Minn. initiative aims to reduce the energy load in prefabricated houses

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Manufactured homes are among the few affordable housing options for many low-income Minnesotans, but they can be notoriously drafty and expensive to heat and cool, leaving many residents with significant energy bills.

A public-private partnership reports progress on the initiative to reduce this burden by connecting prefab communities with local utility programs and weathering contractors paid with federal dollars.

The Clean Energy Resource teams have set a goal of reducing the energy burden of all Minnesotans to less than 5% of their income. Over the past four years, special efforts have been made to target manufactured housing communities, where approximately half of the residents make less than $35,000 per year.

“There’s a real opportunity to reduce their energy burden,” said Joel Haskard, co-director of the Clean Energy Resources team, a collaboration that includes the University of Minnesota Extension Service, the Great Plains Institute, the Southwest Regional Development Commission and the Minnesota Department of Commerce are involved.

More than 180,000 Minnesotans live in manufactured homes, some designed for the southern climate and with little insulation to protect them from the rigors of the state’s harsh winters.

A 2016 report by the Minnesota Department of Commerce states that half of the residents in the low-income communities are eligible for weathering. More than 40% use electric heaters for heating in winter. Faced with a challenging energy load, two-thirds of residents are open to energy efficiency measures, but a third said financial constraints may prevent them from doing so.

Clean Energy Resource Teams have received three grants of $25,000 each over the past four years to focus on prefab communities. Although small, the grants allowed the organization to conduct pilot projects in the communities to see what outreach works. The most recent program reached 22 communities.

Despite the range, obstacles remain. Staff print out energy information in multiple languages, but not all residents understand the benefits of a more efficient home. Also, not all residents want to seek government or nonprofit help to improve their homes, Haskard said.

Utility programs exist to cover the cost of efficiency gains. However, residents often still have to bear part of the costs and do not have the necessary financial resources, Haskard said.

But the Clean Energy Resource teams have developed a strategy that appears to be working. First, they find a plant manager or community leader to help organize an event known as “Blitz.” Then, instead of relying on their goodwill, the nonprofit gives community leaders a $300 gift card to credit their time.

Leaders select a day for the Blitz, usually when rent is due or a community event is taking place. At the event, executives enroll residents for government energy assistance if they qualify, offer an energy-saving kit, and sometimes refer them to local utility representatives who can help.

According to Haskard, utility companies sometimes offer to swap out equipment for new ones and give out preservation kits that include LEDs, faucet aerators, low-flow showerheads, window film and heating tape that keeps pipes warm in the colder seasons.

“We’re trying to give them some clues,” Haskard said. “If they are recent immigrants, this accommodation may still be a relatively new concept with many different systems, such as heaters and boilers. We’re trying to help them better understand how to keep their homes safe, comfortable and as cost-effective as possible.”

Northfield Healthy Communities Initiative supplies energy efficiency kits for prefab homes. Recognition: CERTs / Courtesy

Residents also learn about weathering programs in their area from local vendors and Home Energy Squad, an efficiency program offered by Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy through the Center for Energy and Environment. Home Energy Squad workers performed on-site work on the manufactured homes, such as: B. Sealing strips and other quick repairs.

Manufactured homes have little insulation compared to typical homes, he said, and they’re typically under the floors. Weathering can replace insulation made from better materials that lower heating bills in the winter, he said.

Clean Energy Resource teams and their staff often knocked on the doors of residents who did not attend the event and delivered conservation kits while answering questions. Efforts reached just over half of all park residents. “We’re trying to cover the entire park as much as possible,” he said.

Many residents took the advice and signed up for weathering or used the kit to make their own energy-saving modifications. Haskard estimates that the 22 parks served by the program will collectively save more than $53,000 annually in energy costs.

The most responsive, unsurprisingly, were parks owned by tenants rather than real estate companies. “They own the land below, they own their units, they own the office,” Haskard said. “They are great to work with because they understand that saving energy saves residents money.”

Northfield non-profit organization Growing Up Healthy gave out conservation kits at community meetings and received positive feedback at the parks, said executive director Jennyffer Barrientos. The kits included expanding foam for insulation, window cling and other items to improve their homes, she said, adding that some residents had previously been trained on how to use the materials.

Barrientos said the pandemic has limited reach to dropping off the kits, but she’s heard from families adding programmable thermostats and replacing old lightbulbs with LEDs. Now Growing Up Healthy is partnering with Northfield and Faribault to encourage mobile home residents to sign up for free visits from the Home Energy Squad.

Healthy community initiative supports growing up healthy. Executive Director, Sandy Malecha, said the organization created a position for the mobile home rehabilitation coordinator to work with residents after recognizing the need arising from the manufactured homes energy program. The coordinator will help residents make repairs, add insulation, install gaskets, and replace furnace filters.

Organizations that attended said the events provided an opportunity to reach residents who may not be aware of various programs. For example, Willmar Municipal Utilities attended an event at the Regency Mobile Home Park last year and reached out to many immigrant families living in one of the city’s prefab communities, said Christopher Radel, safety and energy coordinator.

When the children returned from school on buses, Radel and others spoke to their parents and worked closely with two translators, who spoke Spanish and Karen. More than 75 people took part. The utility gave out LED bulbs, discount information and water conservation. Nonprofit organizations at the event spoke to people struggling to pay utility bills, considering Headstart or looking for English as a second language education opportunities. “It was very successful,” said Radel.

The Carolyn Foundation recently awarded another $25,000 grant to Clean Energy Resource Teams, and Haskard hopes to use it to introduce solar power to four to eight communities. One way to reduce energy pollution would be to install solar panels on community centers or park offices that provide financial support to residents. Another approach would be to build community solar gardens with subscriptions targeted at residents.

The organization will also work with prefab communities on energy programs sponsored by the Department of Commerce or foundations. “We have some great projects ahead of us,” he said.

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