Stimulus funds weatherize homes, bring the heat to kitchens, bedrooms
A sea of federal stimulus funds has flowed down several ranks of government and is now arriving in Fairfield homes: in the form of caulked windows, sealed doors and foam insulation keeping out the cold.
The funds are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), which, in this case, pumped $64.3 million down the supply chain with two objectives in mind: to create jobs and to lower energy costs for low and moderate-income families by making their homes more energy-efficient.
While the weatherization work itself is nothing new -- it's been part of the Connecticut Department of Social Services' Energy Assistance since the oil embargo issues of the mid 70's -- the scope of the program has mushroomed. In years past, it received just $2.5 million in federal funding annually. The ARRA increases that commitment by almost a factor of 10.
The Department of Social Services hopes the program will weatherize some 7,500 homes across the state and create and retain around 640 jobs. The work, the Department of Energy said, reduces heating bills on average by 32 percent and energy bills by about $350 a year.
Social Services has selected five community action agencies around the state to oversee the increased work. It's funneling $5.9 million to Fairfield County through Action for Bridgeport Community Development Inc. The contract calls for 770 homes to be weatherized.
This past fall, ABCD contracted 39 firms around the county to do the work. In years past, said Byron Warner, ABCD's financial administrator for the ARRA Weatherization, the firm has contracted just 10 firms per year at most.
Among Fairfield's contract winners: Bob Hofmiller Heating and Cooling, 243 Colonese Road; Angelo's Burner Service, 1290 Post Road; and Mr. Handyman, 2480 Blackrock Turnpike.
"It was a very happy Thanksgiving," Mr. Handyman's vice president, Lorenzo Wyatt, said when he got word that his company won a contract toward the end of November.
Mr. Handyman started using the money two weeks ago. In its first week, it girded three homes in Fairfield and Bridgeport for the area's seasonal temperature swings. It's now settling into a rhythm of about 10 projects a week, Wyatt said, and as it becomes more efficient at the work and word spreads, that number could rise.
Wyatt said the firm has already retained one full-time technician that otherwise would not have been kept on for the winter. He hopes to add more technicians if the volume of assignments increases. And that is, according to Warner, because ABCD most likely over-budgeted the average cost for weatherizing each home. In its calculations, it set the cost per home at $1,815. But, Warner said, that number is probably high, and the agency now expects to outfit around 1,200 homes in this county through 2012, not 770 as it first agreed with the state.
For Wyatt, that's more welcome news. On a recent morning, he was a picture of insulation sitting in his warm office overlooking Blackrock Turnpike. He was dressed in long pants and long sleeves, with a thick scarf wrapped around his neck.
"If we didn't have this line of business right now, our level of optimism would be significantly different," he said. "The trades are so tough in the winter, particularly this one. And this has us thinking that this winter is going to be bearable."
While the program has been around for decades, it's long served just the neediest of homes. But Social Services has increased income eligibility limits with the new funds. Before, a household needed to earn less than 30 percent of the state's median income to qualify for energy assistance. Now, the eligibility cuts off at 60 percent. In addition, the average assistance that can be provided per home jumped from $2,500 to $6,500. And the state has broadened its definition of "energy inefficient" homes.
Anyone interested in the program should contact ABCD directly and apply for the Energy Assistance program. The phone number is (203) 382-5405. The Web site is www.abcd.org/weatherization.html.
If eligible, ABCD will have a contractor perform a residential "blower door test," which isolates the weakest insulation points in a particular house. If the house proves an egregious energy-waster, then it will likely qualify for the free work.
If it can outfit 10 or more homes a week, Mr. Handyman said that this new work will account for about 10 percent of its total business. This is a welcome boost. Between 2008 and 2009, Wyatt said, the company's clientelle jumped around 10 percent, but its revenue dropped by roughly 10 percent too, meaning a labor-to-revenue dive of around 20 percent. The reason, Wyatt said, is that customers are postponing major works on their homes and addressing only their basic needs. There are more windows being replaced, but fewer bathrooms being remodeled.
At one house last week, Mr. Handyman sealed a door leading to the attic and an attic hatch, changed aerators on all faucets, installed low-flow showerheads and a programmable thermostat, replaced incandescent lights with spiral bulbs, lined the basement with "rim joist" insulation, dropped rubber strips in doorway floors, and put in two new windows.
"They had really old metal windows before with duct tape and newspapers stuffed in gaps," Wyatt said. "We are looking for waste that's jumping out at us."
The work took around 10 hours, Wyatt said, about typical for now.
"People are happy that we're doing it, and they're happy we're in and out in a day," he said.
Elizabeth Gonzalez, who lives in Bridgeport, agreed. Her home was one of the first Mr. Handyman weatherized.
"I thought, `Wow, that's so fast!'" Gonzalez said. "The insulation, I thought it would take a week. But no, in two days it's finished. The door is finished in half a day, and the attic -- same thing. That's not too much time." She paused. "They do it fast, and they do it good."