Cold Reality: COVID Delays Some Home Heating Projects

A Randolph homeowner contacted the NBC10 Investigators after she unsuccessfully tried to get natural gas service connected for months and endured chilly weather without heat

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Angela Giovine was exasperated by the time her email landed in my inbox.

“I was hoping someone would hear it as a cry for help,” Giovine recalled when I asked her what prompted the Randolph, Massachusetts homeowner to reach out to the NBC10 Investigators.

At the time she sat down to write the message in late October, Giovine had unsuccessfully tried for months to get utility crews to connect a natural gas service line to her home. The forecast of a snowy and frigid Halloween weekend loomed.

Giovine retreated to her basement, the most insulated room in the home, with her dogs, piled blankets on the couch, and flipped on a space heater.

“It’s horrible when you can see your breath in your own house,” she said.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March, Giovine’s work responsibilities shifted from the office to her home for the foreseeable future. She figured it would be an ideal time to improve the comfort and efficiency level of her heating and cooling systems.

Taking advantage of the state’s Mass Save program, Giovine got rid of her old boiler and heating oil tank, replacing them with a new furnace. The installation of a natural gas line to her property was all that was needed to finish the job.

“I was warned that because of COVID, things were going to be a little bit slower,” Giovine said. “I just never imagined it would be this slow.”

In the midst of summer, the situation didn’t seem urgent at first. But as fall arrived, Giovine said she still couldn’t get her utility company, Columbia Gas, to schedule a date for the project.

She told me her communication was further complicated in October when Eversource acquired Columbia Gas and its 330,000 customers.

“I felt like I was lost in the paperwork,” Giovine said. “We’ve been told to lock down and stay in our homes. But if I don’t find my house comfortable, I don’t want to be here.”

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Angela Giovine sits with her dogs in Randolph. They kept each other warm while a home heating project was delayed.

I reached out to utility companies to find out if there was a COVID connection to home heating construction projects.

Reid Lamberty, a spokesman with Eversource, told me when the pandemic arrived, federal and state guidelines paused gas service conversions at properties. The exceptions were “hardship” cases (people who have no source of heat) or new construction projects.

Similarly, a spokeswoman with National Grid said the utility also experienced delays because towns were not permitting that type of work during the lockdown. As a result, there were fewer days in the year to install services before winter moratoriums took effect and towns stopped permitting non-emergency construction until April.

“Earlier this year, we set customer expectations as Spring 2021 when we identified we could not serve them by their town’s permit moratorium,” Christine Milligan with National Grid said.  

A spokesman for Unitil, which has a smaller footprint around the Fitchburg area, said the utility was able to catch up on its backlog prior to winter.

All the utilities said there is typically a wait time when requesting new gas service to account for permitting, “dig safe” marking, and inspections. In cases where customers have no other source of heat, those projects are prioritized.

When I brought Giovine’s situation to Eversource’s attention, the utility worked with the town of Randolph to secure the required permits.

“Clearly, this time of year when the temperatures are dropping, it’s vitally important for customers to have gas service and a heating system,” Lamberty told me.

On a chilly November morning, crews arrived with heavy machinery to install the gas service line.

Clearly ecstatic her cold wait was over, Giovine treated workers to coffee and donuts.

There was one other holiday bonus for the Randolph homeowner: now that her furnace is hooked up, she will finally receive her anticipated $2,000 Mass Save rebate for upgrading her system.

“I’m super grateful to you guys,” she expressed as she watched crews complete the job. “Thank you so, so much.”

NBC10 Investigator Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@nbcuni.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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