Weatherize Murray City
A Rural Community Revitalization Approach
Weatherize Murray City! is an innovative project that embraced a holistic and collaborative approach to community development by using energy efficiency retrofits to drive economic growth in a little town in Ohio.
Situated in the Hocking Hills region of southeast Ohio, the Village of Murray City is considered a transitional community. This means that it has a concentration of poverty, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission that indicates serious challenges faced in a region to attract economic investments, create jobs, and remedy other quality of life issues (see “Murray City Snapshot”). Weatherize Murray City! is a public-private partnership built upon a collaborative foundation created by local grassroots leaders, advocates, and other stakeholders to revitalize the Village of Murray City and the surrounding region.
In an effort to serve more families more efficiently, Weatherize Murray City! took a new and unique approach to the delivery of weatherization services. Households are weatherized on a first-come, first-served basis, as applications are received at the local Community Action Agency. By changing service delivery to a block-by-block, town-by-town model, Weatherize Murray City! streamlined weatherization services, saving dollars and decreasing the environmental impact of uncoordinated service delivery. Weatherization retrofits benefit communities by reducing utility costs and allowing the savings to be diverted into the local economy. Based on improvements made to the average home, and on current energy prices, these savings are projected to average $400 per year for the life of the retrofit.
The Village of Murray City
The Village of Murray City is a coal company town with a rich Appalachian culture and history. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was home to over 2,000 people, and a booming economy, a railway, and many churches and small enterprises all made the village an important economic center. The village of today presents quite a different picture. The small community is home to young and elderly families, as well as students attending the local Hocking Technical College. The train depot and the coal-mining museum reflect the history of this once-booming economy; but over the years the industry saw a steep decline as mine production faltered in the early 20th century and many families left the village. Those families that have remained have seen small businesses close and widespread poverty set in. Most homes in the area, now over 100 years old, are single-story stick-built structures with no insulation, failing HVAC systems, outdated and inefficient appliance, poor ventilation, and other problems.
In the past, weatherization services have been provided by Community Action Agencies that are local private and public nonprofit organizations that carry out the Community Action Program, which was founded by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act to fight what was called the War on Poverty. Eligible households are determined based on federal income guidelines. Crews working an hour away from one another cannot readily share their expertise when it comes to dealing with unique homes and situations. The whole-town approach has enabled the Hocking Athens Perry Community Action Program (HAPCAP) to streamline administrative efforts, including the intake process, in a way that allows them to focus on the actual weatherization work. Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development (COAD) staff Amy Rock, Tom Calhoun, Keith Pitts, and myself, along with a Vista volunteer, Emily Davis, held a series of community meetings to introduce the programs to the residents and explain how to apply for them. The first community meeting had a turnout of more than 60 people.
Many of the residents were skeptical at first. They questioned whether any program would really provide them with free home retrofit work and free appliances. However, as some neighbors began receiving services, the word spread. An open house was held in conjunction with October Weatherization Month to explain the concept of energy efficiency, and to demonstrate the weatherization measures that were being installed. The village mayor, state senators, and state representatives attended to acknowledge the importance of weatherization work done to support the Weatherize Murray City! project.
In addition, COAD staff went door-to-door at various times of day to reach out to and persuade residents to participate in this no- or low-cost program. Flyers, brochures, and door hangers were used to publicize the project. Each household that met the program income guidelines was assisted with applying for benefits, which included a $25 home audit, with a full rebate once the work was completed. Customers could schedule an appointment with a call center for the audit. The results of the audit assigned a dollar amount to the recommended work and associated automatic rebates per square foot of work completed. In most cases, customers paid to upgrade or replace their furnaces and received insulation and air sealing at little or no cost. Gradually, thanks to word-of-mouth and persuasive customer service representatives, 74%, of occupied households were provided weatherization services.
Partnership & Collaboration
The success of this project has depended on the cooperation of many local community and industry stakeholders, each of which had existing relationships with the others and together have the ability to create the infrastructure needed to develop the unique project, and more importantly, to deliver the project services to the residents. This delivery of service was supported through leveraging programs from many national agencies and organizations. These various stakeholders and organizations are all acknowledged at the end of the article.
This innovative approach to weatherizing an entire community had not yet been successfully implemented anywhere in the nation. Murray City seemed an excellent test bed for such a pilot demonstration project. Given the size of the community and its geographic boundaries, Murray City presented a tangible scale to test the new approach.
HAPCAP services three counties by providing transportation, energy assistance, food bank nutrition assistance, and through housing and development programs. In the fall of 2010, HAPCAP had developed a relationship with the Village of Murray City through a road improvement project. To further support the Village, HAPCAP worked to identify additional community and economic development priorities through a community survey.
Working together with the Home Weatherization Assistance program, sponsored in part by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and provided by the Ohio Department of Development, HAPCAP operated fourteen trained weatherization crews across its three counties. The Murray City project allowed the weatherization crews to focus their efforts in one area at a time and to collaborate on many homes. Supervisors were able to oversee many jobs, and particular specialized jobs, to increase the efficiency of the weatherization work.
The collaboration of programs was managed in such a way as to serve all households ranging from very low-income to moderate-income. The Ohio Home Weatherization Assistance Program provided weatherization and health and safety measures to households at or below 200% of poverty level. This program was combined with state utility energy efficiency and weatherization programs to maximize the whole house approach. Columbia Gas of Ohio, through its flagship WarmChoice program, sealed air leaks and installed insulation in the walls and attics of the majority of the income-eligible homes (defined as those at or below 150% of poverty level) and identified health and safety issues that required the replacement of furnaces in those homes. American Electric Power, through its Community Assistance Program, replaced inefficient appliances, including non-Energy Star window air conditioning units, and reduced energy consumption through a variety of electric water-heating conservation measures in income-eligible homes, defined as those at or below 200% of poverty level. Incandescent light bulbs were upgraded to CFLs, for a savings of 60 watts per bulb. Efficient showerheads and faucet aerators were installed, and the tanks of electric water heaters were insulated. American Electric Power’s Community Assistance Program also provided weatherization measures on eligible total-electric homes. Refrigerators and freezers that consumed more than 3 kWh per day or were in poor condition were replaced with new energy-efficient ones. The local Lowe’s delivered the new refrigerators to customers and removed and recycled the old refrigerators.
Columbia Gas of Ohio’s Home Per-formance Solutions Program, administered by Conservation Services Group, collaborated with all parties to service non-income eligible (above 200% of poverty), natural-gas-heated homes by providing energy efficiency rebates to those customers.
The combination of programs enabled the HAPCAP to service the whole house while leveraging each type of program for eligible customers. The average cost of weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades was $6,500 per house.
Putting Faces on the Project
Let’s look at three of those eligible customers, although there are very many stories to tell. Wade G., born in 1936, has lived in the area for his entire life. He worked as a mechanic, raised two children, and was widowed in 2005. He has lived in his current home for 25 years. The gas bills in the home were excessive, and he was never comfortable with the changing seasons—too hot in the summer or drafty, damp, and cold in the winter. Mr. G. was hesitant to apply for services, but he was encouraged to do so by a young Vista volunteer who helped him through the process. Mr. G. received attic, floor, and wall insulation, CFLs, an energy-efficient refrigerator, a new hot-water tank, and a new furnace. He was impressed with the weatherization crew that worked on his home and is very happy with the work, which has made his home comfortable, safe, and efficient.
Sarah W. is a single head-of-household renter. She is disabled and is raising three children on a fixed income. Her furnace was an old unit with a cracked heat exchanger that was emitting dangerous levels of CO. She is very grateful for the work done on her home, which included air sealing and insulation, a new energy-efficient refrigerator and freezer, and a new hot-water tank. The preretrofit blower door reading on the home was 5,250 CFM50 and the postretrofit reading was 2,925 CFM50, showing that air leakage was reduced by almost half. This and the other efficiency measures have reduced her energy bills by over $400 a year, about the average savings for all the retrofit homes.
Michelle S. is the volunteer cook for senior lunches at the local community center. At first she did not wish to apply for work to be done on her house, feeling that others needed the service more than she did, although her house was drafty and expensive to heat. But after hearing about her neighbors’ positive experiences, and realizing that it was a communitywide effort, she applied. A new furnace was installed in her house, along with floor, wall, and attic insulation. “The work has made a big difference for me and the entire town,” says Ms. S. “We’re fortunate that Murray City was chosen to be weatherized by the Community Action Program.”
Murray City Snapshot
As of 2010, there were 449 people, 175 households, and 132 families residing in the village of Murray City. The median income for a household was $27,969, and the median income for a family was $32,188. Males had a median income of $30,333 versus $20,313 for females. The per capita income for the village was $12,730.
Health and Safety
The Weatherize Murray City! project has identified many health and safety problems in its homes—problems that would otherwise have gone undetected. Experts testing the safety of cook stoves, water heaters, furnaces, and other gas appliances have identified and corrected problems before they became dangerous. These problems have included cracked heat exchangers, gas leaks, high levels of CO, electrical hazards, fire hazards posed by combustion appliances, as well as mold and moisture problems. Customers were relieved to have these problems corrected, and to know that their homes were not only more comfortable but now safe to raise a family in.
Weatherization in southeast Ohio requires the collaboration of state agencies, local utility companies, community action agencies, and small business—not an easy task. The centralized management of multiple funding streams is an intrinsic part of a whole-house weatherization design model.
The Weatherize Murray City! project faced a number of challenges. The intake and outreach of a marketing campaign was new to COAD and the local HAPCAP. Each state and utility program for energy efficiency and weatherization program required a separate application process, and this process was sometimes very involved. It was always necessary to obtain income verification, proof of ownership, landlord consent, and in some cases landlord contribution, all of which became barriers to providing service. Many signatures from each utility and state agency were required on each application, and most residents needed assistance from the administrative staff to complete the applications. The outreach and intake process revealed the need to consolidate applications and signatures for programs operated within the state.
In Murray City, in all cases the initial auditor or inspector determined which measures would be implemented. A trained weatherization crew consisting of a crew leader and several crew members completed the work. Quality control was enforced on all the homes, and a supervisor performed a final inspection. Ninety percent of customers were satisfied with the work completed on their homes and the resulting comfort and savings, and the other 10% had a few concerns with changes to their homes that were immediately addressed by the HAPCAP crews.
Find out more about the Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development.
Watch a video of the Murray City project.
Weatherization Works in Murray City
This project has proven an excellent test bed for innovative approaches to public-private partnerships that will be necessary to further this country’s energy independence through a comprehensive conservation approach. By leveraging federal funds along with private utility funding and customer investments, a successful model to reduce energy consumption community-wide has emerged through the Weatherize Murray City! project. The money historically spent on utility bills can now be reinvested in the local economy—the gains are far-reaching and are still being analyzed. The project has recently been awarded the Alliance to Save Energy’s Stars of Energy Efficiency Award, which was accepted by COAD in October 2012 in Washington, D.C. The collaboration of this group of committed stakeholders is a successful model for weatherizing and revitalizing a community that we hope can be replicated in other communities nationwide. Not only has the Weatherize Murray City! project revitalized people’s lives and homes, it has revitalized the spirit of the village.
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