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Center to help workers make low-income homes more efficient

Friday, July 23, 2010

Salt Lake Tribune
By María Villaseñor

The state’s weatherization agencies often waited to find homeowners willing to have 20 people use their houses as energy-efficiency training grounds.

“And there was no guarantee that the homes were representative of what we needed to train in,” said Michael Johnson, who directs Utah’s weatherization program.

But Tuesday, officials unveiled a new facility aimed at helping crews learn how to make homes use less energy and help lower homeowner’s utility bills.

The new Intermountain Weatherization Training Center in Clearfield aims to be a regional site that not only helps national weatherization crews, but teaches private developers how to build homes that use energy better.

Weatherization crews perform energy audits at eligible low-income homes and then perform the work — installing insulation, replacing old furnaces or water heaters that use up too much energy.

“We put people to work, help people save money and reduce the use of oil,” said Gil Sperling, senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Energy, which funneled about $37 million in federal stimulus dollars to the Utah program.

The funds began arriving last year and are to be used by spring 2012. The money has more than doubled the state’s annual weatherization budget of roughly $5 million, Johnson said.

That has helped the eight agencies in the state increase their 50-person work force to about 180 staff, triple production and begin to pare down the one- to two-year waiting list of houses, he said.

The $180,000 training center will focus first on helping the Utah weatherization crews improve their skills regarding ducts, insulation and appliances, then later open for use by other weatherization teams in the region, Johnson said.

“It’s too valuable a resource to keep it our little secret,” he said.

Eventually, he wants to also welcome the general public interested in energy savings and other building contractors. Johnson thinks the facility could help change the future of homebuilding by showing the small changes in construction that can lead to significant energy savings in the long run.

By weatherizing homes, Johnson estimates utility bills can be shaved by a third, often resulting in more than $200 in savings each year.

Once stimulus dollars are no longer available in two years, Johnson said the weatherization agencies plan to slowly trim their crews. He hopes the economy will have recovered by then and that no layoffs will be needed, since the workers will be highly trained for other jobs. Many of the staff hired in the past year had lost jobs in construction.

At Tuesday’s event, Sperling highlighted the jobs created by the stimulus dollars. He said a lot of people, including many in Utah, have criticized the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act as wasteful spending.

“I would hope everyone would pause for a second,” he said, “and look at what we’re doing.”

mariav@sltrib.com



Cost efficiency

With funding from the federal government as well as partnerships through Rocky Mountain Power, Questar Gas and other organizations, the weatherization programs receive about $2,256 for every dollar the state contributes.



Inside the Intermountain Weatherization Training Center

The 21,000-square-foot new facility, in a warehouse in Clearfield’s Freeport industrial area, houses both storage and office space for the Tri-County Weatherization Program. The program serves Davis, Morgan and Weber counties in 10,000 square feet of the facility, and the training center occupies the remaining 11,000 square feet.

There is a 1,280-square foot, two-story demonstration house built to show building construction practices, air leakage testing, various insulation types and other energy-consuming features.

The space includes 18 furnaces, boiler, water heaters and air conditioners that help demonstrate problems and repairs.

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