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Program helps weatherize homes in Rock, Walworth counties

Monday, September 27, 2010

Norva Barnet of Beloit is ready for this winter, content in the fact that she’ll be warm and her heating bills again will be reasonable.

Up in Janesville, Cliff Wakefield’s insulation business has grown in the last 18 months, thanks in part to projects he’s completed for homeowners and renters such as Barnet.

The jury’s still out on the overall success of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but a slice of that pie has paid for a significant number of weatherization projects in Rock and Walworth counties.

Community Action administers the Weatherization Assistance Program for the two counties. It’s got a contract for a total of 1,061 weatherization jobs and a budget of just more than $8 million to complete them.

Of the thousand projects, 54 percent are being paid for with nearly $3.4 million from the federal stimulus act.

“With the ARRA funds, we’ve been able to about double the number of weatherization projects we do each year,” said John Ramstad, Community Action’s housing and energy director.

Weatherization projects are targeted to homeowners and landlords on the state’s energy assistance program, people who get cash payments to help offset utility bills.

Through August, Community Action had completed 376 of the 573 ARRA weatherization projects. It’s currently working on another 280 projects, the majority of which are ARRA jobs.

“We are on par with where we want to be at this point,” Ramstad said, noting the ARRA funding runs from June 2009 through June 2011.

“We’re in a mode now where we’re trying to spend out the ARRA dollars, and we’ll probably do that by February or March of next year.”

A typical weatherization project costs about $7,000 and includes a new furnace and refrigerator, sidewall and attic insulation, air sealing and ventilation work.

At Barnet’s home, crews put in a new furnace, insulated and put fans in the bathroom and basement. Monthly heating bills that approached $500 were cut in half, and Barnet’s still alive to tell about it.

“The furnace had really played itself out, and we found out it was emitting carbon monoxide,” she said. “I was always feeling sick, and it could have been from that.”

Or it could have been from the constant draftiness of the home in the winter.

“It got to the point that we could hardly sit in the living room,” she said. “We’d wear sweaters and blankets and crank up the space heater, which is not a good thing.”

“We are very satisfied with the program. We’ve seen a big difference in out heating bills and our comfort.”

The ARRA-funded weatherization program comes with a raft of rules and regulations, and administering agencies such as Community Action took some flak last year because they didn’t appear to be completing enough projects such as Barnet’s.

A significant reason for the slow start was the need to separate projects between ARRA and typical state funding sources, which was required under prevailing wage labor standards tied to ARRA.

“Once we understood the rules and learned how to legally spend the money, we’ve ramped up,” Ramstad said.

That ramp-up has created or retained jobs in the area. Community Action crews typically handle air sealing and insulating basements, crawlspaces and attics, while subcontractors handle the mechanical systems work.

Community Action has doubled its staff devoted for weatherization work, and it’s spent nearly $1.8 million in ARRA funds on local subcontractors, Ramstad said. That’s a significant increase in subcontract work over years when ARRA projects were not in play.

“It’s been a benefit to us,” said Wakefield, owner of the Janesville-based Beneficial Insulation Solutions. “I’ve got some formerly unemployed people who are happily earning a pretty good wage.”

The stimulus funding has allowed Wakefield to add equipment and keep an extra full-time crew on board. He’s hired four full-time employees and pushed two others from part time to full time.

Wakefield specializes in older homes, and he said the added work fueled by ARRA has earned him referrals that will hopefully keep his crews busy after the stimulus funding runs out.

“I’ll continue to push out into the area,” he said. “We’re going into Rockford now, where there seems to be a lot of interest. Hopefully that continues.”

Overall, Wisconsin has weatherized 5,700 homes with stimulus funding, which is more than 30 percent of the homes the state planned to weatherize with the money, according to U.S. Department of Energy.

Jim Leute