Weatherization works: Recent reports are way off base

By Guest Blogger Stephen L. Cowell

A recent article in Newsweek, “Obama’s Big Green Mess,”describes what can happen when contractors are “unfamiliar with the nuances of specialized weatherization work.”  The fact is, installing furnaces that exhaust poisonous fumes, putting in water heaters that can explode and blowing toxic asbestos around a home, which the article points out, happens on a regular basis.  These botched jobs are a result of using contractors who do not understand the complexity of retrofitting older homes. We can attest to that.  My firm, Conservation Services Group, has been in the business for 27 years and we’ve seen our fair share of jobs that aren’t done to the highest standards.

But just because some contractors are doing shoddy work doesn’t mean the industry deserves a black eye.  Adding insult to injury, calling out a few homes and a handful of programs that may be struggling or not meeting expectations is unfair.  It is a disservice to trained, professional contractors and the money saving potential of these valuable and much needed programs.

Since 2009, hundreds of thousands of homes have been effectively weatherized with funds from President Obama’s stimulus program.  Another effect of the program is that the bar has been raised for training and improving industry standards by the Department of Energy.  This represents the first time criteria have upgraded since the federal weatherization program began 30 years ago.  In fact, without the type of public standards, safety and quality assurance that most of the ARRA-funded weatherization programs have enacted, the failure rate would be much higher than Newsweek, Fox, The Daily Show and other media outlets have been reporting recently.

So instead of being critical, we should be applauding the dramatic increase in technical qualifications and education that has been put in place from stimulus funding.  As a result, thousands of contractors and firms are carrying out programs skillfully and professionally from coast-to-coast.

In Maine, CSG has successfully implemented programs for 4,000 homes, saving consumers 400+ gallons of oil per household annually.  We have replaced 500 inefficient oil heating systems in Massachusetts and saved households $1,000 annually in energy costs.  In Oregon, CSG has retrofitted more than 1,000 homes, and we are doing similar work in Kentucky.  In Massachusetts and Tennessee, CSG trained participating contractors to ensure they are educated in the latest industry techniques and meeting the highest standards.  These projects were completed on time and under budget, with quantifiable results.  (Consumers typically see 20-30 percent savings on their energy bills after a retrofit.  In Maine, energy savings from the program reached 40 percent!)  Many more projects like these have been carried out across the country. 

Weatherization is a science because so many of our older homes have issues that are unknown to the homeowner or to the contractor.  Therefore, educated contractors are critical components of a successful residential energy efficiency program.  The wide range of problems they contend with every day include rooms that don’t heat or cool properly, air leaks that are hard to find, frozen pipes, inadequate ventilation, mold, carbon monoxide and condensation, to name just a few.  It takes a trained professional to identify and diagnose these problems, educate the homeowner and evaluate next steps.

CSG works with utilities, government agencies, public housing authorities and other groups.  They rely on us to choose the best technicians to help carry out their residential energy efficiency programs.  CSG recruits, certifies and incentivizes contractors to perform at their highest levels and we evaluate their work for quality installation and to ensure measurable energy savings.  Courses are offered through our firm on many topics such as Home Energy Rating certification, air and moisture control, energy codes, combustion appliance testing and energy modeling techniques.  CSG encourages, and sometimes requires, accreditation in “whole house” performance by the Building Performance Institute(www.bpi.org).  Some contractors even participate in their own trade association, Efficiency First, which they started to advocate for better standards and training. Ongoing education and technical support ensures contractors are up-to-date on the most current technologies that can provide the best return on a homeowner’s investment.

CSG estimates that the total energy savings for the customers served in the last 27 years is approximately $500 million per year.  (CSG has overseen the installation of energy measures in more than two million homes nationwide.)  For every person we employ for a retrofit program, 10 more are hired in the private sector – insulation contractors, air sealers, HVAC technicians– the whole range of firms it takes to have a residential retrofit industry.  In the past three years CSG has added more than 400 employees nationwide.  These jobs have facilitated more than 4,000 workers hired by local firms to help us implement these programs.  Employment numbers will only grow as more energy efficiency programs are carried out by thousands of qualified contractors.

So take heart, America.  Weatherization works.  President Obama’s plan will deliver the jobs and the energy savings promised.

Stephen L. Cowell is chairman and chief executive officer of Conservation Services Group, based in Westborough, Massachusetts. He is a guest blogger for Energy Efficiency Markets newsletter. Pick up the free newsletter at www.RealEnergyWriters.com

 

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Comment by Michael Russell on November 22, 2011 at 12:18am

I hate to say this. but I have to agree with Phil Jeffers, we should remove the subsidies and let the customer decide which technology to use. Here in San Diego, the carbon-fuel industry is so heavily subsidized that some of my clients are actually PAID to use natural gas in the summer time. No energy efficiency measure or renewable energy solution can hope to beat that!

When you look at someplace like Germany, where they made a national decision to eliminate 2% of their carbon-fuel dependency each year from 2000-2050, they have made great strides. However, they pay the real cost of energy over there, US$0.66/KwH, while here on the west cost retail utilities charge only US$0.11-$0.31 per Killowatt Hour. If we simply removed the subsidies on carbon fuels and renewables they would be at parity today, and we could use the savings for education, job training, and research.

Actually, our real cost for carbon-fuels is much higher than most of the world because we pay massive military costs to protect our resource pipelines. That's why the big oil, gas, and coal companies have such stellar profits, even in this recession (well technically the recession has been over since 2009, but you know what I mean, GE paid no tax and got billions in cash-subsidies from Uncle Sam). The sad thing is we need to keep wasting energy, depending on foreign oil, to keep our military fueled, to keep our profits rolling. Meanwhile Germany wins the race.

Don't even get me started on nuclear power. Seen what's happening to the GE plants in Fukashima lately? They are exactly the same as San Onofre and Diablo Canyon here in CA, and the energy costs US$0.32/KwH. And the Nuclear Industry is the most heavily subsidized energy we have!

The biggest savings is in energy efficiency. Residential buildings commonly waste 40%+ of the energy they use, and commercial buildings are far worse (based on actual retrofits, comparing utility bills before and after). But I'm preaching to the quire. We just need to take the profit motive out of public utilities, and educate people about the physical realities. Once they have the facts, the clear choice is energy efficient retrofits, followed by distributed renewable energy, and net-zero new buildings.

We really don't need these government subsidies, energy efficiency wins hands down, even when you subsidize carbon fuel by 50%. The only reason they still exist is because the public will riot if you charged them the real cost of carbon-fuels. And that doesn't even include the pollution factors.

Comment by Michael Russell on November 21, 2011 at 4:04pm

But just because some contractors are doing shoddy work doesn’t mean the industry deserves a black eye.  Adding insult to injury, calling out a few homes and a handful of programs that may be struggling or not meeting expectations is unfair.

Family of four found dead in Aspen CO. 


When posting a blog post that is really an advertisement for CSG, we need to remember that this work has consequences when "Home Performance" is done incorrectly. If the government subsidies were actually being used appropriately, to properly train and hire new employees, instead of being grabbed up by underemployed existing contractors, who often helped create the buildings they purport to 'fix', then we wouldn't be hearing about failed jobs programs on TV. 

In my own neighborhood of San Diego, a non-profit foundation was given ARRA grant money distribute and to weatherize homes, and instead started it's own job training program for underprivileged youth. These young people were ill-educated, and under-trained, and performed the work for low-wages, while the company collected thousands for each home. Luckily, they didn't do a good enough job to kill anyone, but the work was so sub-par and ineffective, that after inspection, I could not recommend them to my low-income clients seeking lower utility bills. The work could have damaged their property, or endangered their health.

This is just one of many stories that has come to light, due to mismanagement and incompetence. There was no required quality assurance, no certification for the workers, and they had no incentive not to cut corners, because they were paid up-front with no link to the outcomes.

The problem is not just the low quality of contractors, or the steep learning curve of the home performance industry, it's also the way we do business with the government entities. I've seen it in all forms of government contracts. Create a crisis, clean it up, get paid on both ends. We need to police our own industry. Would CSG be willing to pay my fees to do an independent random audit of their 2-million homes and test their quality?  

Comment by Joseph J. Ilacqua on November 21, 2011 at 8:33am

Thanks Elisa that is a great shout out for weatherization. I have been in the business in several capacities for close to 30 years. It seems a lot of contractors enjoy putting down weatherization professionals and say "Don't hire them, I can do the same thing for you." Then when there is a problem, and this certain contractor disappears from the face of the earth because he has moved on to another job and doesn't do call backs. Who do the people call now? A weatherization contractor, who can now come in and analyze the problem and fix it right.

I have been on several multi phase new construction or multi family projects where the there are 5-6 different trades working on site. The weatherization installers and crew always seems to be the bad guy. I can remeber several situations in which I had to be the calmer head of my crew to keep one of my workers from giving the electrician a shock he would never forget. That kind of thing.

I think weatherization NEEDS to keep going in the direction it is and has been going for years. We need more students of the game and more knowledgable entry level installers. We need to grow the industry not shrink it.

Comment by Robert Logston on November 21, 2011 at 6:26am

I must agree, having been Weatherizing homes for over 28 years. All of the "new" energy programs that have popped up are just copies of "the old tried and true" WAP. Without the WAP program, all new programs would have been lost trying to start fresh, instead they were able to copy the skills already acquired in the 30+ years that "Weatherization has been Working"....

Bob Logston, President, H.E.L.P.

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