Rx for Wx

How the Pike County, Ohio, Weatherization (Wx) Program maintained success post-ARRA

April 28, 2013
May/June 2013
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2013 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Weatherization

Some folks don’t try to read the writing on the wall until their backs are against it.

That’s especially true in the current world of DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). This redneck would like to share a few thoughts on how we, the Community Action Committee (CAC) of Pike County, Ohio, anticipated the problems that may be coming down the pike (no pun intended) at the end of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding.

Pike County Energy/Environmental staff. (Don Watts)

In our region, weatherization of homes for low-income families is conducted by our office, the CAC of Pike County, Ohio, with funding from WAP. Before ARRA, our staff of 8 averaged 38–40 weatherization projects per year, with about $300,000 in annual WAP funding. When ARRA went into place, our funding shot to $2,129,370 for the 18 months between mid-2009 and early 2011. With that, we hired and trained 11 additional staff and weatherized 364 homes. Funding since then has declined steadily—$258,000 for Program Year (PY) 2011, $237,000 for PY 2012, and $136,200 for PY 2013 as of this writing. We currently have 17 people on staff.

Needless to say, there was a challenge to be addressed in the hangover of ARRA. I’d like to tell you about our endeavors to counteract the lack of funding and maintain employment for some hardworking guys and gals who had made the weatherization stimulus a success in our region and in the state of Ohio.

Despite the increase in work due to ARRA funding, I had asked my crews and office staff to make our benchmark high-quality work, while we weatherized as many homes as possible for our low-income target population. The crews exceeded all expectations. These folks worked six-day weeks, ten hours a day, with little or no complaining, and they expressed gratitude for the opportunity. We were grateful when it was over; we all needed a chance to rest, recoup, and begin to ramp down to the normal pace of past programs.

My momma told me that no good deed goes unpunished, especially if politicians are involved. As a sufferer from vertigo, I’m still a little dizzy from the funding drop. Instead of ramping down slowly, we got pushed off a cliff. My redneck background told me that I needed to get up, dust off, and look around for something to do. I looked around, and I saw poverty, folks wanting to work, much deferred maintenance on an aging housing stock, and a whole lot of mobile homes. Suddenly I was grateful for the dizziness.

The last thing we wanted to do was lay anyone off. Our agency is one of the five biggest employers in this county of 28,709 people. Our county has the state’s highest poverty level and highest unemployment level. We did not want to add to that.

The question was funding. One of our saving graces was that utility money was available, although it was somewhat limited, depending on service territory. Only about one-third of our population lives in areas served by large regulated utilities with conservation programs. The other two-thirds live in areas served by nonregulated co-ops. We are very grateful for a small gas company, Pike Natural Gas, which has stepped up with $90,000 annually to help us reduce walkaways by offering rehab options. I would also like to thank Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy of Findlay, Ohio, which has made utility funding that now exceeds WAP funding available throughout our state.

We looked around at other needs and saw a potential for environmental remediation work. I’ve been a licensed lead risk assessor since 2001 and saw both the need for lead abatement programs and the lack of licensed contractors in the area. I looked at my crews: guys and gals whom we hired originally because they would work in and under the homes of our limited-income population or because they had the ability, but not yet the credentials, to train to be crew leaders and inspectors. They can tighten a house to building tightness limits, perform worst-case draft testing in their sleep, and make folks’ homes more comfortable in the process. But could they become licensed, professional contractors in environmental remediation, remodeling, and construction as well as weatherization workers? Yes they could. But it took work.

What We Learned

Of the first five employees who trained and tested to qualify as licensed contractors, only one had any postsecondary education. Two had high school diplomas, and two had GEDs. But never underestimate the drive and desire of a human being who begins to believe he can do something he had never thought possible. I have four others who have completed the lead abatement contractor training and are waiting to take the state test, and four more who are headed to training in two weeks as of this writing. I just hired the four waiting for the initial training in lead abatement.

Another option we saw was nonprogram energy conservation work. For starters, our own agency had ten buildings total that were using too much energy at too high a cost. In tandem with our maintenance department (also under my direction), and using our own purchased equipment, we invested in our own buildings with air sealing, insulation, and HVAC adjustments and unit replacements. This provided fuel cost savings for the agency and gave the inspectors and crews some experience outside the residential box. We hired an in-house HVAC specialist who could work not just on WAP, but also on our own HVAC units (all under 15 tons) and other potential contracted outside jobs as well. This in-house project kept our staff working and allowed us to use grant funds that would otherwise have been used for overhead heating costs to assist the low-income population of our county.

Other possibilities have opened up. They include home repair and rehab work with the HUD HOME program and with HUD Community Development Block Grant funding in the region; with the Ohio Housing Trust Fund, and with USDA Rural Development.

Now for the not-so-good news. The reality is that sacrifice comes with these endeavors.

Pitfall number 1 is the hours required. If you want to work 40 hours a week max, do a little Internet surfing on the clock, and then pick up your dry cleaning, give it up. It just won’t happen. If you have employees in your department who want to do this and nothing else, give it up.

Pitfall number 2 is the need for dedicated employees. Do not judge your staff by education alone. Find those who want to make the world turn and will work to make it happen. A bad economy means hungry people who want to succeed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those people are easy to find. Once you do, it’s a great feeling to watch folks grow in confidence and develop as a unit to make the improbable the possible and then the reality.

Pitfall number 3 is money. You can’t be using the blessed DOE-purchased equipment without an approved cost allocation for return to blessed DOE. The need for unrestricted funds or loans is inherent in starting a business, which is what you are doing. The money we saved by installing utility measures together with funding from other non-WAP low-income programs provided us with some capital. It also helps if your agency administration fully supports your project. Anything less will present a potentially insurmountable obstacle.

This brings us to pitfall number 4. You must research your market and your possibilities. Get information from trusted sources and pay attention to what works (or doesn’t work) for others. I have found that Home Energy can provide an enormous amount of information to help you avoid embarrassing and costly mistakes. You need to adjust to your own conditions, but there are universal do’s and don’ts. On the other hand, stay open to possibilities. You’re trying to transition from a nonprofit, grant-oriented department of an organization to a viable division of an agency—a division that has the potential to make up for dwindling funding. That’s uncharted territory in our neck of the woods. Don’t restrict yourself to the tried and true; don’t fall prey to the doubters. Be willing to explore new ideas and options.

learn more

Get more information about the CAC of Pike County, Ohio.

The prescription for success is the same as for any start-up business: Tackle one realistic, thought-out plan each day. Take your plan with a large dose of established dedication from yourself and your employees, keeping in mind the mission statement of your agency or organization. Supplements that are needed to make this medication work as designed include money from established capital or realistic financing; additional dedication when exhaustion kicks in; flexibility to change the plan as circumstances dictate; research into what works and what doesn’t—and a little luck on the side.

Don Watts is the director of energy, housing, and lead abatement services and of Spectrum Housing Solutions for the CAC of Pike County, Ohio. The CAC also recently completed licensing to perform radon testing and mitigation.

This article was sponsored by DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program, through the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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