The cash-for-appliances program that began Monday started off with a big clunk.
Minutes after the official 8 a.m. launch, both the website and phone system crashed, leaving Minnesotans frustrated in their quest for a piece of the $300 million in federal money for buying an energy-efficient appliance.
Both were working by late morning but remained difficult to access throughout the day. By late evening, the state had burned through three-fourths of its $5 million allotment, with money for clothes washers gone and money for dishwashers quickly running out.
Minnesotans, it seems, love a good cash rebate. State residents got more than $72 million in the Cash for Clunkers program for new cars last summer -- $13.85 per resident, the third highest in the country.
Other states whose appliance rebate programs have already started are plodding through their allotments, which are based on population. Wisconsin's program started Jan 1, and it has allocated only 20 percent of its $5.4 million. New York and Michigan have had to extend their programs to use up stimulus money. Michigan has $5.5 million left of its $9.5 million stash that opened up a month ago.
The exception to that is Iowa, which also started its program Monday and had jams similar to Minnesota's early in the day. Iowa is already out of its allocated $2.8 million.
How long will Minnesota's money last? "We don't know," Nicole Garrison-Sprenger, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which is administering the program, said early in the day. "It could be gone tomorrow." That appeared increasingly as the evening went on.
Anticipation in Minnesota ran high for the past several weeks, said Julie Warner of appliance chain Warners' Stellian. "Hundreds of people called or came into the stores over the weekend doing their pre-shopping," she said. "Five hundred people signed up for appliance stimulus e-mail alerts."
By about 10:30 p.m. Monday, all the money for clothes washers was gone and the state had begun a wait list. And more than 91 percent of the dishwasher money was already spoken for. Refrigerators, which took up the biggest chunk of the program, still had just over $1 million available, and there was $109,400 left for rebates on freezers, according to the state's website.
Opening days in states such as Michigan, Georgia and New York went smoothly. In Minnesota, Garrison-Sprenger said that by 10:15 a.m. the hotline had been restored, but throughout the day and into the evening many callers still were receiving a busy signal or a recorded message that circuits were busy because of high call volume. By 11 a.m., the website was functional, but accessing it remained another matter as many people were still receiving error messages as the day wore on.
Ralph Wyman of Minneapolis said the bottleneck reminded him of trying to get tickets for a U2 concert. He lamented other folks' lightening-quick Internet connections and auto phone dials. "I'll probably never get connected," he said.
Jennifer Fink of White Bear Lake was one of the lucky ones who got through. Maybe. At 4 p.m. Monday the website finally came up on her computer, and she filled out the rebate form. The page timed out several times, but she eventually got an e-mail telling her to follow instructions on the confirmation form, which she had not yet received. "It was a no reply e-mail address, and there was no phone number provided for questions, so I don't know if I got it or not," she said.
State officials extended Monday hours on the phone line until 9 p.m., two hours later than normal, because of the call volume. The call center is staffed with 35 phone representatives, said Garrison-Sprenger. Rebates can be obtained at the website at any time.
The website for the program is www.mnappliancerebate.com and the phone number is 1-877-230-9119.
Helgeson Enterprises from White Bear Lake was hired to facilitate the website and phone lines. Late Monday afternoon, Helgeson confirmed via e-mail that "suspicious activity" contributed to the temporary shutdown, including hits to the website that appeared unrelated to retailers and unusual bandwidth usage.
Each state designed its own program with money that was part of the stimulus package passed last year. Minnesota's program includes rebates of $50 to $200 on dishwashers, refrigerators, washers and freezers, which are only available from the site and the toll-free number. Appliance dealers do not have rebates to give out and consumers do not need to have purchased appliances yet.
With so many consumers unable to obtain a rebate Monday, some are asking why rebates weren't available through dealers. Warner of Warners' Stellian said having a central source was thought to be more efficient. Except on Day One.
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633