue of home heating has come to national attention, as despite the looming fiscal deficit, many lawmakers are advocating for more heating assistance for cash-strapped homeowners. However, one part of the issue that hasn't received much coverage is the fact that home heating costs can differ widely, even on a small scale.

For instance, on February 15, Reuters detailed the plight of citizens in Tiverton, a coastal Rhode Island town where some residents are having an easier time with their heating costs than others.

Half of the town, which is about 30 minutes southeast of Providence, is enjoying lower heating costs, because their residences are heated by natural gas. By comparison, the cost of home heating on the south side of town is almost twice as much, simply because they are located beyond the gas pipeline, and have to pay for heating oil to keep their homes warm.

"There are a few [homes] left near the gas grid that are on oil, but only a few," Paul Dupont, a supervisor at a propane company that delivers to residents in Tiverton, told the news source. "There have been a lot of conversions – natural gas is beating heating oil by a long shot."

However, replacing an old heating oil tank with a natural gas burner can be expensive – up to $10,000 in some cases. As a result, homeowners who still rely on oil heat may want to do their best to invest in low-cost solutions that can help them mitigate their bills.

For example, by purchasing an electric heater for less than $100, residents could more effectively heat the areas of the house they frequent, thereby reducing their oil use.

Vermont students help locals heat homes

In our recent posts, we've been highlighting the issue of home heating and how it's particularly affecting low-income families in the northern states. While much of the recent news has been about the expected cuts in federal funding, many news sources have been also been shining the spotlight on the everyday Americans who are banding together to help these homeowners gain much-needed relief.

For example, a reader from Vermont passed on a report from his local paper, the Addison County Independent, this morning. In the article, reporter Andrew Stein detailed how Tom Tailer, a high school teacher at Mount Abraham Union High School, has been working with local students to provide this relief to individuals in need since 2008.

Called the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative (VSHI), the three-year-old program has since helped install nearly 20 stoves in low-income local homes and provided these individuals with low-cost pellets they can use for heat.

"Before winter even comes, in August or September, we start worrying about making it," April Parent, a Starksboro resident who hasn't been medically fit to hold a full-time job in roughly 10 years, the report says. "What are the heating bills going to run? What are the electric bills going to run? It’s really a struggle every year."

The program, which receives state funding to help individuals like Parent, typically receives  around $20,000 to $40,000 annually, but it may not be awarded these funds this year. However, Tailer is optimistic that his low-cost, successful model could gain clout with legislators.

But, since individuals may not always be able to rely on the kindness of strangers, they may benefit by turning to low-cost home heating cools such as humidifiers and electric heaters to better heat their homes.

Proposed presidential budget calls for home heating assistance custs

On Monday, February 13, President Barack Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. While ordinarily I wouldn't have much to say about a political issue, what's interesting about this version of the bill is its calls for cuts in a program that it seems most politicians can agree on in these divisive times – the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Reports say that while the president asked for $3 billion in assistance – an increase from what he called for in 2011, the sum would decrease the federal assistance provided to eligible Americans. Congress approved $3.47 billion in federal aid for LIHEAP for the fiscal year 2012 budget.

Since home heating goes well beyond partisan lines, the president's proposal heralded criticism from both aisles, particularly from lawmakers in northern states where consumers are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of their heating bills.

"I am deeply disappointed that President Obama has once again failed to show support for the thousands of Massachusetts families and seniors who depend on LIHEAP funding to pay their heating bills each winter," Republican Senator Scott Brown told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette in a statement following the budget's release.

However, the last word will come from Congress, so the final version of the bill could include more assistance. But, for those who aren't eligible for these programs, the best recourse you have is to pursue low-cost home heating solutions – such as electric heaters, humidifiers and new manual thermostats – that can help increase the effectiveness of your existing home heating and quickly lower your overall costs.