Image: Looking for energy leaks
Robert Spencer  /  AP
Workers from Next Step Living set up a "blower door" to expel air from the house to find energy leaks at the home of Michael and Georgina Fulton Prager in Arlington, Mass., this month.
updated 2/16/2009 10:33:16 AM ET 2009-02-16T15:33:16

Critics of the $787 billion economic stimulus program are not really balking over caulking: They just don't think pouring substantially more money into home weatherization will give a quick kick to the reeling economy.

There's $5 billion for weatherizing modest-income homes over the next few years in the sweeping stimulus legislation that Congress sent to President Barack Obama.

Obama wants a sevenfold jump in the number of homes weatherized each year — from about 140,000 to 1 million households.

But critics argue that much of the new money will be chewed up by the sheer cost of implementing the program and training people to carry it out. Either way, it's a huge increase from the $447 million that Congress authorized for this purpose in the current budget year.

Scramble to develop training
People who question the initiative say it will do little or nothing to create jobs in the short term. Still, states are scrambling to develop training programs for work that can be as simple as using caulk to seal cracks, or as extensive as replacing leaky windows or old furnaces.

A key question is whether state and local agencies can ramp up soon enough to use the money effectively.

"Any program that receives that much of an increase, you cannot spend the money efficiently in that short a period of time," said Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "The money simply can't flow through the system that quickly."

Some Republicans complain that not enough jobs would be created to give the slumping economy a timely jolt.

"Having the federal government pay for caulk and insulation may or may not be a sensible idea, but it will do little or nothing to create jobs in the short term, and it has no place in a bill designed to get our economy moving again," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.

An energy 'three-fer'?
Obama touts the Energy Department's weatherization program as a "three-fer" that will create tens of thousands of jobs, cut energy costs for many poor and working-class families while making the nation more energy independent.

"That really is an extraordinary step," said Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents state-run low-income energy assistance programs. "A lot of these are great entry-level jobs, but you still have to train people."

Wolfe said he expects states with large programs already in place — such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and California — will best handle the increase. Other states could face a tougher time.

Florida weatherizes about 1,500 homes annually. Stimulus money could add several thousand more households. That poses a challenge for state agencies seeking to match deserving households with qualified weatherization workers.

"Training will be the biggest obstacle," said Norm Gempel, who manages Florida's weatherization program.

Maine's experience
Maine officials last summer launched new weatherization worker training programs when home heating oil prices were soaring to record levels.

"We have seen what Maine looks like with oil at $5 a gallon and we are scared to death of it," said Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing, a state agency that administers the federal aid. "And so everything started happening."

Maine is getting $2.5 million for weatherization this winter. The state could get as much as $76 million from the stimulus, which McCormick said according to Energy Department estimates could create 3,848 new jobs.

Maine spends about $3,500 per household and typically cuts energy costs by at least 20 percent, McCormick said. The income limit in Maine for a family of four to get aid is about $47,000.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Heat your home for less

  1. Transcript of: Heat your home for less

    This morning on TODAY'S HOME, a timely topic: staying warm, saving money. The country in a big chill right now. Lou Manfredini is a contributor to the TODAY show . He's going to show you five easy steps to help you save up to 20 percent on your home heating bills. He's also the host of "House Smarts." Nice to see you, Lou .

    Mr. LOU MANFREDINI: Nice to see you as well.

    LAUER: First one, we talked about this before, but more important now than ever, install a programmable thermostat .

    Mr. MANFREDINI: Right.

    LAUER: How much is it going to cost me?

    Mr. MANFREDINI: Well, the unit itself is only going to cost you anywhere from $50 to $100, but the real difference is these circular ones, the mercury ones that most people have are not very accurate. Their swinging temperature can be up to six degrees. The swinging temperature of the programmable is one degree. So you have more of a constant temperature. And by manipulating the temperature, by programming it, so when you go to bed, you lower it no more than 10 degrees and it wakes up, you know, a half-hour before you to heat up, and then when you go to work, you can save up to 30 percent on the energy that you use to heat and cool your home.

    LAUER: Can I install this myself or do I have to ask for one of my lifelines?

    Mr. MANFREDINI: No, no, no, you can, and you don't need a 50/50. You follow the wires. The colors go with the terminals. W means white, R means red. It's low voltage, so you don't have to worry about getting hurt. Very simple to install. It takes a little bit to program...

    LAUER: All right.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: ...but it's simple to install.

    LAUER: Get yourself an energy-efficient furnace. How do you know -- how old would a furnace have to be where it would not be energy-efficient?

    Mr. MANFREDINI: About 15 years.

    LAUER: OK.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: The technology has changed drastically. This one's by Trane . It's what they call an XC-95 . It's a three-stage unit. What's happened with manufacturers is they have gotten smarter. Three stage means it uses half the speed on the blower, half the gas to just take the chill out, and high efficiency, you typically see these plastic pipes, which means it vents out the side of the home, it brings in outside air. So the comfort level is really what's key with this. And, Matt , they've got technology with the thermostat, smart technology, that if there's ever a problem, it's hooked up to the Web and the technician knows what's wrong.

    LAUER: It's expensive, though?

    Mr. MANFREDINI: Well, it's about maybe 20 percent more than a standard one, but you'll get 20 years and save money almost within five years.

    LAUER: All right, just like in a person, you lose your energy and your heat through your head, you lose it through doors and windows in your house.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: Your areas of greatest loss, windows and doors. By weather stripping and putting things like these draft dodgers -- you've seen these one -- these twin draft guards on T.V.

    LAUER: Right.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: These are the draft guards you can put, or you can put thresholds, or I put weather stripping around the door. Sealing out those drafts. And the same holds true, Matt , on the windows.

    LAUER: That's that plastic you use a hair dryer on.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: When you do the plastic -- yeah, and it's very simple to do. There's all kinds of weather stripping that's available. And even if you've got an old window that maybe you don't want to use for the winter, this over here is a removable caulking. You can actually caulk a window shut and then peel it away in the spring.

    LAUER: And this is -- these are truly do it yourself projects. You can do all this yourself.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: Do it yourself, we're talking about a few dollars.

    LAUER: All right. Electric heaters for cold rooms. What's the formula? How big a heater do you need for how big a room?

    Mr. MANFREDINI: Well, they come rated for different spaces. These typical electric ones -- this one here by Sunbream is a zero clearance, meaning you can put it right up against the wall. This quartz unit actually heats the space, maybe a three -- 400 square foot space to take the chill out. This is an eco heater, which this panel gets hot. It mounts on the wall and creates like a -- you want to stay right here, don't you?

    LAUER: I'm not moving. These are on.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: It's really nice. It's on .

    LAUER: Yeah.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: But these units, what's efficient about this is almost all the energy that comes through it, electricitywise, turns into heat.

    LAUER: OK.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: So it's cheaper to use this in a cold space rather than turn the thermostat up, which means you spend more money on your total energy bill.

    LAUER: OK. That's a good idea. All right.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: Fifty dollars, $60, $100.

    LAUER: Real quickly, I'm going to stay right here, tell me about that one.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: This -- 20 percent of the energy on your tank water heater goes from standby.

    LAUER: Yeah.

    Mr. MANFREDINI: So by wrapping it in an insulation blanket that's $20, you can save 10 percent on that. And if you really want to step up, tankless water heaters , Matt , when you and I started working together nine years ago, almost 200,000 units a year in the US were being sold. Now it's 700,000 annually.

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