Escape the chill

When the temperature drops and Mother Nature’s icy grip takes hold of the region, many residents struggle to keep warm at home and on the way to work.

Jim Bovard, owner of Bovard Heating & Cooling, said one of the simplest things people with forced air systems can do is remember to clean the filters. Otherwise, the central system has to work harder and might not transfer heat properly, shortening the equipment’s life.

Bovard also said if people are tempted to save a few bucks by turning down the thermostat while they’re out during the day, that isn’t a wise idea.

“When it’s extremely cold, don’t turn the thermostat down,” he said. “It will take longer to heat the house back up” if it’s been set at a low temperature or turned off all day.

With the weather bitingly cold this week, Bovard said he’s been inundated with calls from people, receiving more than 20 before mid-afternoon Wednesday.

“We’re not looking too far to find work, that’s for sure,” he said.

When braving the cold for work, getting there can be the hardest part.

Doug Peterson, Altoona shop supervisor at Reliable Towing and Auto Center, said there are a few key things people should remember in winter, and one of the most important is to let the car warm up before driving off.

“Let a vehicle run for a good 15 minutes, especially when it’s this cold,” he said, because it warms the engine oil and coats the bearings. Failure to do so could result in premature engine wear.

Peterson also advised not waiting too long to get gas. He said if the tank gets so low that the fuel light comes on, any water at the bottom of the tank could get sucked into the engine and freeze the fuel lines “just like in your house.”

The best bet is to keep the fuel about a quarter of a tank, he said.

Vehicle owners also should check the battery to ensure that it can handle cold starts and keep tire pressure up to better handle slick roads. After driving in areas where roads are heavily salted, Peterson said drivers should at least rinse off or wash vehicles when the cold weather breaks to prevent the salt from eating through clear topcoats and paint.

While many fret over being able to see their breath when they step outside, some people who use the services of Catholic Charities of the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown are running out of fuel and crisis dollars from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

“We’re having problems with the cold. … People are going through fuel oil,” said Executive Director Jean Johnstone. “And you have to keep the oil on to keep the pipes warm.”

Johnstone said the agency had 10 phone calls over the three-day weekend, 25 Tuesday and 12 by Wednesday afternoon. The lion’s share of these calls, covering Blair, Bedford and Huntingdon counties, dealt with people running out of fuel oil, but a few have come from homeless people, she said.

So far everyone has been helped: Some are referred to Blair Senior Services’ housing assistance program, while others have been able to stay with friends while applying for help through other community action programs, she said.

Dennis Wisor, transportation program manager, said homelessness is a year-round problem and Blair Senior Services constantly works to transition homeless people in the county into permanent housing.

Emergency cases may require housing someone temporarily in a hotel or motel.

In general, the income eligibility guideline ranges from $16,755 for a single person to $34,575 for a family of four. But because funding changes often, qualifications vary sometimes every week, Wisor said.

Getting outside help when federal or state assistance runs out can be difficult, Johnstone said, especially for those who have no income source.

It’s also been difficult since the Altoona Rescue Mission shuttered its doors in October, she said.

“We look at all options when people call” but keeping up is hard, she said.

Altoona Salvation Army Capt. David Means said since temperatures dipped well below freezing this week, the number of calls has increased.

“In the last two or three days we’ve had three or four calls” from people who need a place to stay, he said. “They tell us the shelters are full. There’s just not enough [room].”

Means said like other organizations, the Salvation Army tries to set up temporary stays in motels, but long-term planning can be difficult.

“They keep saying we’re coming out of [recession], but we don’t see it here,” he said.

The Altoona branch was one of the few in western Pennsylvania able to meet its “red kettle” campaign goal at Christmas. However, Means said most of that money already has been budgeted for other areas, and stretching donation money is a constant concern.

For those who are fortunate enough to have a warm house and plenty of blankets, Bovard reminded residents to keep in mind the people around them, and check up on older relatives and neighbors often.