Weatherization Work Breeds Success in Minnesota
Minnesota is one state that has successfully dispersed the federal stimulus money intended to boost employment and weatherize homes – thanks to the state’s home builders and remodelers.
The Builders Association of Minnesota’s Project ReEnergize made 1,300 homes more energy efficient this fall – bringing needed jobs to the state’s remodelers and stimulating the purchase of building materials, appliances, fixtures and products – including 8,700 windows during the month of October alone.
The state HBA created the program for the state after convincing state officials that they had the knowledge and the resources to do the job quickly and efficiently –and then they did just that, said EO Pam Perri Weaver.
The HBA distributed more than $3 million in stimulus money, trained 840 of the state’s 13,000 licensed residential contractors and 140 insulation contractors to spread the green building message of the importance of energy efficiency, correctly installed insulation and maintaining indoor environmental quality to both consumers and builders – resulting in a positive public relations message as well as needed work for the industry.
Here’s how they did it.
When the stimulus packages were announced and the federal government began giving money to the states last spring, Minnesota’s first thought was to distribute the money through the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency to augment second mortgages for low-income homeowners so they could weatherize their homes.
The home builders did not think this was a particularly effective way to spend the money, Weaver recalled. “Our message was that in the economy we are in, asking a family of four making $70,000 a year to take on a second mortgage was not a successful strategy to get homeowners to spend money on energy upgrades,” she said.
The HBA recommended that the state remove income caps to any program they created and consider direct consumer rebates to encourage more people to apply for the weatherization money. Programs must factor in the current market conditions the industry is facing, the association told the agency.
When summer came and the state agency still had not prepared a program to disburse the money, staff at the Office of Energy Security of the Minnesota Department of Commerce turned to the HBA. “They asked us, ‘If you could create a program, what would it be?’,” Weaver said.
The Builders Association of Minnesota got to work.
Making a Plan
The HBA immediately held a series of roundtables for window manufacturers, insulation installers and remodelers to get ideas about designing a program that would get the greatest number of homes weatherized while stimulating the most work for the industry.
Among their suggestions: Offer incentives for window replacement, but make the incentives even higher if the home owner combines the window replacement with air sealing work, like insulating the attic.
The combination of correctly installed insulation and energy-efficient windows produces a much more air-tight home, but that in turn presented indoor air quality issues, particularly if the home’s water heater or furnace could no longer draft correctly – so incentives were also made available for replacing “orphaned” atmospherically vented water heaters.
Participating remodelers would be required to participate in a free, two-hour, training class so they could better explain to home owners the principles behind the energy-efficient changes they were making.
An additional 150 contractors interested in doing air-sealing work would have to take an 8-hour class that focused on proper insulation techniques and air quality issues. They were also required to obtain RESNET certification so they could perform before-and-after blower-door tests on the homes to confirm the work was done correctly and measure energy savings.
The association itself could arrange the training and certification for participating members of the industry. Its grant proposal included funding for training remodelers and contractors, promotion, and administering the application process – called a pre-rebate application -- and disbursing the money to home owners.
“The state was highly motivated to get the money out the door and get this industry back to work,” Weaver said. The HBA’s plan made sense to state officials – and the HBA won the contract.
It took only a month to disburse more than $3 million in weatherization funding – and the HBA is set up to do even more if the money becomes available.
More Benefits for Remodelers
Remodeler Shawn Nelson’s Burnsville firm, New Spaces, did work on two projects in which the home owners received the benefits of the stimulus money.
One window-replacement and insulation project turned into a larger renovation: Nelson is also remodeling the homeowner’s bathroom and kitchen. The other project was weatherization work alone – but the home owner recommended Nelson’s company to a friend who in turned hired the company for a remodeling job.
“It’s unfortunate that more people were not able to generate even more business, but we couldn’t just sit around and wait – the money went pretty fast,” Nelson said.
And the stimulus money clearly encouraged many home owners to hire contractors to do work they would not have done otherwise, he said.
Can the success in Minnesota be replicated by other home builders associations? Already, Oregon and New York are preparing HBA-led weatherization programs for consideration in their states.
In addition to a highly motivated Executive Officer and active support from member leaders, Minnesota’s success was also aided by regulations that govern work in that state.
For example, Minnesota has a statewide energy code that cannot be amended locally, Weaver pointed out. It creates a uniform standard for window replacement and other construction work that all contractors are familiar with – so the weatherization projects did not require significant additional training.
In addition, all contractors performing more than two different kinds of services in a home are required to be licensed, and licensed contractors in Minnesota have continuing education requirements. This made for a ready supply of trainers – and the HBA has strong ties to most of them, Weaver said.
The federal legislation includes requirements that contractors be paid the prevailing wage, and the paperwork associated with that requirement continues to discourage many remodeling companies from seeking weatherization work. Because the HBA provided the rebates directly to the consumer, it was able to bypass the paperwork requirement.
Weaver said she hopes that EOs in other states can also get on the weatherization bandwagon – and that the success in Minnesota might inspire additional efforts to loosen the purse strings on more federal money to promote energy efficiency.
A bonus: Administering the program was a “successful and surprising” source of non-dues revenue for the HBA, Weaver said. In addition, the program helped open the eyes of non-members who didn’t realize how much the HBA contributes to the success of the industry.
“I think this program gave them a flavor of what an association does for them,” Weaver said.
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