Weatherization Has Come A Long Way

My name is Jim Baerg.  I work at the Montana Weatherization Training Center in Bozeman.  My job is to help train energy auditors, crew chiefs and crewmembers on the most effective techniques to weatherize low-income housing around Montana.

The Weatherization program works to reduce energy consumption, increase comfort and guarantee safe living conditions for the elderly, the disabled, and families with children by insulating, air tightening and other energy related repairs on their homes.

In 2010 weatherization programs worked on almost 2000 homes in Montana.  About 40% of those homes are mobile homes, the rest are stick built.  The program currently works with a budget of $6,500 and reduces, on average, home energy use by 34%.  On some occasions, they are reducing energy consumption in mobile homes by 50 to 60%.

Weatherization clients often live in the oldest, roughest houses and mobile homes in our communities.  For the crews, the work is tough, the problems are complex, but the accomplishments are very substantial.  Finding and fixing energy leaks requires a knowledge of building science, thermodynamics, construction technology, good carpentry skills and a solid work ethic.

Stick built houses, some date to the 1880’s, are often not insulated.  They may have brick or clapboard siding, rubble foundations, un-insulated attics, disintegrating wood windows and huge air leaks.  A high percentage of these homes contain lead, asbestos and other hazards.

Mobile homes are especially difficult to re-insulate.  Some date back to the 1960’s before there were standards for construction.  Can you imagine a home with 2×2 studs and 1 inch of insulation in the walls, ceiling and floor, heating ducts that are located outside, underneath the floor, and leaky aluminum framed windows?  Can you imagine an elderly couple on Social Security with $500 heating bills in the winter, living in a place like this?

The process for weatherizing a house begins with the qualification of the family based on income.  The elderly, disabled and families with children are top priority for weatherization.  Once a family is selected, the energy auditor tours the house, identifying health and safety issues, insulation levels, air leaks and the condition of mechanical equipment.  The auditor uses state-of-the-art tools such as blower doors, furnace testing equipment and infrared photos to identify and quantify the energy and safety conditions of the house.

Next, the auditor sits down with the clients for an interview and educates them on measures that they can do to save energy.  The auditor then inputs the collected data into a computerized audit program to establish an individualized weatherization plan.  Only measures that pay for themselves within the lifespan of the product are allowed.  The Crew Chief then uses the work order to organize and direct the work, completing the job in one to two days. Common weatherization measures include attic and wall insulation, sealing air leaks and fixing furnaces.  The replacement of windows and doors is less common.

Over the years, safety measures have been developed to protect the health of both the inhabitants and the crewmembers. Reduction of asthma and prevention of lead poisoning are specifically built into the process.  Safety measures include testing for carbon monoxide and back drafting of gas appliances, lead and asbestos identification, moisture control and the elimination of biohazards such as mold.

Throughout this process, careful cost control measures are maintained.  Monitoring and record keeping assures that public money is carefully and efficiently spent, that only the most cost effective measures are undertaken and that substantial amounts of energy are saved.

At the end of the day though, the most rewarding aspect of the job is the expressed appreciation from clients.  After weatherization, the houses are immediately much warmer and heating bills are significantly reduced through the heating season.  Because of its effectiveness providing solutions to economic difficulties, the program has enjoyed bi-partisan support for 30 years.

Weatherization has come a long way.  In the early years, the work was largely limited to caulking, plastic storm windows and attic insulation.  Now, we have a targeted and much more effective program based on building science, new techniques, and the testing and monitoring of results.

The Montana Weatherization Training Center in Bozeman has been training weatherization crews in those measures for 20 years and has emerged as a leader in residential energy technology.  For more information you can view our website at www.weatherization.org.

This is Jim Baerg for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization.  AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974.  Visit AERO online at aeromt.org.

This commentary aired on Montana Public Radio on September 15, 2011


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