By Guest Blogger Stephen L. Cowell
November 10, 2011
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