Contractors make homes more energy efficient, safer


Tim Dombroski and Bruce Walker seem to be very different people, but both contractors are enthusiastic participants in the federally funded home weatherization program, kicked into high gear by additional funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Dombroski played fullback at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2000. Now he's the 34-year-old vice president of Jetstream Construction, a general construction business that employs more than 50 people and hires union workers.

Walker, 52, got his contractor's license in New Mexico in 1997, and moved here in 2004. He and his wife, Cynthia, run CyBr Construction, which employes 16 people, including themselves. It's a nonunion shop and he personally does some hands-on work.

Both companies are among eight contractors used by HELP of Southern Nevada, the most productive of six nonprofit agencies administering weatherization grants to low-income residents in Nevada. Walker said it's perhaps 15 percent of his business; Dombroski said it's a similarly small part, but a significant one.

"At this point the government is the only party that wants to pay for weatherization," Walker said. "We tried doing this as private business also, and got nowhere."

But Cynthia Walker says she thinks private-owner interest is coming, and she looks forward to it.

People who want to lower their heating and cooling bills and believe they meet low-income guidelines can contact the nonprofit that administers the program in their community. If the nonprofit determines they qualify, they'll assign the house to one of their contractors. The contractor will conduct an assessment of the dwelling.

"We look first for health and safety issues," Bruce Walker said. "Sometimes we actually save somebody's life at that stage. We'll find a carbon monoxide leak that would have killed them eventually. When we do that, it's pretty satisfying."

They determine whether the house will be fit for habitation even after weatherization. "If it's falling apart we're not going to throw money at it," he explained. But nearly all houses pass that test, including one Walker's company weatherized in Goodsprings; it was built in 1916.

The contractors evaluate a specific list of criteria, such as attic insulation, the age and condition of the air conditioner, and ductwork. They then recommend to the grant managing organization the steps that should be taken to weatherize the house. The steps they're allowed to recommend are supposed to follow a list of priorities, according to the ones that will give the most energy savings per dollar invested. Drafty window frames rarely get replaced because the energy savings won't offset the cost, but Dombroski estimated 95 percent of the assessed houses get ductwork repairs. Sponsoring organizations set a price they will pay for a given modification, so the bidding is not competitive. The average weatherizing job in Nevada cost $3,020 last year.

"You have to be really careful in this work," Dombroski said. "One reason is that the jobs are so small that if the inspector makes you go back and fix something, you have lost all your profit. But another is that I grew up in a mobile home myself. ... You have to empathize a little. These clients have this one shot only to get this work done, to make their lives a little easier. So I tell my workers, when they're up in that attic, I want them treating that job like they were doing it for their own grandmothers."

After a state law was passed requiring that half the people on every weatherization job be graduates of ARRA-funded weatherization training programs, both contractors sent some of their own people to the courses run in this state by the Nevada Department of Training and Rehabilitation. Each hired only a handful of people newly trained in that program.

"They definitely overestimated the demand for these workers," Walker said. But that said, he found the new workers had been well trained by the nonunion contractors' organization Associated Builders and Contractors. Dombroski was equally satisfied with those he hired, trained by the Laborers International Union Local 872. And the union has been quick to implement suggested improvements into the training, he said.

Walker said, "We often meet elderly women, now widowed, who are kind of at a loss without their husband's handyman skills. And for a person like that, this program can mean they get to keep their house instead of losing it, because in this climate you can't live in a house if the air conditioning doesn't work."

Contact A.D. Hopkins at adhopkins@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0270.

 

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