More Stimulus Money for Michigan Neighborhoods

  • A house set up with a blower door test. Energy auditors use this device to find out where the leaks are in your home. (Photo by Brandon Stafford)

Making a few home upgrades that will lower your heating bill sounds like a good idea.

But many homeowners just can’t afford that upfront investment. And many programs meant to defray some of that cost haven’t gotten much traction with consumers.

But the federal government’s “BetterBuildings” program is trying to change that. It’s just now getting off the ground in Michigan with money from the 2009 stimulus package.

Sarah Cwiek reports:

More information about the BetterBuildings program

A related State of Michigan site


Chris Matus is a young homeowner with a beautiful house. It’s a three-bedroom, 1927 colonial in the hip Detroit suburb of Ferndale. On a recent afternoon, Matus’s house got an energy audit from Kent Trobaugh.
He’s an advisor with the energy efficiency company Well Home.

(nat sound running under)

Trobaugh says the first step to making a home more energy efficient is finding where the leaks are. Trobaugh says homes have a sort of blood pressure, and he’s taking it here with what he calls the “blower door.” It’s a piece of canvas stretched across the front doorframe with a fan that helps depressurize the house.

“When we turn this blower door on it’s kind of like having a 20 mph wind blowing on all sides of the house simultaneously. And it helps us to walk around the house and find where that air is coming from.”

As that happens, Trobaugh and Matus start to roam the house with an infrared camera. The screen shows a landscape of blurred colors: gold is heat, purple is cold. Matus says the whole exercise reminds him of a certain movie from the 1980s.

Chris: “It feels like we’re ghostbusting.” [laughter]
Kent: “Yeah, exactly. The neighbors ask what was going on today, say the ghostbusters were here.”

Overall, Matus is getting about a thousand dollars worth of work done on his house today. But it only costs him 50. That’s because he’s taking advantage of the U.S. Department of Energy’s stimulus-funded BetterBuildings program. Michigan got 30-million dollars—the second-biggest chunk of any state.

For 50 dollars, Matus is getting the energy audit and some basic weatherization: adding insulation, sealing cracks and stuff like that. Matus says he’d love to take advantage of some of the more advanced upgrades Well Home also offers. But in the short term, his goals are a lot more modest.

“It would be fun to be able to say I’m house on the block with a geo-thermal, new hip eco-energy system. But in the short term it’s cost. Anything I can find to help keep my utility bills down is good.”

Program organizers hope that promise of savings will hook more people like Matus into making at least some basic upgrades. The BetterBuildings program is targeting more than 11,000 homes in 27 Michigan communities over the next three years. This Ferndale neighborhood is the first pilot project; organizers hope to choose most of the rest through an application process.

Gillian Ream is an outreach specialist with the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office…one of the many state and local partners implementing the program in Michigan. She says the weatherization package alone will likely reduce a household energy bill by 15-to-20 percent a year.

“You save energy which helps the environment, it reduces the burden on our infrastructure. It saves money for homeowners, which we hope is gonna help them have more money to put into the local economy. And of course it creates jobs.”

Ream says at this point, the biggest obstacle is just getting word out to homeowners.

Ultimately, the Department of Energy hopes the program will get people excited about the idea…hopefully excited enough to grow the energy efficiency industry into a bigger, more sustainable one.

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Cwiek.

The BetterBuildings team is going next to Detroit, with six more projects planned for Grand Rapids. Later projects will focus on neighborhoods around the state.

I’m Rebecca Williams.