Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Illinois' weatherization program doubles

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois’ weatherization program upgraded twice as many homes in the past year after putting federal stimulus funds to use.

The Weatherization Assistance Program has been around since 1976 and operates in all 50 states. The program uses federal funding to make the homes of low-income residents more energy efficient. Common improvements made through the program are sealing windows and doors, adding insulation and upgrading heating systems.

The Illinois program has stepped up its efforts with $240 million in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to be spent from 2009 to spring 2012. Last year, more than 17,000 households benefited from the program, up from 8,000 the previous year.

According to Dalitso Sulamoyo, president and chief operating officer of Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies, the new money has created 500 jobs. The association is working with the state to implement the program. Sulamoyo added that weatherization saves households more than $400 annually on average. Efficiency is increased from 15 to 30 percent, compared with costs before weatherization.

But once the federal money runs out, the new jobs may dry up as well. Sulamoyo said his organization hopes the higher funding level will be extended past 2012.

“[President Barack Obama’s] goal is to actually keep growing the program. And so we’re hoping with the success that we’ve showing in Illinois, and hopefully with other states, that Congress would continue to fund the program, so that we don’t have to reduce the production.”

However Congress has yet to bend to pressure from the states to continue elevated levels of stimulus funding to education and Medicaid.

Larry Dawson, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, says the program got off to a slow start because of some administrative delays. But he says Illinois is now second in the country for the number of residences weatherized this year.

Fred Bates, a Springfield resident whose house is being weatherized through the program, said he found out about the opportunity through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program because of his high utility bills, which he said ran more than $1,000. Bates said he thinks new insulation, along with other improvements, will make a big dent in his costs. Workers weatherizing his home also found a small gas leak, which has since been repaired.

“We were heating the outside more than we were the inside. Now, summertime, you’ve got the air conditioning unit on and it cools down but you have to keep it on for so long. So I can’t imagine what my bill is going to be,” Bates said.

Assessors for the program say they often find dangerous conditions such as gas leaks and high levels of carbon monoxide due to faulty heating units.

A family of four earning up to $44,000 is financially eligible for the program. Before making repairs, assessors perform energy audits to determine which improvements will save the most money in ratio to the initial investment needed.

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