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Green Building News

Inspections: Crucial Links in the Weatherization Chain

Oversight failures in Illinois highlight the fact that, increased funding aside, appropriate, high-quality weatherization work needs to be the lifeblood of the WAP

Image Credit: Department of Energy

We’ve been making noise for a while now about how slowly stimulus-funded weatherization has gotten underway in parts of the country where confusion and caution have delayed its implementation.

The sluggish starts may be frustrating, but they also are predictable given the increased scale of the Weatherization Assistance Program and the thousands of moving parts in its bureaucratic machinery. What’s more, the measure of WAP’s success or failure probably won’t be pegged to the efficiency of its rollout. Final results – the number of jobs the expanded program creates and the quality of the weatherization – will matter much more.

This week, a New York Times update on the Department of Energy’s response to weatherization-work audits in Illinois – detailed in a December 3 Department of Energy report – brought the work-quality issue, and the procedures meant to ensure high-quality work, into focus.

Spread too thin

With the DOE’s approval and $242 million in stimulus funds, the Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program aims to weatherize about 29,300 homes of people with low incomes. WAP rules require that each state, through local agencies that administer the program for their communities, inspect 5% of weatherized homes. As the Times story notes, state officials in Illinois said they had inspected 5% of the homes where work was done, but not 5% of the homes weatherized by each of the 35 local agencies handling weatherization work. Work by seven agencies hadn’t been inspected at all, while work by three others hadn’t been inspected in enough volume to meet the 5% minimum.

A state hiring freeze delayed a plan to hire more people to help administer the inspection program. In addition, federal inspectors had not made required site visits, prompting the DOE’s inspector general to step in and send a team out to examine work in five homes.

From the DOE report: “We identified significant internal control deficiencies in the management of the Weatherization Program in Illinois which require immediate attention. Specifically, our audit testing revealed significant problems with onsite monitoring and inspection of the Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program (Illinois). We noted that the Department had not fulfilled its requirement to perform monitoring visits at the State level. In addition, Illinois officials had not complied with the Department’s requirements for inspecting weatherization work conducted by local agencies.

“Finally, we found that a weatherization inspection for one of the local agencies failed to detect substandard installation of energy saving materials. This case involved a furnace gas leak that could have resulted in serious injury to the occupants and material damage to the structure. This is an interim report and our audit work remains in progress.”

Getting a grip sooner rather than later

The report also points out that Illinois is just now developing an automated system for aggregating inspection data and tracking the performance of contractors.

The inspection lapses are troubling not only because safety problems went undetected but because the DOE inspection – which quickly resulted in a DOE “management alert,” underscoring the seriousness of the situation to the agencies involved – hints at systemic problems in the state’s program that touch on everything from worker training to contractor competence to staffing levels.

A potential positive in all of this is that the problems became apparent in the early going rather than in, say, late 2010, when Illinois will have moved much farther down the path to completing work in 29,300 homes, which will require about 1,465 inspections. Most important of all, though, is that the alarms set off by the DOE are heard loud and clear not only by officials in Illinois but by every agency in the nation doing WAP work.

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