Helping the Hartfords and Finding a Path to More Energy Efficient Homes

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By Peter Troast - February 5th, 2012

The front page New York Times article on Saturday, In Fuel Oil Country, Cold that Cuts to the Heart, moved me deeply. It's the story of a retired Dixfield, ME couple struggling to keep up with their oil bills, and the anguished heating oil company balancing a marginal business with compassion for the Hartford's situation. At one point in the article, Mr. Hartford offers Hometown Energy the title to his car in exchange for heat. 

It is a heartbreaking and moving story, brilliantly and wrenchingly written by Dan Barry. It clearly touched a nerve--one of the top most emailed articles on the Times as of today and now accumulating over 450 comments. Read it

The context for this story is the significant cutting back of funds for LIHEAP, the Low Income Heating Assistance Program. People all over Maine and other cold climates, particularly those reliant on oil for heat, have depended on a contribution from this program to pay for a portion of their oil. On average, people used to get around $800. With the cuts, that number is down to less than $500. It is not unusual for a leaky house in Maine (with our housing stock, most are) to use as much as $2000/year in oil. From a year ago, the price per gallon of oil is up about 18%. Two weeks ago, at my house, we paid $3.91/gallon. 

The human side of this story alone--the Hartford's and the compassionate but torn folks at Hometown Energy--is enough to motivate me. 

But my interest, and the reason I spent much of the day yesterday helping organize a response to try to support this one couple, is for larger reasons.

Without question, direct support to prevent people from freezing in their homes is the moral and right thing to do. But paying for people's oil, a commodity virtually guaranteed to continue it's annual 18% per year price march, is utterly unsustainable. 

Only by addressing the underlying issue--buildings that use energy wastefully--can we bring under control a government expense that has no end in sight. Those of us who work in the home performance field, or have had energy retrofit work done on our own homes, know the extraordinary economics and benefits of efficiency.

Clearly, the is a rock and a hard place situation. The Hartford's, and thousands like them, are on the verge of freezing. They need heat now. But we as a society can't print enough money to keep buying their oil in perpetuity.

My hope, in putting some effort into helping to coordinate a response to the Hartford's situation, is that we can demonstrate the economics of investing in efficiency as a far superior use of taxpayer subsidies.

I'll keep this post updated as this effort unfolds. 

Update: Sunday Morning. 

Upright Frameworks, one of Maine's leading weatherization companies, and DeWitt Kimball of Complete Home Evaluation Services, Maine's leading energy auditor, have agreed to do a full energy audit on the Hartford's home at no charge. I'll be joining them. We're on our way to Dixfield as of 10AM.

Update: Arriving at the House

We arrive while Robert Hartford is still at church, and meet Ike Libby, the big hearted oil man. This line from the Times story had me excited to meet him: "...Ike, whose heart, they say, is too big for his bantam size and, maybe, his business." He has clearly been moved by the outpouring of support he's partially responsible for creating, and greets me with welled up eyes, which I return. DeWitt and Kevin Casey of Upright Frameworks begin the external visual inspection, and there are many obvious issues: an entirely missing window covered only be plastic, uninsulated walls, significant leaks where the rear addition connects, a door that once went to a porch that has no function other than to leak air. Right away we see big opportunities for envelope improvement. 

Update: Preliminary Audit Results

Low hanging fruit is a term often used in energy efficiency, and the good news is the Hartford's house is a cornucopia. Just from the external inspection, there are many obvious and easily corrected air leaks. Kevin and DeWitt immediately put a piece of XPS foam in missing window cavity and seal it up. The blower door test reveals extraordinary leakage for a building of this size. 4092 CFM50 with an ACH of 1.37. (For those outside of home performance, this is very leaky--CFM is cubic feet per minute of air leakage at the standard pressure of 50 pascals; ACH is air changes per hour, which takes into account the building's size. These numbers mean that a houseful of air in the Hartford's house is being replaced by another houseful from the cold outside more than once every hour. A typical goal for a semi-tight house is 0.35 ACH, but low energy buildings that have mechanical ventilation go much lower than this.) With the blower door running, DeWitt scans every cranny of the house with an infrared camera to see precisely where the air is leaking and where the insulation is compromised. At this point, the Hartford's, Ike the oil man and Erin Cox, a reporter for the Sun Journal, are a little mystified at how happy we are with these results. Really leaky houses mean generally easy fixes that result in significant, and very cost effective, energy savings. DeWitt also tests the boiler for efficiency and combustion safety. It's ancient, but not really too bad. 80% efficient with easy opportunities for improvement. Initially, It does not look like a replacement boiler would be a cost effective investment. DeWitt will complete the full audit report by the end of the day Monday. 

Update: the Energy Efficiency Community Response

People in the energy efficiency community, most without being asked, are lining up to help the Hartford's situation. So far:

DeWitt Kimball, Complete Home Evaluation Services: full energy audit at no charge

Josh Wojcik and Kevin Casey, Upright Frameworks: coordination of weatherization and retrofit work. At a minimum, they will do the work under their Raise ME Up program, in which they provide their labor at cost.

Energy Circle: our company will provide at cost whatever efficiency products the retrofit team needs--ventilation products such as low energy bathroom fans, interior storm windows, switches and timers, smart strips, etc.

Grady Littlehale of Dixfield Foam Insulation has graciously donated his labor for the foaming of the basement. Grady installed the foam at the Mallett Deep Energy Retrofit project, one of the tightest buildings in Maine, and is one of the best spray foam guys around. 

Anonymous Contributions: Multiple companies and people have contacted me to offer help, without any expectation of attribution. This, so far, has come from equipment manufacturers, insulation manufacturers, and many home performance companies offering support and labor. 

Update: Additional Coverage

An Elderly Couple in Maine Offers to Trade Their Car for Fuel Oil, by Allison Bailes, PhD on the excellent Energy Vanguard Blog.

'America has a heartbeat:' Donations pour in for home heat, by Erin Cox, Sun Journal

Maine Freezes While Washington Snoozes, by Raymond J. Learsy, Huffington Post

Dixfield fuel company reports $100,000 plus in donations, by Erin Cox, Sun Journal (and also appeared in Bangor Daily News)

New York Times Story On Couple Without Heat Spurs $100,000 In Donations (How You Can Help), by Tara Kelly, Huffington Post

Seeing Warmth in Maine--A Community Reaches Out, by Macie Melendez, Home Energy Magazine.

Article Prompts Donations to Maine Oil Company, by Timothy Williams, the New York Times Lede Blog.

Energy Assistance Cuts Hit Home, Galvanize Action, by Leah Thayer, Building Performance Institute (BPI) Newsletter.

Energy Policy for Low Income Homeowners, on the excellent Demand Side Solutions Blog. This is a very thoughtful post on the topic of payback and the LIHEAP subsidy vs weatherization, using the Hartford's story as a case.

There have also been multiple TV segments that I can't keep track of. 

Update: Tuesday, February 7

With DeWitt's audit report as our guide, Josh Wojcik and Kevin Casey are developing the scope of work for the retrofit of the Hartford's home. It looks like we'll all be on site next Weds and Thurs to complete the work. 

Update: Tuesday, February 14

 Actual oil consumption from November 28, 2011- February 5
th
:  300 gallons (#2 oil)
 Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year):  1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
 Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon):  $3,620
 Numerous energy saving opportunities were identified by the energy audit with the attic and 
basement being the most feasible.
 Projected heat load reduction from energy audit recommendations for attic and basement:  46%
 Annual dollar value of reductions based on current oil prices:  $1,665
 Total (retail) project cost: $6,830
 Straight payback of retail cost: 4 year

Josh Wojcik's Upright Frameworks crew will be at the Hartford's tomorrow to begin the retrofit work. It's expected to take 2-3 days. For the last week, we've been discussing the appropriate expenditure for the project. Given all the generosity--from the auditors and contractors involved and from the contributions Ike Libby has received--the Hartford's won't pay anything. But we all want the project to stand up to real world economics, so all the parties have agreed to open source the costs assuming this were a normal job. Here are the key factors for consideration:

  • Actual oil consumption from November 28, 2011- February 5th: 300 gallons (#2 oil)
  • Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year):  1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
  • Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon):  $3,620
  • Numerous energy saving opportunities were identified by the energy audit with the attic and basement being the most feasible
  • Projected heat load reduction from energy audit recommendations for attic and basement:  46%
  • Annual dollar value of reductions based on current oil prices:  $1,665

Our decision is to go with an air sealing, attic and rafter insulaton, and basement spray foam solution with a retail cost of $6,830. On a simple payback approach, this pays for itself in 4 years. Josh has open sourced his Project Scope Proposal for all to see. Part of the rationale for selecting this set of measures was that they came out to roughly the same price as the new boiler that Ike had originally offered to the Hartfords. The new boiler could have improved efficiency by about 5%. For the same money, the weatherization measures are projected to reduce heat load by 46%. A compelling comparison, don't you think?

Update: Thursday, February 16

The Upright Frameworks crew, supported by Grady Littlefield of Dixfield Foam, have spent that last two days tackling the Hartford's house. Just watching these guys, more of a swat team than a weatherization crew, is amazing. One of the more challenging parts of this project is the cathedral ceiling, with only 6 inch rafters, and badly compromised pink batt insulation. Unfortunately, the years of leaking air and moisture have taken a toll on some of the rafters and the Upright crew is forced to do quite a bit more rot repair than we'd anticipated. In the race for the blower door test at the end of the day, with the media watching, they don't have time to complete some of the spot air sealing. Josh, who is paying his team out of pocket without compensation, tells me they'll be back for another half a day to finish up.

Still, DeWitt's test results are remarkable. A 47.2% reduction in air flow from 4059 cfm50 to 2142. Air changes per hour was lowered from 1.37 SCH to .6, a gain of 56.3%. Josh believes there are a few hundred more CFM to be had. 

Perhaps more importantly, Robert Hartford is already talking about how much more comfortable the house is, and though I've only been there one other time, it is absolutely noticable. Wilma, unfortunately, is in the hospital, but when she gets home I know she'll be very pleased. 

Susan Sharon from Maine Public Radio is on site for all of this, and interviews everyone. Look for her piece Friday night on Maine Things Considered. 

It's great to again be hanging out with Ike Libby, Josh, Kevin and crew, DeWitt, Grady and Robert Hartford. The talk (see Ike's comment below) is all about how we keep this rolling.

Update, Friday February 17

Here's the radio piece that ran tonight on Maine Things Considered. Outstanding job by reporter Susan Sharon capturing the power of this story in 4 minutes. An incredibly compelling case for energy efficiency retrofits. 

Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year):  1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon):  $3,620
 Actual oil consumption from November 28, 2011- February 5
th
:  300 gallons (#2 oil)
 Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year):  1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
 Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon):  $3,620
 Numerous energy saving opportunities were identified by the energy audit with the attic and 
basement being the most feasible.
 Projected heat load reduction from energy audit recommendations for attic and basement:  46%
 Annual dollar value of reductions based on current oil prices:  $1,665
 Total (retail) project cost: $6,830
 Straight payback of retail cost: 4 year
Actual oil consumption from November 28, 2011- February 5th: 300 gallons (#2 oil)
Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year):  1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon):  $3,620
Numerous energy saving opportunities were identified by the energy audit with the attic and 
basement being the most feasible.
Projected heat load reduction from energy audit recommendations for attic and basement:  46%
Annual dollar value of reductions based on current oil prices:  $1,665
Actual oil consumption from November 28, 2011- February 5th: 300 gallons (#2 oil)
Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year):  1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon):  $3,620
Numerous energy saving opportunities were identified by the energy audit with the attic and 
basement being the most feasible.
Projected heat load reduction from energy audit recommendations for attic and basement:  46%
Annual dollar value of reductions based on current oil prices:  $1,665
Actual oil consumption from November 28, 2011- February 5th: 300 gallons (#2 oil)
Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year):  1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon):  $3,620
Numerous energy saving opportunities were identified by the energy audit with the attic and 
basement being the most feasible.
Projected heat load reduction from energy audit recommendations for attic and basement:  46%
Annual dollar value of reductions based on current oil prices:  $1,66
Actual oil consumption from November 28, 2011- February 5th: 300 gallons (#2 oil)
Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year):  1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon):  $3,620
Numerous energy saving opportunities were identified by the energy audit with the attic and 
basement being the most feasible.
Projected heat load reduction from energy audit recommendations for attic and basement:  46%
Annual dollar value of reductions based on current oil prices:  $1,665

Update: Photos


Comments

Kudos to you for jumping in and helping, Peter. I look forward to seeing your updates. Posted by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD on Feb 5, 2012 12:55pm
Wonderful items from you, man. I've be mindful your stuff prior to and you're just extremely magnificent. I actually like what you've got right here, really like what you are stating and the way in which by which you say it. You make it entertaining and you still take care of to stay it sensible. I cant wait to learn far more from you. That is actually a tremendous web site. Posted by raleigh wedding photographer on Nov 13, 2012 1:26am
Great job! Keep us informed Posted by Robert O'Brien on Feb 5, 2012 2:06pm
Your personal involvement in this is exemplary and commendable. Good luck and as the others have said, please keep us all informed of developments. Posted by John Poole on Feb 5, 2012 2:25pm

Thanks all for the kind words. We didn't have any internet access while there, so I'll be catching up on these notes tonight and tomorrow. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Feb 5, 2012 6:06pm

You actually make it appear really easy along with your presentation however I to
find this matter to be really one thing which I feel I would never understand.
It kind of feels too complex and extremely huge for me.
I am looking forward to your next put up, I will attempt to get the hang of it!

Posted by eco home on Jan 8, 2014 5:07am
Fantastic. I hope the Times follows up on your work, and that story too is "most emailed!" Posted by Eric on Feb 5, 2012 7:31pm
Way to go the extra compassionate mile! I'm w/ Eric! Hope the Times writes a follow-up! Posted by Debra Little on Feb 6, 2012 1:14am
This is so inspiring, Peter. Compassion in action...Bravo! Posted by Diane Chojnowski on Feb 6, 2012 9:41am
Your actions and efforts are exemplary and could be the start of "community based groups" ones that can implement energy conservation and weatherization programs, with low income families at the forefront. In the Obama budget for the current fiscal year, LIHEAP was slashed to $2.5 billion, with Maine slated to receive $26 million, a cut of more than 50 percent. The consequences of these draconian cuts could be profound. Low-income residents may be forced to choose between fuel and food. Sen. Snowe and others were able to raise this year’s total up to $3.5 billion in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, which passed Congress on Dec. 17. That increase, roughly $900 million,but Maine still has taken a huge hit, and we have people in Freeport who are cold! It is our moral obligation to help people. Support "FREEZE OUT", an FCS sponsored fundraiser for fuel and food assistance. Great job on the Robinhood efforts and thanks for the updates. WHAT a hero Mr. Libby is! Perhaps some of the money pouring into the Hartfords can be distributed to Hometown Energy. I just want to give that man a hug! Posted by Dede Bennell on Feb 6, 2012 1:05pm
It's a pity that the cuts to LIHEAP weren't tied directly to more weatherization funds, though. I suppose that looks "more expensive" up front? Posted by Eric on Feb 6, 2012 1:17pm

Eric--it's precisely that connection that I'm trying to expose. Preliminarily it looks like the Hartford's could be a great case study for a substantial energy use reduction for very modest investment. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Feb 6, 2012 4:33pm
Thanks for your compassionate action. It's sad that it takes such suffering to get attention to worthy programs like LIHEAP. You're showing how time and money spent on energy efficiency make a big difference in people's lives. Posted by Tom White on Feb 6, 2012 1:34pm
Words are good, action is better. Thanks for the reports Peter! Posted by John Barba on Feb 6, 2012 5:07pm
The pictures are great, too :) Keep the updates coming! Posted by Eric on Feb 6, 2012 5:10pm
I cannot stop thinking about this urgent need. In my world I think of students, getting them involved with this issue facing our nation through a service learning project. Maybe connect with LRAM (Let's Retrofit a Million) organization, which is not as in depth as your work, but a cool model. It would be so awesome to get our youth passionate and engaged with this, do service, and raise funds to go towards retrofits. Posted by Dede Bennell on Feb 6, 2012 5:18pm
This is a great idea Dede. I'd like to hear about any plans you put together. And congratulations to the folks at Energy Circle and all the other Mainers who stepped up for the Hartfords. Posted by Jon isham on Feb 7, 2012 5:11am
Kudos Peter, for stepping up and stepping in. It takes a village, or in the case the ME Energy Efficient Community. Posted by Carol Markell on Feb 7, 2012 11:24am
Perhaps someone could put Robert Hartford's street address and zip code in this blog so people can simply send him checks to get him enough money and therefore enough oil to make it through this heating season. John Nelson Posted by Anonymous on Feb 7, 2012 3:32pm
Well, that's been done already, I think. This effort might help him next year, when he's not prominently featured in the NYT... right? Posted by Eric on Feb 7, 2012 3:42pm

John and everyone--the Times story generated such interest that Hometown Energy, the oil dealer, has received pledges in excess of $100,000. Quite extraordinary. So it looks like the Hartford's immediate oil needs are more than taken care of. To make this story even more amazing, Wilma Hartford is now coordinating with other needy families in the community to distribute the extra funds beyond their own need. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Feb 7, 2012 3:52pm
How wonderful for Wilma Hartford to be able to do this! It must be difficult on the one hand to be in the headlines; I am guessing the Hartfords are modest and humble people. What a gift for them to be able to give to others in their time of great need. Thanks PT for helping to expose the importance and imminent need for substantial energy use reduction. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ” ― Martin Luther King Jr. Posted by Dede Bennell on Feb 7, 2012 5:29pm

Dede--your instincts that this really needs to be about turning building efficiency into more of a movement is exactly what I'm trying to spark. Initiatives like LRAM are great and I applaud them, but the real answer are the deep energy reductions that can be achieved through retrofits like what we'll do to the Hartford's house next week. It's great to have you and Jon Isham in this thread, two people doing great work at the high school and college levels to engage young people. I'd like to think that this could be the modern barn raising, in which reasonably trained volunteers of all ages, led by building science trained professionals, can impact many people.

Great MLK quote too. Restructing here we come. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Feb 7, 2012 5:42pm
Well done Peter and everyone involved! What an inspiring weekend. I look forward to hearing more. Posted by Teresa Telander on Feb 8, 2012 10:27am
This is such a touching story. I grew up about 20 minutes away from Dixfield and this story is a reminder to us all how hard the winter months can be for those on a fixed income. I think the show of support for this couple is amazing and I'm happy that people stepped up to the plate to help them. Posted by Anonymous on Feb 8, 2012 12:15pm
Awesome to see this happening, but scary to think that it's probably one of 100,000 similar cases across the northeast right now. Keep your heads up lads! Posted by Will Kessler on Feb 8, 2012 1:46pm
Yes, this is a story about the need for deep energy retrofits. It is a re-emphasis of the story about teaching a man to fish rather than just giving him a fish. The saying go with many and you will go far, go on your own and you will just go fast. Takes a village and we are now a global village. So while I am so very, deeply sorry for the pain of being cold, especially for old and very young people whose bodies don't have the same heating capacity as the majority, I hope this story is a emblem that captures our understanding of what is really needed: Deep energy retrofits on every house that needs it, in our global village. This situation is so sad, even criminal, in a society that has companies in Pharmaceuticals, Financing, Insurance, Oil, Agriculture and other industries greedily sucking in the financial substructure of our societies. Gradually, we must all come to the place that founded our great democratic countries and request accountability for the actions of our governments and the companies that seem to own them. It can be done together. This riveting action story illustrates the formula needed. Good people observing, reflecting and then acting to do the right thing. Wide spread press by credible reporters is obviously, also a must in this day's communication modes. Thank you for showing all of us what must be done: observe, reflect, and then act in deeply morale ways for our planet, for our communities and for our fellow citizens. Posted by Scrubble4 on Feb 9, 2012 11:01am
One thing that I think is very interesting about this project is that it sheds some light on what might be considered the "eliteness" of a lot of the focus in home energy work - many of the things I read are talking about, for example, how to get from very low ACH50 numbers to EXTREMELY low ACH50 numbers*, passivhaus, LEED, etc. And even the common consumer tips are things like "wash in cold water" or "seal around your outlet boxes" which is fine, but when you look at a real world case like this, you realize that there is probably a whole class of housing stock out there which needs a completely different approach - never mind little foam seals behind your outlet plates, you need to somehow cheaply seal up the gaping holes all over your home! I don't know if I'm making much sense here; but it seems that there almost needs to be a whole new class of "energy saving tips" for homes which are really in dire straits. Maybe Peter can start the list... *I would be interested to know what the CFM50 or ACH50 number for this home was! Posted by Eric on Feb 9, 2012 11:01am
read the NYTimes, thrilled others are tackling this...welled-up eyes all around. haven't read all, so this may dupe, but how excellent would it be if Libby (and the other oil-men) could partner with the GB community to leverage this into being sellers of 'comfort'? Services are the new (negative)commodities... look forward to....The Rest of the Story... ;) Ideally in the NYTimes, as well... DG/GZ/PRC Posted by David Gregory on Feb 12, 2012 2:17am

All--

The crew is on site at the Hartford's today. Yesterday I posted a February 14 Update including cost numbers and payback. Take a look. Even though 100% of the cost has been covered by donations, so there will be no out of pocket for the Hartfords, we wanted to be sure to expose the real economics. I'll be curious to see what you all think. 

@Eric--here's a link to DeWitt's full Audit Report. (pdf)

Posted by Peter Troast on Feb 15, 2012 1:01pm
from everything that has happened as a result of the ny times article the results of this reto-fitting is the one i am most proud of and it has been very eye openning to the "oilman". i am sold on this idea and will gladly be of any assistance that i can possibly be. thanks for having and showing your hearts and providing me with the education that you have provide me and others who have taken the time to listen. lets keep this ball rolling!!! Posted by ike libby on Feb 16, 2012 6:12pm

Thanks Ike. Great to see you today. You are one enlightened oilman, on top of being a helluva human being. Can't wait to hear the radio piece. As to keeping the ball rolling....I'm in. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Feb 16, 2012 9:34pm

Everyone--exceptional couple of days at the Hartfords. Check out my February 16 Update for the results of our retrofit work....so far. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Feb 16, 2012 9:36pm
Any more updates? :) Posted by Eric on Mar 6, 2012 12:16am
Here's hoping someone also helps the Hartfords get rid of that mold under the sink (but not with bleach, which just encourages the mold to release spores to save itself). Nasty looking stuff, and so hard on the human body. Posted by Ann Bartz on Mar 11, 2012 10:47pm

this morning's (spam?) comment is nevertheless a good reminder of this thread...I just wrote Dan Barry at NYTimes asking for a follow-up; would love to hear one from here as well...would be inspiring to compare utility bills pre- and post- retrofit?

Given the current cold snap, could be another 'teachable moment'?

Best,

D.

Posted by David Gregory on Jan 8, 2014 12:04pm

Any updates? Just wrote Dan Barry @ NYTimes suggesting he follow up; with the current cold snap could be good timing - a 'teachable moment' - if people could see what a difference the volunteer work made -

DG/SF/USA

Posted by David Gregory on Jan 8, 2014 12:14pm

Hi David--

Thanks for the reminder/nudge and especially for reaching out to Dan Barry. I'll give Mr and Mrs Hartford a call, and check in with the team at Upright Frameworks who did the original work. 

It has certainly been a rough start to the winter for everyone in Maine.

Stay tuned. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Jan 8, 2014 1:59pm

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