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Efficiency Work Keeps Contractors Busy

Contractors find satisfaction in a challenging, new kind of job

Efficiency First, TCSaves | April 1, 2013 | By Jim Dulzo

About the Author

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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When Gary Bazzett works on a home energy assessment, he takes careful notes and produces a sketch of the home's footprint--inside and out.

It’s just past dawn on a cold, mid-February morning, and not much is stirring in a snow-covered neighborhood near Traverse City’s downtown. But Gary Bazzett is moving like a man in a hurry.

Bazzett chugs back and forth between his station wagon and the small, elderly home he’s inspecting. He measures windows and walls, surveys the building’s red-brick exterior, pokes around in the cramped and cold basement, peers inside the furnace, shoves his head through a tiny trap door into the attic, and asks the homeowner lots of questions.

Bazzett has a tough job; as a home energy assessor for TCSaves, he routinely invades claustrophobic spaces in century-old buildings that most people would rather avoid. But he has to understand what’s going on inside ancient brick walls, raised long before people worried about energy costs, indoor air pollution, or greenhouse gasses.

“A hundred years ago, they didn’t care” about saving energy, Bazzett said. “That’s why I don’t look at these as horror stories today. They end up being success stories.”

Bazzett is one of more than a dozen home energy assessors, contractors, and workers from three local companies who’ve sparked that success. For close to two years they’ve made the city-sponsored pilot home-efficiency program tick. They’ve made more than 500 Traverse City homes—a remarkable 20 percent of the town’s owner-occupied residences—more comfortable and affordable.

The success stories—and the jobs and savings they produce—could multiply dramatically if some Traverse City civic, business, and elected leaders find a way to expand TCSaves into a permanent, communitywide program.

Energy Efficiency and Economic Opportunity in Grand Traverse County, a June 2012 study by the Michigan Land Use Institute and SEEDS, another local non-profit, found that cutting energy use for all residential and half of all commercial and public buildings in the city and surrounding county by 25 percent over 15 years would, on average, provide 76 jobs each year and over 30 years save more than $200 million in energy costs.

But even at its current, smaller scale, the program is providing good paychecks and job satisfaction.

“I like serving people,” said Bazzett, who switched from auto repairs to carpentry years ago to help overcome an environmentally triggered disease. He studied and became a traveling instructor with the Building Science Academy, which prepares contractors for efficiency services certification, and then settled in Traverse City.

Today, he said, he enjoys “being able to offer practical solutions to things some people see as insurmountable. I just left a home we worked on where utility bills have dropped 45 percent from last year. They like that, but what they really like is that the house is now extremely comfortable.”

Other TCSaves personnel agree: While some challenges—getting stuck in crawl spaces, encountering startled insects, or dealing with mold—are unpleasant, they love their jobs.

Of course, the crews are glad for steady paychecks when Michigan’s home construction business is deathly slow. But they also enjoy their work due to its helpful nature and their abiding interest in saving energy.

That zeal may be one big reason TCSaves earns so many rave reviews for the comfort, cost savings, and work quality these efficiency mavens provide.

“It would be my wish to create a sustainable model for TCSaves that everybody wants,” Bazzett said. “It’s through energy efficiency and conservation that we are going to make a sustainable difference.”

‘An Eye-opener’

The firm most associated with TCSaves is James Anderson Builders, where Bazzett now works.

Thanks to a staff that includes several veteran home energy assessors, the company, in Traverse City since 1980, has handled the bulk of TCSaves’ work. Owner Jim Anderson said he first started thinking about homes and energy during the 1972 oil embargo. He formed Anderson Insulation in Lansing, where he lived, alongside his home construction business.

Two decades before “home energy efficiency” became a common phrase, he studied the emerging field of building sciences, solar and wind power, composting toilets, and Buckminster Fuller’s pioneering designs.

He joined the homebuilders’ green building committee in Traverse City; then, when TCSaves was taking shape, longtime local building efficiency expert Max Strickland urged him to get involved.

“I said, ‘No, Max, I don’t think so,’” Anderson recalled. “It was a government program and I was sure I wouldn’t fit.”

But Strickland was undeterred.

“’Jim, you have an opportunity to share your knowledge and put together a team. Look at the things you could do!’” Anderson chuckled. “He just wore me down. He pointed out that the goal was to use government funds to develop efficiency-marketing models that could be used by the private sector for self-sustaining programs that draw in entrepreneurs.

“That did intrigue me,” he admitted, “and so I reluctantly said yes, jumped in with both feet, and I think we’ve managed to entertain some modest success.”

Even with close to 30 years of efficiency work under his tool belt, Anderson said TCSaves still offers plenty of good lessons.

“I’ve learned you can’t assume anything when you go into a home,” he said. “It’s almost like doing an archeological dig. We put on our jump suits and really check it out. We’ve located gas leaks, gas appliances back-drafting carbon monoxide into living spaces, unsafe electrical installations…a lot of things like this. It’s been an eye-opener.”

‘A Logical Thing for Me’

Jan Laucht, who performs assessments for GeoFurnace Heating and Cooling, another TCSaves contractor, also has a longtime passion for making things more efficient. The German native, who grew up in Holland before moving to the U.S., said because electricity prices are so high in Europe, it pays to be super-efficient there.

But it also helps to have a father who’s a scientist—and who made their home as efficient as possible by installing solar panels, a water heat-transfer system, low-flow toilets and other devices that, at the time, were head-turners.

“So this was a logical thing for me,” Laucht explained. “Building a house that is not efficient? I wouldn’t even think about it.”

Like TCSaves’ other energy assessors, Laucht looks at the numbers his analyses produce and creates a prioritized list of projects for his customers.

“I tell them about raising comfort in their home, then I tell them about the rebates,” he said. “But I would feel very uncomfortable putting any pressure on them. I just say, ‘This is what we can do; if you have questions, call me.’”

Catching a Wave

Rody Valpey works for TCSaves’ third efficiency contractor—Michigan Energy Options, a statewide non-profit that has provided efficiency education and services for more than 30 years. MEO opened its Traverse City office just as TCSaves began recruiting and qualifying contractors.

Valpey started out as a self-employed carpenter in the Birmingham-Bloomfield Hills area. Then Rick Evans, a northwest Michigan efficiency assessor and solar installer, hooked him up with the local Community Action Agency, which analyzes and then weatherizes homes for low-income families.

“I suddenly realized there was a whole other world out there,” Valpey recalled. “And the fact that you are helping to reduce rather than just pay off really big heating bills really attracted me. I noticed these dramatic changes in their homes when I went in for the post-project inspections. We were not just installing insulation and walking away.”

Valpey visits each job site for a final round of tests to make sure the jobs were done correctly and to check on efficiency-based utility rebates and tax incentives.

He believes homeowner awareness is catching on, and said his job is satisfying because “there’s good at the end of the day—direct results. It’s like the house I tested today; we now know it’s warmer, and the comfort is there.’

And, he added, Traverse City is a good place to be for efficiency work.

“I can feel it,” he said. “Before, when I worked with other contractors, there was always this sense of competition. Today it’s more of collaboration. There are a lot of good people in the industry here. There’s definitely the beginning of a wave that we are all part of.”

Anderson thinks that, for the wave to continue, it’s important contractors who declined to get involved in TCSaves take a second look.

“The things we’ve learned about air sealing, appliance safety, the whole remodeling thing—this is information that should be shared with other builders so they can do a better job, too,” he said. “We can be a team.”

He added that more discussions with the city are important.

“We need to ask them how they see this continuing within the city,” he said. “Is there a value here, and might the city provide some more support?”

Meanwhile, he added, the good word on TCSaves is spreading beyond the town’s borders.

“People talk when they have good experiences,” he said. “So now we are doing a large job next week in Suttons Bay, thanks to one of our previous efficiency customers.”

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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