Weatherization programs gear up for stimulus business

Insulating a home
Construction contractor Marlo Winans pumps insulation into a home in Blackduck as part of the state's low-income weatherization program. Typically, the programs gets about $10 million in funding each year, but the federal stimulus plan raises the level to $131 million.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Construction contractor Milo Winans is blowing insulation through a 1.5-inch plastic tube into the outside wall of an older home in Blackduck. He's been weatherizing homes in northern Minnesota for 25 years.

Winans says a furnace tuneup, plus the insulation he's stuffing into these walls, will probably cut the homeowner's winter heating bills by around 20 percent.

"They'll really notice it, because there was nothing in there in the first place, other than some newspaper," said Winans.

Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon is weatherization director for Bi-CAP, a community action program that serves Beltrami and Cass counties. Dixon says stimulus money will allow the agency to weatherize 434 additional homes over the next two years.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Winans usually gets only a handful of low-income weatherization jobs like this each year. But when the flood of stimulus money arrives this summer, Winans is hoping it will mean steady work for his small company.

"It will mean that we can probably add one or two more guys and basically keep busy," Winans said. "Things have been a little slow lately, so hopefully that will change it around."

Weatherization jobs like this are administered by 32 community action programs across the state. According to the Department of Commerce, those agencies typically oversee work on about 4,000 homes a year.

But with the stimulus money, Commerce officials expect that number to skyrocket to nearly 20,000 homes. To handle all that work, the department is pushing to dramatically increase the number of people trained in weatherization.

That includes hundreds of new energy auditors to do home inspections. One-week training courses for that job are filled up through August.

State officials are talking with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system about possibly adding more courses for energy auditors and other related jobs.

"I think the demand for those skills is going to continue to grow ... there's going to be a need from here on out for the next century."

Bill Dixon is director of the weatherization program for Bi-CAP, a community action program that serves Beltrami and Cass counties. In the past, Dixon got by with one energy auditor, but he recently hired three more. He says he may also need to purchase a couple of vehicles for them to get to job sites.

The federal government released 10 percent of the stimulus funds so agencies can hire people and prepare for what's ahead.

Dixon says the biggest challenge in preparing for the stimulus money has been the slow trickle of information from the federal and state governments on how the process will work.

"We know some things are pretty accurate, and some things that we're not sure of," Dixon said. "I think that's been our biggest problem is trying to gear up and try to get prepared to do all these homes, without 100 percent directive."

It's still not clear, for example, whether contractors will fall under Davis-Bacon Act regulations, which would require companies to pay prevailing wages. Those rules involve lots more paperwork, and it means Dixon might have to hire a clerical staff person to deal with it.

Another challenge is rounding up more contractors capable of doing the work. Some of it requires specialized equipment, such as blower doors and furnace diagnostic devices. The equipment is expensive, and most contractors don't have it.

Dixon isn't worried there will be enough companies interested in getting into weatherization work. He was worried some of the necessary equipment might be in short supply, so he purchased it in advance.

"Most of these crews are like two-man crews, and they're usually pretty small outfits," said Dixon. "So to come up with that kind of money for a blower door and some pressure diagnostic equipment, it's pretty hard for them to do. So that's what we're trying to do, try to help them get started by leasing them out to them to buy."

With all that weatherization activity going on around the state, there's some concern that when the stimulus money runs out in two years, there will be a glut of workers trained in weatherization with nothing to do.

State Rep. Jeremy Kalin, DFL-North Branch, doesn't think so. He serves on the House Energy Finance and Policy Committee. Kalin believes this is just the beginning of a big energy conservation push across all sectors nationwide.

"I think the demand for those skills is going to continue to grow," Kalin said. "I think that the more energy conscious and more energy technical skills that people acquire, there's going to be a need from here on out for the next century."

About 7,000 Minnesota households are already on waiting lists for weatherization work. State agencies are pushing hard to encourage more low-income homeowners to apply.

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