Ben Bustamante works on Leslie's house. Photo by Leslie Jackson
When Home Energy’s part-time Associate Editor Leslie Jackson got home from a trip to New Orleans, where she did research on the rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina, she got a message on her phone. It was PG&E calling to tell her that since she had been accepted into their CARE program, for households whose income falls below a maximum requirement, they wanted to come out and weatherize her home. CARE is a program of discounts on energy bills for qualifying households. Once you qualify for CARE, you also qualify for PG&E’s Energy Partners Program, meaning you can have your home weatherized for free. Leslie is a renter, but that doesn’t matter, as long as her landlord agrees to have his property enhanced—well duh, who wouldn’t, for free! We’ve paid for these services already, through our energy bills. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) collects the money and directs how it is spent by the utilities.
Leslie called PG&E back and within two days Elvis Tobar came out to do get things started and do a visual inspection. Ben Bustamante, from Quality Conservation Services, a contractor for PG&E, came a few days later to inspect the furnace and do a more thorough audit. “I was shocked when they called,” says Leslie. “And I was shocked when they said they would send someone out so soon. But they did! And I was impressed and pleased when someone showed up within the set time window.” (Note:
Ben started out working in the Quality Conservation Services warehouse. A wise boss saw that he had the right skills to be a weatherization technician and so got him the training he needed to qualify for the job. That’s how green jobs happen.)
Ben found opportunities and had some concerns. Leslie will get a new refrigerator, CFLs, insulation in her attic, a faucet aerator in her kitchen, and a low-flow showerhead. She has knob-and-tube wiring in her attic, so the attic insulation won’t be installed until she has the wiring inspected. She could have gotten new lighting fixtures and had two new windows installed but she and the landlord wanted to keep the look and feel of the 1920s California bungalow.
And PG&E would have weatherstripped her doors and windows and air sealed her attic, but there was a problem. The vent from her gas furnace terminates in the home’s de-commissioned chimney. That and a well-sealed house are a bad combination. It is easy to depressurize a tight house—all it takes is turning on an exhaust fan. In a leaky house, makeup air can come into the house from all the seen and unseen holes in the building envelope. In a tight house, the makeup air may come from the chimney—taking dangerous combustion gases like CO with it into the home. “I’ll talk to my landlord about fixing the furnace vent. It has to terminate outside and above the house,” says Leslie.
At the time of this writing, Leslie found out that the refrigerator, which was supposed to take eight weeks to arrive, is coming next
“Everyone I’ve talked with from the Energy Partners program so far has given me the sense that lots of people who quality for this service turn it down because of privacy and other concerns,” says Leslie. “And that’s a shame.” It’s also a challenge for everyone in the home performance field to continue to spread the word about the benefits of energy retrofits—added comfort, lower energy bills, better indoor air quality, and a healthier planet. And word has to spread beyond the recipients of utility program help, to the people who will be asked to pay for your services.