New initiatives look to make Minnesota mobile homes more efficient

Bel Clare Estates in Waite Park, Minn.
Bel Clare Estates is a mobile home park in Waite Park, Minn.
Martin Moylan | MPR News 2019

We’re entering an expensive time of year for energy use. Electricity bills soar in the winter with all the energy it takes to heat a home. That’s even more true if you live in a mobile home — which can be drafty, inefficient and unequipped for a Minnesota winter.

New grants are helping change that in at least two Minnesota cities. Andrew Hazzard is an environmental reporter for Sahan Journal and he’s been covering the story. He joined MPR News guest host Nina Moini.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

NINA MOINI: Well, it is cold, and we're entering a spendy time of year for energy use. Electricity bills soar in the winter with all the energy it takes to heat a home. That's even more true if you live in a mobile home, which can be drafty, inefficient, and unequipped for a Minnesota winter. But new grants are helping change that in at least two Minnesota Cities. Andrew Hazzard is an environmental reporter for Sahan Journal. He's been covering the story, and he's with us in the studio this afternoon. Thanks for being here, Andrew.

ANDREW HAZZARD: Thank you for having me.

NINA MOINI: So Andrew, mobile homes are typically pretty compact, right? So what makes them so inefficient?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Yes exactly. So they are very compact, but they also have several defaults, so to speak, when it comes to efficiency. For example, they have this area underneath the home, which is known as the belly, so this is kind of a hollowed out area underneath the home, and cold air circulates below that, right?

And so that makes it very hard to insulate. They also tend to have single pane windows, and single pane windows are no good for insulation. And then just in general, they have deferred maintenance. That's not true for every mobile home park, of course, but many of them have deferred maintenance.

So that means little cracks in the doors, siding issues, all these things kind get put to the wayside as more pressing matters come up for families who live in them. And therefore, they become very, very inefficient, and people pay really, really high energy bills in many of these manufactured home parks.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. It sounds sort of one of those classic examples of where it's more expensive to be less wealthy.

ANDREW HAZZARD: Absolutely. Energy efficiency in general is a classic, "It's expensive to be poor," situation. If you have less money, you live in older housing stock. That older housing stock is less efficient. Therefore, you have all these gaps and drafts and whatever. You're not as comfortable.

You're paying more for your energy bill. You can talk to people around the state who live in mobile home parks or they live in a two bedroom apartment. And if the building is old and it's not well kept up, it's not sealed off-- well, people are paying $200 or $300 a month to heat these relatively small spaces, as you said.

NINA MOINI: And so when you're talking about making changes to mobile homes for more efficiency, what does that look like?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Well, it looks a lot like changing some of the insulation, and this is where that factor with the bellies underneath the home is super, super important. If you talk to people who work in the mobile home park industry, no one wants to work down there. These spaces are kind of gross is what I've been told.

You get underneath there, so it's really hard for them to find contractors who want to do that work. Obviously, that is where you get the most bang for your buck, going in underneath and actually insulating that space. There are also smaller things that people in mobile home parks or really anywhere can do-- adding film to their windows, caulking up window sills and stuff like that to prevent leaks.

All those things can make you a little more energy efficient, but it's really insulation is where you're going to get the most bang for your buck. And that's been the challenge here. So one of the cool things about this program is that it is leading to a pilot in which they are training more contractors to actually do this work in the bellies of these homes, and that can lead to much better results, much more savings for families.

NINA MOINI: And of course, you're talking about the Clean Energy Resource Teams--

ANDREW HAZZARD: That's right.

NINA MOINI: --this sort of new resource rather called CERTs. So who's eligible for a CERTs grant? How do you apply?

ANDREW HAZZARD: So CERTs is kind of an organization that is largely based out of the University of Minnesota extension. Also, the Department of Commerce is involved. The Great Plains Institute is involved. The Southwest Regional Development Coalition is involved. But they're all over the state, right? And they help people and organizations achieve energy efficiency, invest in renewable energy, that sort of thing.

And so these seed grants, what they do is they give money to either cities, nonprofit organizations, companies, school districts, whoever, to make these investments in renewable energy or energy efficiency in their communities. So really, these are small grants. These are usually $5,000 to $10,000 grants.

And it can pay for things like energy audits where they can bring in the Xcel Home Energy Squad, figure out what's going wrong with the structure, and implement solutions. They can give you things like LED light bulbs, or they can provide window film and caulking and stuff like that.

And then also what we're seeing with this program is that this initial outreach effort that has been done in places like Woodbury and places like Northfield and places like Faribault, Wilmer-- that is leading to these larger programs where they are doing more targeted broad outreach to try and insulate manufactured home parks across the state.

NINA MOINI: And so you've actually been in some of the communities that have been giving some of this a try, it sounds like. And folks may not know this, although we feature the great work of Sahan Journal, all the time but you all report predominantly on immigrant communities.

ANDREW HAZZARD: That's right.

NINA MOINI: So who's being impacted in these communities that you've done your reporting in, and what does that look like when they're making those changes?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Yeah, that's a great point. So in manufactured home parks, obviously, they are attractive options for new arrivals to the United States because they are affordable. It gives you your own space. You might be able to buy the home outright or rent it for an affordable rate. But there are hidden costs, right?

And so many immigrant families whether they're from Latin America, whether they're from Southeast Asia, whether they're from West Africa, they end up in these mobile home parks. The rent or the mortgage payment is very affordable. And then come winter time, they're paying an extra $200, $300 a month for heating.

And so what we see is concentrations of different ethnic groups at different manufactured home parks across the state. There are areas in Southern Minnesota where you will see a lot of people from Guatemala or El Salvador. There are areas in the metro where you might see a lot of Hmong or Korean residents.

And so this program is partnering with community groups or organizations that can bridge language gaps, that sort of thing, go in there, give people the information they need, give people resource connections so that they can make those improvements, and also making those improvements in bulk.

Instead of piecemeal, one house at a time doing this, going in to a whole community of whole block and saying, hey. We're offering this. You're probably eligible. You should take advantage of this.

NINA MOINI: And so we just have about a minute left, but we do want to help people, obviously, lower heating bills, which that's great. But does this also help with the sustainability side of things?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Absolutely. So this is, really, I think energy efficiency work. Weatherization work, as it's broadly known, is one of the greatest opportunities that we have for helping reduce our climate carbon emissions in the state. So basically, most of this heating is coming from natural gas. And often in mobile home parks, it's also coming from different forms of gas, like propane, which is even worse from an environmental standpoint.

So the more efficient these structures are, the less of those fossil fuels they're using to heat these structures. And the less energy people are using, the more that we can get by on renewable energy. So this is all a huge part in lowering our emissions.

And weatherization in general, whether it's at homes, whether it's in office buildings, that is a huge push right now in the state because we've seen improvements in energy production. We've seen some improvements in transportation. Buildings? Not so much, and that's a really, really big frontier for us to tackle.

NINA MOINI: Very good. And Minnesota, of course, has that goal to be carbon free by 2040. Andrew Hazzard is an environmental reporter for the Sahan Journal. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your reporting with us.

ANDREW HAZZARD: Thank you for having me.

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