COLUMBUS - It's a phrase we've all heard: "If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

That's how Sarah Olson felt - until one phone call.

"By the grace of God, we were the lucky ones," she said.

Thanks to the nomination of a friend, and the generosity of two Wisconsin businesses, the Olsons' luck has changed, and now they no longer have to fear for their own safety in their home.

The Olsons are the Columbia County recipient of a new furnace thanks to Lennox Industries and Bleich Heating and Air Conditioning in Rio.

The family was one of 72 Wisconsin families who received high-efficiency Lennox gas furnaces as part of the "Heat Up Wisconsin" program from Lennox Industries and Wisconsin dealers.

Three employees with Bleich Heating and Air Conditioning installed the furnace, a high-efficiency Lennox gas furnace, on Saturday in the Olsons' home in Columbus, replacing a very rusty 1983 Amana Lowboy.

The Amana furnace was rated at 80-percent efficient but was not operating near that level, according to service technician Jared Erickson.

"It was time for a new one," Erickson said.

The program is a first for Lennox Industries, which accepted nominations during September, according to Wisconsin District Manager Dave Chatmon.

"We were looking for the ones that really needed help," Chatmon said.

All 72 furnaces - one for each county in Wisconsin, although not all counties are represented by recipients - are set to be installed by the end of October.

Chatmon said he hopes the program will continue next year.

"Our goal would be to have this every single year, one person in every county and more in major cities," Chatmon said.

The Olsons were the type of family they were looking for, according to Kendall Richards of All Comfort Services in Madison, a Lennox dealer.

"It's about helping someone that needed a helping hand at this point," Richards said.

Richards served on the committee that chose the Olsons as the furnace recipient in Columbia County.

"Both work very, very hard," Richards said. "They just weren't able to quite get there" to replace their furnace.

Dave works during the day with Legacy Exteriors in McFarland, and Sarah works at lunch and in the evenings for a local restaurant, with the two of them alternating the care of children Isaac, 8, and Nellie, 11 months.

Sarah admitted on Saturday that she never realized how bad their furnace was, but remembers Dave purchasing a carbon monoxide detector last winter, about the time Nellie was born.

Dave knew the furnace wasn't very good - and in fact might even have been dangerous.

"People said the heat exchanger was rotted through - that's when you get carbon monoxide in the house," Dave said. "I was always worrying about it."

He tried to replace it last year, but with falling real-estate values, leaving them owing more on their house than its worth after a 30 percent drop in value, Dave looked into but failed to borrow money after getting offers of 27 percent interest.

"Refinancing wasn't going to work," Dave said. "I felt almost helpless not being able to do something at that time."

He purchased the carbon monoxide detector and continued to pay about $300 a month in gas bills to heat the house last winter.

He was thinking of taking a part-time job on weekends to pay for the furnace when he heard that his family was nominated by a friend for the "Heat Up Wisconsin" program.

The call came as a surprise.

"It definitely brightened up my day," Dave said.

The experience has been a good one for Richards.

"It's a privilege (that) we're able to help other people," Richards said. "We're the greater beneficiaries."

It leaves a grateful - and safely warm - family in Columbus.

"A lot of people worked to make this happen," Dave said. "That makes me feel like I've got to do something for these people."

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Editor, Portage Daily Register