Manitoba Hydro's Pay as You Save program, or PAYS, was designed to help more Manitobans afford energy upgrades, but the CBC's I-Team has found qualifying can be difficult.

PAYS works by estimating the amount that upgrading your home's energy efficiency will save you on your monthly bill, and applying those savings to your loan payment for those upgrades.

Ideally, the savings should cover the entire cost of the upgrades, but there are some roadblocks.

mi-jennifer-hearn-1302

Jennifer Hearn says she cannot afford to pay the remaining cost of upgrading her furnace, even if she did qualify for the PAYS program. (CBC)

If you have a mid-efficiency furnace — that is, most furnaces installed since 1979 — your house does not qualify. If you heat your home with a boiler, you don't qualify.

Even if your home has a standard furnace, and you do qualify for a PAYS loan, the amount Hydro is willing to give you may not cover the full cost of the upgrade.

Manitoba Hydro told CBC News that 70 people have qualified for the program since it was launched in November 2012. But that's just a small fraction of the more than 3,000 people who have used the PAYS financing calculator on Hydro's website.

Hydro officials say they are satisfied with the program so far.

"Our expectations are being met…. We've only just launched the program," says Lloyd Kuczek, Hydro's vice-president of customer care and marketing.

"I'm quite happy with 70 [people qualifying]. That's 70 more than we would have had otherwise."

[NOTE: After the interview with CBC, Hydro revised the number of people who had qualified for PAYS, and acknowledged only 57 Manitobans had qualified.]

Some cannot afford remaining cost

Jennifer Hearn is a University of Manitoba student and a single mother. This week, as temperatures plummeted, her furnace stopped working. An emergency call restored her heat.

While the furnace is working again, it's time for it to go, and she would like to upgrade to something more efficient.

Hearn wanted to take advantage of the PAYS program, since she wouldn't have to pay any money up front, but her existing mid-efficiency furnace does not qualify.

mi-brian-baker-1302

Brian Baker of Custom Vac Ltd. says the low amounts offered by Manitoba Hydro's financing programs force customers to pay the remaining costs out of pocket, or find a contractor willing to do the work for the money offered by Hydro. (CBC)

If Hearn had a standard-efficiency furnace, Hydro would finance $4,500 of the upgrade, according to their calculator, leaving Hearn to cover the rest — something she says she could not afford.

"If their main goal was to help people in situations like mine, or other people in [William Whyte]

, then clearly it's not working and they need to come up with a better plan," she said.

Manitoba Hydro says it has another plan, the Low Income Energy Efficiency Program.

But critics say low-income homeowners often make too much money to qualify, leaving them in limbo between Hydro financing programs.

Brian Baker is the president of Custom Vac Ltd. and has decades of experience installing furnaces. He even teaches the subject at a Winnipeg vocational school.

Baker said the low amounts offered by these kinds of Manitoba Hydro programs force customers to either pay out of pocket to make up the shortfall, or find a contractor willing to do the work for the money offered by Hydro.

"You're always going to find someone cheaper to do the job," he said. "But does that mean the end consumer gets what they have intended, or think that they're going to buy? The answer to that is no."

Replace the program, says critic

Baker says a cheap job can lead to a furnace that breaks down a few years later or worse.

"Potentially, if the flame is not burning correctly, we could wind up producing carbon monoxide," he said.

Hydro disagrees with Baker: "We've financed so many furnaces today; I can tell you the average cost is … less than $4,000," said Kuczek.

Baker didn't mince words when asked what he would like to see Manitoba Hydro do with PAYS.

"Personally, I would like to see them scrap the PAYS program completely and come up with something simple," he said.

Baker said he believes low-income Manitobans would be better served by a program that offers very low-interest loans over a much longer period of time, and offers enough money to do a job that is up to his standards.

"If we have people who are on low incomes and fixed incomes … then we should be able to give them a loan in an amount that is going to allow them to cover the full amount," said Baker.

Hydro and Baker agree on one point: no matter who's paying for the work, customers need to shop around and ask for referrals.