Though temperatures the night before had dipped into the upper 30s, Marilyn Greely said she had slept cozy in her east Birmingham home, which is newly weatherized thanks to an infusion of federal stimulus dollars.
"There was an immediate difference made," she said. "You walk in the basement and it is toasty warm. Last night, we slept without the heat on."
Under the federal stimulus bill, Alabama received $72 million to be spent over three years on sealing leaks, insulating and improving energy efficiency for low-income households.
That works out to $24 million a year, eight times the $3 million annual allotment the state normally receives for the program.
After a slow start and a daunting load of paperwork, the program administrators say the program is now in high gear, and they have hopes of spending the allotted money by the March 31, 2012, deadline.
As of Oct. 31, 3,159 homes statewide had been weatherized, including 350 in Jefferson County, where work on more than 100 other homes is in progress.
The program is intended to provide multiple spin-off benefits. It puts contractors to work at a time when construction activity is slow. It improves comfort and provides energy savings for homeowners, leaving them with more cash in their pockets over the long term. It makes a dent in power demand and decreases pollution and greenhouse gases from power production.
Contractors close up a house and use air flow machinery to track chief places where the house is losing heat or cooled air. After identifying problem areas, the contractors go to work sealing and caulking, re-glazing windows and installing insulation in attics and crawl spaces. They also wrap insulation around water heaters and water lines and swap out incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent ones. In the average house, the job costs $6,500.
"By the time we are finished, the client will see some tremendous savings as far as their energy consumption is concerned," said John Woods, who administers the program at the local level under the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity.
Greely has been in her 2,200-square-foot house for more than 40 years. For much of the year, Greely, retired and 64 years old, hosts her older sister, Faye Moore, who is 72 and fighting cancer. She's always been interested in saving money through energy efficiency.
"If you don't, you are just letting dollars get out under the door. That is not smart," she said.
The assistance program allowed her to do the kind of comprehensive remake it would have taken years to do otherwise.
"It helps the contractors. They get paid. It helps Lowe's because they have to buy the materials," she said. "It trickles down."
The program has not been without problems and criticism. The rush of stimulus money suddenly available and the accountability requirements the legislation contained were daunting, said Kit Gallup, ADECA's weatherization program manager.
Participation in the program requires certified training and an investment in new equipment. Weatherization contracts are awarded by a process of sealed competitive bids. So interested contractors have to put in time and money, and they are not guaranteed to get a job.
"I hear from a lot of angry contractors," Gallup said.
Even after a contractor wins a bid, complicated paperwork is required to comply with the federal rules. For instance, when submitting claims for reimbursements, a contractor has to certify that payments made to workers comply with the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires workers in various counties to be paid the prevailing wage.
"It is confusing and convoluted," Gallup said. "I empathize with the contractors enormously."
But for H.C. Whitney LLC, the contracting company that weatherized Greely's house, the program has been a real help in a slow time.
According to Whitney's executive vice president, Jay Wilson, his company already had the equipment and training through government projects it had worked in the past. That work also prepared the company for the paperwork burden. The stimulus hit at a good time, because the residential side of the construction business had stalled.
"We've won 150 contracts over the past year," Wilson said. "This is, quite frankly, keeping out our crews operating on the residential side."
Gallup said there now are plenty of trained and qualified contractors to meet the demand.
Although the state so far has spent only about $27 million of the $72 million set aside for weatherization assistance, officials believe they now have enough trained contractors and the required accountability measures in place so that the whole amount can be spent before the 2012 deadline.
About 13,500 applicants for the work already are on file, Gallup said, but he encourages people to continue to apply.
The weatherization grants are awarded on the basis of need, not on a first come- first-served basis. Priority is given to households with elderly or handicapped residents or children.
"We work on a priority needs basis. Every applicant is scored," Gallup said.
When the stimulus money dries up, there likely will be a steep drop off in government money available, but it is hoped that the expanded work force of weatherization contractors will find work in the general residential market as middle-class homeowners look for ways to save money and add value to their homes, Gallup said.
Though it might seem counter-intuitive, Alabama Power is a fan of having its customers save energy, according to company spokesman Michael Sznajderman.
By reducing energy demand at peak times, the utility can avoid the huge costs associated with building new power plants, a cost that ultimately would be borne by all consumers.
"We have to build power plants to meet the hottest peak summer day, and the more energy efficient we can make our customers, the longer we can delay the day we have to build a new $5 billion plant," he said.