State Program Helps Needy Weatherize Their Homes

by Danielle Marconi
       Karen SMITH is a single mother of six. She lives in a dilapidated home where two-year-old Annie and four-year-old Kevin don’t have beds of their own. Will, a 15-year-old confined to a wheelchair, suffers from muscular dystrophy; his bed is the couch. Smith’s 14-year-old son works to help his mother pay for the necessities: milk, bread and eggs. The power company threatened to turn off her electric, but couldn’t because of Will’s medical equipment. (Names have been changed for privacy reasons.)

       For Smith, a rural Queen Anne’s County resident, the decision to pay the utility bill may mean deciding between being warm in the winter or eating well-balanced meals. Along with other Maryland residents, she is seeking refuge from a long-standing obscure energy assistance program: weatherization.

       “Weatherization is wonderful,” Smith said. “They fix problems that would otherwise not be fixable because of my financial situation.”

       Since the 1970s the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weather Assistance Program has provided grants to states, which in turn sub-grant to local agencies, which use the funds to install energy conservation measures in the homes of low-income persons. Many Maryland residents, however, are not aware of this program.

       “Weatherization is one of the best-kept secrets in America,” said Tom Kenny, founder of Maryland’s local nonprofit agency, Maryland Energy Conservation, Inc. (MEC). “If you ask someone what weatherization is, they’ll tell you ‘The weather is fair’ or ‘It’s going to snow or rain’.”

       What exactly is it? “The purpose of the program is to reduce the cost of home heating and cooling,” Kenny said. “Weatherization programs are operating in every jurisdiction of all the states of our country.”

       During the past six years MEC has repaired more than 1,000 homes, curbing energy consumption in Baltimore and 10 other counties.

Who Is Eligible?

       Under the program, a low-income household is defined as one whose income is at or below 150 percent of the federally established poverty guidelines, according to Kenny. A budget of $600,000 annually restricts the number of houses MEC can repair. The average cost of services is $2,000 per house.

       “There are more applicants than we have the money to provide the service,” Kenny said.

        Priority is given to houses with elderly, infants and disabled residents.

       Weatherizer Brian Sindell said, “It’s rewarding to see a family that once couldn’t afford to turn on their heat in the winter to now be comfortable and be able to pay the bills.”

       “I’ve never felt so welcome in a house,” weatherizer Tom Bialek laughed. “Every customer opens the door happy. They are grateful to have you help. Not many people can say that about their job.”

Weatherizers In Action

       Kenny’s crew is a threesome that has worked together for five years. Tom, 26, a 6-foot-3-inch chain-smoker whose high energy motivates the crew, claims there is not a hole in a house that he can’t find. Michael, nicknamed “Crispy” from the days when the threesome cooked at Denny’s together, is the smallest and is often stuck with the dirty work of fitting in the tight crawlspaces under houses. The third crew member is Brian, relaxed and happy to be working with his friends again. Together they insulate and weatherize homes in 10 Maryland counties. They agree that they never sweated as much in the restaurant kitchen as they do now.

       One recent day found Michael and a female college student working in a roof crawl space. It’s 90 degrees outside, yet a cooling 75 under the roof. It’s cramped and there’s no room even to sit up straight. Masked and specially garbed, she crawls under the rafters to the farthest point from the crawl space opening, brushing aside the cobwebs, with a droplight to guide her. Michael tells her not to be surprised by the harmless spider crickets. His words are muffled by his protective mask.

       In position, the two begin to cut the insulation and use a staple gun to attach it. The process takes about three hours for 600 square feet.

       Finished, they ease their way out of the crawl space, careful not to touch any spider crickets. There will be a break now. She and her co-worker coil up the unused rolls of R-19 insulation and carry it out to their truck. They go to evaluate the next residence, a mobile home, enjoying the fresh air coming through the rolled-down windows.

Testing the House

       Weatherizers test the house in three steps.

       First, there’s the energy audit. Technicians test a home’s heating system and check for air leakage. Then the entire house is inspected to identify problem areas. The audit is then sent to the crew that will do the work.

       A portable Blower Door is set up in a doorway leading outside the house to track air infiltration. When the Blower Door is operating, the house is depressurized, exposing points where air leaves and enters the house. The pressure is recorded at the time of the audit, and is later compared with results after weatherization work is completed to measure the success of the work.

       The scope of the work may include furnace cleaning or even replacement; sealing air leaks in the attic, crawl space and/or basement; wrapping hot water and heater pipes; and installing insulation if needed.

Explaining the Results

       The weatherization program makes a great impact on the cost of heating and cooling a home. Fuel consumption is typically reduced by an average of 28 percent.

       When the auditors came and depressurized the Smiths’ house before work was done, the Blower Door registered 1.2 air changes per hour, meaning that every two hours, half the air left the house. After the weatherizers were finished, the air recirculated .7 air changes per hour. Now the Smiths will be paying half as much to run their heating and cooling system.

How Do You Qualify?

        The first step is to apply for your local energy assistance program. In Baltimore City, call 410-396-5555; in Baltimore County, 410-853-3385; and in Harford County 410-638-3240. Once you are prequalified for assistance, check the box for weatherization on your application and your local agency will be in contact with you. Call as soon as possible, as funds are limited.

       Danielle Marconi, a Fallston resident, attends the University of Richmond, where she writes for the campus newspaper.


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This story was published on August 1, 2001.