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Stimulus funding allows weatherization program to reach more homes

by Keith Barber

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David Long, an apprentice with Regional Consolidated Services, cuts a strip of plywood to construct a box to hold insulation in place at the home of Lois Martin in Greensboro. (photo by Keith T. Barber) Kevin Scott stared intently at the digital screen of his state-of-the-art infrared camera and pointed out the dark blue spots that indicated cold areas inside the living room of Lois Martin’s northeast Greensboro home.

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Scott, a technical education and training coordinator for Regional Consolidated Services, noted a dark blue line between Martin’s ceiling and front wall as the camera revealed a basic flaw in the home’s construction during an energy audit on Monday. The homebuilder clearly did not install insulation batting from floor to ceiling, Scott said, so cold air was seeping into Martin’s living room from her attic.

“Anytime where two surfaces come together whether it be the wall and the ceiling or anyplace when the house was built and there’s some sort a construction joint and they don’t properly air-seal it, that’s a severe energy flaw in the building,” Scott said.

Scott and his three-man crew spent the day weatherizing Martin’s home as part of the Weatherization Assistance Program, a federal program administered by the NC Commerce Department’s Energy Office.

Last year, the statewide program got a $132 million boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Rita Joyner, a special assistant in the NC Energy Office, said the additional federal funding has been a tremendous boon to the program, which began in 1976. But the stimulus funding is set to expire in March 2012, so the goal of regional non-profit agencies such as Regional

Consolidated Services is to make sure the program reaches the maximum number of eligible residents over the next 15 months.

“We don’t want to leave one green cent on the table,” Joyner said.

“We don’t have unlimited time and unlimited resources.”

Applicants for the program must meet specific income eligibility requirements, earning no more than 200 percent above poverty level, which translates to a household income of $44,000 for a family of four.

Martin said she first heard about the program through the local media, and was very pleased by the prospect of saving money on her monthly energy bill. Currently, Martin estimates she pays more than $2,300 a year to keep her home warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

“I’m very excited about it because I have this hole in the [roof], and they tell me they’re going to fix it,” she said.

What Martin calls a hole is two attic fans, where a substantial amount of warm air escapes during winter months, Scott said. He said 30 percent of the average North Carolinian’s annual energy budget is dedicated to heating and cooling costs.

As Scott performed his infrared analysis inside Martin’s home, David Long, a weatherization technician, cut a strip of plywood on a makeshift workbench in Martin’s driveway.

Long, who joined the apprenticeship program at Regional Consolidated Services earlier this year, said he was building a box to hold attic insulation in place.

Long said he took classes in HVAC technology at Randolph Community College after moving to the area. That’s where he first heard about the apprenticeship program at Regional Consolidated Services.

The nonprofit partners with area community colleges to teach people the business of weatherization and energy conservation, and technicians with Long’s skill set are in high demand even in the current economy, Scott said.

“If he stays in weatherization, he’s going to be an asset there, but if he decides not to stay, he’s going to have all these concepts and all these skills from weatherization to foster the green movement further,” Scott said. “These are jobs that are in demand. The things they are learning are premium. Any builders or contractors in the private sector that want to build green buildings, they love to get a hold of people in weatherization.”

Regional Consolidated Services, which serves Randolph, Guilford, Forsyth, Rockingham and Davidson counties, works with JobLink — the state’s answer to the federal Workforce Investment Act — to give midcareer professionals like David a chance to work in the green energy economy, Scott said.

On Monday, Long helped install a vapor barrier, or air sealant, inside Martin’s home while filling in gaps around her plumbing pipes and electrical fixtures.

“We’re pretty thorough, so we go in and take care of everything we see and find,” Long said. A former government contractor, Long said he didn’t realize how rewarding his new career path would be.

“All those jobs that we have done — all those people are going to reap the reward from it,” he said. “It’s rewarding when you help someone in this day and age save a little bit of money.”

Scott said it’s also rewarding to see midcareer professionals come to work for a weatherization company like Regional Consolidated Services, and then eventually go on to success in the private sector.

“I like to think that weatherization as kind of the cradle for a new green workforce,” he said.

Regional Consolidated Services is one of 28 sub-grantees of the state to administer the weatherization program. Scott said Regional Consolidated Services was awarded the grant due in large part to the fact that the company has worked with the state’s weatherization program for the past 30 years. He estimated that the company is the state’s second weatherization program agency.

Scott said he’s seen a significant amount of years.

“When I first started in 2002, the state was making a lot of strides to put the program in a different direction to make sure that we were doing a full-blown energy audit and that we were doing things that were truly going save the client money,” Scott said. “There was a good period of training — the stimulus is a natural outcome of that because we were given a challenge by the state.”

The economic stimulus package funding is simultaneously boosting the state’s weatherization program while giving momentum to the shift to a green economy, Scott said.

“It really is multiplying our efforts and it’s allowing us to do what we always wanted to do as far as increasing the number of clients we serve and doing a much better job having the equipment we needed,” he said.

One of those new technologies is the use of a “blower door” device to measure leakage of warm air. On Monday, Scott placed an adjustable aluminum frame inside Martin’s front screen door to demonstrate how a blower door works. Scott mounted the fan to a crossbar on the aluminum frame.

“The fan creates a known constant pressure and balance,” Scott explained. “Houses always have a slight pressure imbalance in relation to the outside, but they’re really volatile. They’re not steady and you can’t measure them; so if we have a fan going, it’s moving a known amount of air at a known pressure. We can measure off of that.”

If the energy audit for Martin’s home revealed the two-bedroom house was experiencing significant air leakage, Scott said the weatherization treatment could literally cut the leakage in half, saving Martin hundreds of dollars in annual energy costs.

Regional Consolidated Services has satellite offices in the five-county area served by the nonprofit. Once applicants are deemed eligible, technicians pay a visit to the home to perform an energy audit.

“We’ll come out and set up a blower door and sometimes we’ll do infrared scans,” Scott explained. “The whole job of an energy audit is to prepare a work order where [the client] is going to get the biggest bang for [their] buck.”

“We focus on what are the most pertinent things this house needs to save energy,” Scott continued. “The whole purpose of weatherization is we use really low-end items that are going to yield big results. Insulation isn’t nearly as expensive as a door or a window, but it yields big savings and that’s especially true when you’re talking about duct work.”

Martin’s house, technicians found leaks in her ductwork and sealed it with a water-based material called mastic.

“You’re talking about $17 for a gallon bucket of mastic, so we can seal Ms. Martin’s ducts and save her a lot of money to where it almost instantly pays for itself,” Scott said.

He said the agency’s use of cellulose insulation is part of its commitment to sustainability.

“It’s made from recycled newspapers so it keeps a lot of paper and debris from going in the landfill and it kind of gives it a second life,” Scott said. “In turn, there’s a ripple effect. When you put it in the wall, it’s going to save energy and it’s going to lessen Ms. Martin’s carbon footprint, and it works better than fiberglass.”

Scott estimates that Regional Consolidated Services has served between 300 to 400 clients a year since the nonprofit was founded in 1980, and the stimulus funds will help that number increase exponentially.

“Everybody always asks me: ‘What’s going to happen when the stimulus funds go away and weatherization has to scale back again?’” Scott said. “It’s going to be win-win there, too — weatherization is going to keep on going. We’re still going to be doing the same quality of work that we’ve always done.”

Perhaps the silver lining of the Great Recession is that it has helped people realize the many benefits of going green, Scott said.

“If the economy hadn’t gone south like it did, I don’t think we would be as green minded as we are and maybe guys like David might not have even been involved in [weatherization] if [the recession] hadn’t happened,” Scott said.

Scott said he looks forward to seeing the impact of the government’s significant investment in weatherization and energy efficiency, and watching it translate into more green jobs in North Carolina. A July report by the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisors concluded that the stimulus bill created or saved between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs. Almost 1 million of those jobs were in a field related to clean energy and the “green economy.”

In October, the NC Energy Office announced that an additional $4.5 million in stimulus act funding for energy efficiency grants were awarded to 34 local governments, community colleges and local school districts, including GTCC and the town of Kernersville, to help save on fuel and utility bills and create jobs, according to a press release. The 17 grants represent the second round of money disbursed to local agencies. In all, more than $16.4 million has been distributed to 138 local governments, public school systems and community colleges.

“Hopefully we’re in a really good place to where folks who might not have been thinking about weatherization as a career before — now they’re thinking about it and now we have people to press the green movement forward,” Scott said.

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