Pilot King Country initiative helps communities cut their power costs
Turangi grandmother is the project's secret weapon to get more energy-efficient lighting in New Zealand homes.
Ramona Salvador’s kids think it’s hilarious their mum is travelling the country helping people save money on power.
They all remember the way she used to warm the family home: by turning the oven up high and leaving the door open for a couple of hours at a time.
Ramona shudders at the thought of how much it must have cost them in power, but at the time she didn’t know better.
“For me, the heater wasn’t enough and we didn’t have a fireplace, so I’d just turn the oven on to warm us up.”
It’s a story she takes with her as she ventures into people’s homes now.
“People are still using their ovens,” she said. “So I tell them about my experience and what I’ve learned about heat pumps and insulation.”
About the time her Gold Card arrived in the mail last year, this Turangi grandmother found herself in her dream job. Getting it, though, required some serious self-confidence.
Ramona’s daughter is the chief executive at the local health centre and she had asked her if she’d lend a hand with a project that was coming to Turangi. Ramona was to be one of the assessors who would go into King Country homes and help people find ways to reduce their power bill.
Chris Mardon was the businessman behind the project. His Canterbury company, Ecobulb, invented screw-in LED downlights that don’t require retrofitting. The King Country project was the latest in dozens that have been carried out with government funding to get more energy-efficient lighting in New Zealand homes.
Chris was in for a surprise when he got to Turangi, though.
He’d been contracted to do about 1500 assessments but the people who were in charge of getting it off the ground were too busy doing their usual day jobs to give it much attention.
“After a month it was just going nowhere,” he said. “I was thinking ‘why did I start this?’ when Ramona approached me and said ‘no disrespect, but I’ve been doing this for years and I think I should take over’. I had nothing to lose so I said ‘all right’.”
Before taking on the co-ordinator job, Ramona said she was “just a nanny”. But she’d also started a local project to feed kids dinner. Using a local hall, she’d make sure there were after-school snacks for those who showed up and then, while they played, she cooked a dinner – often boil-up – using donated food.
Years of working as a catering co-ordinator at Rotorua Airport also prepared her for the job. And from the moment she got it, it was smooth sailing for the project. Twenty locals were employed as assessors, one in five King Country homes got a free assessment and 50,000 Ecobulbs and showerheads were given out.
“She’s just taken over these projects,” Chris said. “She’s got the magic formula and she’s two steps ahead of me – always.”
Ramona is just as complimentary about Chris. She said the assessors have a lot of respect for him because he’s on the ground making sure his bulbs get into homes.
“That’s what I love about that guy. He could have just got the contract and left us to it, but he’s making sure the people who need them get them.”
And she’s thankful he took a chance on her.
“I wish I’d met him 20 years ago. He’s given me my dream job and it’s given me a life. I’m doing what I love. I get to travel and help people.”
When asked what makes Ramona so good at finding the right assessors, Chris said it’s that she just seems to know everyone. As the youngest of 16 children, there’s usually whanau she can connect with wherever they need to go.
“I always say ‘oh I’ve got relatives there’ and Chris says ‘of course you have’. When he first mentioned Whangarei, he saw my eyes widen and he said ‘don’t tell me’. And I said ‘yes, I have’!”
For the first time though, there wasn’t a family connection for Ramona to fall back on when the project recently got under way in Ashburton. With no obvious links to the community, she went on to Facebook and messaged the local marae to introduce herself.
“In the marae world, everybody knows everybody. So they will know me when I get there because they’ll do a lot of what I do – research. They’ll be on Facebook, looking at my profile, working out who I know.”
She’ll take Ecobulbs with her to the marae as koha to show the project is legitimate. Then she’ll get to work hiring the right assessors and going into homes herself. Once that project is done, she’ll be flying back down to Christchurch to start again.
Finding the right assessors is a matter of working out what kind of person would have the most success getting into people’s homes.
Being a grandmother works in Ramona’s favour when she’s on the job: “It’s a big advantage. People trust you.”
The best part of the job is seeing the relief wash over people when she tells them how much they can expect their power bill to go down if they follow her advice.
“We had everything when I was growing up, we didn’t need anything. Whereas today you’ve got families with three to four kids and the parents feel like they have nothing.
“They won’t open up to just anyone and we can see the sadness in the home. So we shine a light on it and say what we’re going to do is go through this assessment.”
As well as giving out the Ecobulbs, Ramona uses a bucket to test if showerheads need replacing with ones that don’t use so much water. She also talks through more efficient ways to heat a house and hold that heat in, and goes through Consumer NZ’s Powerswitch website with people. Powerswitch shows people how much they could save just by switching to a new power company.
“These are people who don’t reach out for help, people who won’t put their hands up. They would rather suffer on. But this gives them some hope.”
While offers of a cup of tea come regularly, Ramona said she usually turns it down as she likes to get on her way and get into as many houses each day as she can.
And as long as bulbs are being handed out, she has no plans to be doing anything else.
Turangi is a town that was built to accommodate those who worked on the Tongariro hydro-electric power project in the 1970s and Ramona met her Italian husband, Gianni, when his work as a tunneller brought him here. Two of their children and four of their grandchildren now live in Italy.
Gianni will be making the long-awaited trip to see them soon, but despite Ramona aching to go too, she’ll stay put in New Zealand.
“I want to see this through and without sounding like an ad, I really want as many homes in New Zealand to benefit from this as they can. If the Government are handing out free lightbulbs, I want to be there seeing it through.”
Ramona’s top three tips for saving power
- Clean your heat pump filters every three months to keep it working efficiently.
- Close the curtains before the sun goes down so you don’t lose the heat through the windows.
- Unplug spare fridges if you’re not using them; they can add $200 to your power bill each year.
- Avoid drying clothes inside as it’s harder to heat damp air.
How Ramona helped a sole mum cut her power costs
Carla is a sole parent with three children and struggles to make her benefit payment stretch between rent for her Turangi home, food, clothing, power and petrol to get the kids to school.
“My food bill is way up there because I have three growing children. My rent is not as expensive as most, thank goodness. But my power bill is on another level. Between showers, cooking and heating, the cost can be very trying at times, but you do what you have to, eh?”
Carla heard through her local Facebook page about the Ecobulb power-saving project in Turangi. She sent a message to Ramona, who came round to do an assessment.
“She was onto it. She explained how I could save money on my power bill just by changing my old cheapie lightbulbs to LED Ecobulbs and she gave me 20 to put in my home and told me I’d save $297.
“Then she did what she called a shower flow test. We went in the bathroom and she measured the water from the showerhead and how much came out. And she gave me a showerhead for free. I was blown away by how much this could save me on hot water.”
Ramona then gave Carla a tutorial on how to clean her heat pump filters and spotted a spare fridge in the garage.
“She said I could save up to $200 a year by turning it off, because I only had a couple of things in it. So I cut the plug off that bad boy.”
Carla wanted to make sure no one else in her family could plug it in again.
Her assessment showed if she made the changes Ramona recommended and changed to the power company that Powerswitch said was cheapest for her, she could save nearly $700 a year.
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