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Heartland to weatherize hundreds of area homes

For Jim Capps, the $787 billion federal stimulus package passed by the Senate in February once seemed like just another number.

"They said 'it's gonna create jobs.' I said, 'for who?'" he recalls, climbing down a ladder from attic of Ramon and Juanita Rivera's home in Willmar on Monday. "Well, for me," he said, flashing a smile.

For housing inspectors like Capps, along with contractors and homeowners, a $2.9 million grant Heartland Community Action of Willmar is set to receive for its weatherization program will be felt directly where it counts: in their pocketbooks.

With the grant, a projected 391 homes will be weatherized in the next 18 months in addition to the 75 in an average year. It will give guaranteed work to 11 contractors and building inspectors, a decrease in the overall use of fossil fuels and much needed relief for the home heating costs of families like the Riveras.

Jude Deming, the housing coordinator at Heartland Community Action, said that due to the previously limited funding for the program, the organization used to focus on weatherizing the homes of only those people who needed it most. This year, with additional funding and income requirements loosened to include parts of the middle class, homes from a much broader swath of people will be weatherized

"This year, we expect a broader group," she said.

Homes weatherized under the program see an average reduction of 27 percent in their energy costs, said Deming.

That would be a significant help to the Riveras, whose home was being audited by Heartland building inspectors on Monday morning to see if it was suitable for weatherization.

Juanita Rivera has lived with her husband Ramon and her son Ramiro in her three-bedroom home on 27th Avenue Southwest in Willmar for the past 11 years. All three are on disability and unable to work, she said. The monthly government checks and the veteran pension for Ramon, who served in Korea, often aren't enough to cover basic living expenses.

"Some months we cannot pay, so we pay half," she said.

Because of that, the $2,300 annual cost to heat their home is a significant expense. Through friends, she had heard of programs like Heartland's weatherization program, and since then has been actively applying for them.

"Since we've been here, I've been making applications," she said.

After going over the home on Monday, housing inspectors Bob Staples, Jason Klema, and Jim Capps, along with housing specialist Gracie Cardenas, determined that the Rivera household was better insulated than average. The wall insulation, which can account for much of the wasted energy in the average home, was in good shape, said Staples.

Still, he said, there was a lot they could do. Some windows would need replacement glass, a couple spots would need to be sealed from outside air, and insulation would need to be placed in the attic.

"Attics are big," he said, of spots in homes that typically see a large loss of energy.

For the Riveras household, the next step will be for Staples and other housing inspectors to conduct a savings to investment ratio analysis. The data they collected on Monday will be entered into a computer program, which will determine if an investment in insulation, new glass for windows, or any other improvement would be worth the savings that would be garnered.

If the ratio shows that further work would be beneficial, Heartland will issue a work order to a contractor.

Staples said that only about 20 percent of the homes he audits are "walk aways," or homes that are so well insulated that no further work can be done.

"The rest we can do at least something," he said.