Pilot Program

Healthy AIR program paves way to weatherization

For years, many homes that qualified for weatherization services in Minnesota couldn’t receive those services because of vermiculite insulation in the attic. Weatherization crews or contractors could not work on a home until the hazardous material was removed.

This year, thanks to the Healthy AIR (Asbestos Insulation Remediation) pilot program, many of these homes and low-income homeowners are getting the help they need—to both remove the vermiculite insulation and weatherize their homes.

This has been a chronically underserved population for years. These low-income homeowners have faced a double whammy: a house with hazardous materials in the insulation, and one that badly needs energy upgrades to reduce energy use and utility costs.

Peter Gens with Weatherization Assistance and Healthy AIR programs

The presence of vermiculite insulation in attics is the main cause of weatherization deferrals throughout the state. Vermiculite insulation may contain asbestos, which is known to cause cancer. Asbestos is a mineral fiber that is very toxic if inhaled. It has been known for many years that workers exposed to asbestos may suffer from asbestos-related diseases. Insulation with asbestos was made between 1938 and 1989 and is common in older homes in Minnesota.

Homeowners with vermiculite insulation should assume it contains asbestos. Homeowners planning to weatherize or remodel should not attempt to remove the insulation themselves. A professional asbestos contractor can safely remove it.

The cost to remove vermiculite insulation from an attic—about $7,500—is too expensive for most low-income homeowners, as is the cost to weatherize homes.

The Healthy AIR grant program is a pilot with about $300,000 in state funding. The program is administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce through its Weatherization Assistance Program.

Gens said funding for the program, which pays to remove vermiculite insulation in attics, has been used up quickly. Thirty-five projects have been approved as of September 2018 and only minimal funding remains.

Semcac eager for grant opportunity

Semcac, the community action agency based in Rushford, Minnesota, that provides weatherization services to people in southeastern Minnesota, was quick to pursue the Healthy AIR program. Melissa Feine, Semcac’s weatherization coordinator, reported that her agency has assisted 20 homes through the Healthy AIR grant. Most of those households had qualified for weatherization services long ago, but work was delayed until funding was acquired to remove the threat of asbestos.

Shortly after the vermiculite insulation removal, weatherization work is provided to those homes. The state’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) is able to come in and conduct an energy audit and make necessary energy improvements (e.g., repair or replace heating equipment, seal air leaks, insulate attics and/or walls) to reduce the energy bills of a home.

Health and efficiency benefits

“It’s been a win-win for many households in our area,” Feine said. “The Healthy AIR program allows us to remove a serious health hazard to the home so we can provide much-needed energy upgrades.”

All vermiculite remediation is conducted by a contractor who is licensed by the Minnesota Department of Health. The vermiculite must be disposed of in compliance with state and local rules and regulations.

After vermiculite insulation is removed, weatherization crews begin air sealing attic bypasses, as shown above, and adding new insulation.

Once the old insulation is removed, weatherization crews come in to air seal the attic and add insulation. When the attic is filled with new insulation, the R-value (or thermal resistance) is easily 30% better than the old insulation, greatly enhancing the energy-saving quality of the home.

After vermiculite insulation is removed, weatherization crews begin air sealing attic bypasses, as shown above, and adding new insulation.

In the past program year (July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018), 2,025 households in Minnesota received weatherization. The program served a wide range of income-qualifying individuals, including 675 people 65 or older and 533 disabled individuals. To qualify, household income must be at or below 200% of Federal Poverty Income Guidelines ($50,200 for household of four). Weatherization helps decrease a household’s annual energy costs by about 30%.

“Our Healthy AIR clients are so grateful, because their homes are rid of the asbestos, their utility bills drop, and their health and comfort level rises,” said Feine. “We hope for continued Healthy AIR funding, because the demand is clearly there throughout the state.”

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