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Feds evaluate AAI's shelter weatherization

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A research team from the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility, paid a visit to La Casa de Paz, a women’s and children’s shelter in Casa Grande, on Thursday. They were accompanied by a group from the Community Action Human Resources Agency, based in Eloy.

Back in December of 2009, Against Abuse Inc., the Casa Grande-based organization that runs shelters and offers refuge and support to women and children who have been victimized by domestic violence, had been informed that its yearly monetary infusion from the state would be cut by 7 percent for the second year in a row. But a complete weatherization make-over for AAI’s two main shelters was designed to save money.

Leading the charge was a team of technicians from CAHRA who had come to the rescue with a weatherization program that included the installation of solar panels and accompanying solar heating equipment. It was all made possible through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which had recently received an infusion of funds from the federal stimulus package.

Now, nearly 20 months later, Bruce Tonn, an Oak Ridge research staff member, and Beth Hawkins, a research associate, arrived at the women’s shelter to evaluate the weatherization program, which entailed estimating the energy savings attributable to that program.

“The project that brings us to the shelter in Casa Grande today is we’re doing case studies of local weatherization programs around the country,” Tonn said, “and the purpose of the studies is to give the local agencies a voice in the evaluation. We’re interested in the model, because different agencies have different models as to how they get weatherization done.

“We’re also interested in how the agencies integrate their program services at a household level, that is, in addition to weatherization, what other services do they offer to the households, and how do those services interact with weatherization? We’re interested in what other dollars they bring in. Do they leverage weatherization money with, in this case, Arizona Public Service money, for example, or Salt River Project money?”

Tonn said that he and Hawkins were visiting both rural and urban agencies to see how they function. Prior to Casa Grande, they had been to Grand Junction, Colo., Lewiston, Idaho, and they were planning trips to New York City and Milwaukee to see what kind of models are used and how they differ from those in rural areas.

“This is the only case that we’re evaluating in Arizona,” said Tonn. “The agency here, CAHRA, was recommended by a group in Washington, D.C., called Simonson Management Services as being a very high performing, very efficient agency that they felt we needed to visit, and that’s why we came out here.”

Hawkins added: “One of the factors behind this project that we’re evaluating today at the women’s shelter is that this was CAHRA’s first solar installation project. They had installed solar water heaters, which is unique where the program is concerned, and they were able to use the DOE money to do that. Hopefully, that will become a trend.”

Tonn said he and Hawkins have another study in which they’re collecting energy bills for 50,000 homes across the country, looking at those bills before weatherization and after weatherization. “In our research target, we have a control group, so we compare homes that got weatherization to homes in the same area that didn’t, so that will control somewhat for weather and energy costs, when we compare savings. We also adjust for weather conditions.”

In answering what Oak Ridge will do with the results of the studies, Tonn said, “The last time an evaluation of the national program was done was in 1990, and the program has changed a lot since then, so we’re going to produce energy-saving results for the program before the stimulus money and also savings results during the stimulus period. Then our job is to inform the U.S. Department of Energy and Congress on how the program is working. It’s up to them to set policy, and we’re producing information for the policy process.”

Lucy Rangel, CAHRA housing program coordinator, said the shelter projects were the first funded by stimulus funds, and also the agency’s first solar energy project.

“We paid for the solar panels to be installed along with the solar water heaters,” she said, “and we installed new heating and cooling systems in the shelters. We also brought in a more efficient refrigerator and freezer, and our crew completed room pressure relief and duct sealing to make sure that the air flows better.

“We do still have funds for that program, and it is due to end in March of 2012. Since we still have funding available, we would certainly like more families to apply for these services.”

However, Rangel advised that there is an income qualification, as well as the home itself must qualify by being in a sound, reasonable condition. She emphasized that the weatherization program is strictly that, that it’s not a rehab program.

She said that the CAHRA technicians come in and do an assessment of the home, and once that is completed, they’ll return to the office and discuss what repairs can be completed under the funding sources that are available, and then they’ll notify the family of the results of their findings and whether they are able to take on the home as an ARRA project.

“Once the project is completed,” Rangel said, “the residents sign off on a release of information, and the Governor’s Office on Energy Policy tracks their energy savings a year prior to and a year after the weatherization is completed. CAHRA doesn’t track that kind of information. We don’t have the resources.

“Of course, we love it when a homeowner calls and tells us how much they are saving on energy costs.”