The owner of a hard-to-heat 1923 Northeast Baltimore home became curious when she heard the news reports of weatherization assistance being offered through a federal economic stimulus recovery act.
Beth Steinbach never raises her thermostat above 65 degrees in her Lauraville frame house. As the mother of four young children, she was looking for ways to get her winter utility bill below the $260 a month she was paying. So she called City Hall.
A team of municipal draft busters spent several hours at her Southern Avenue home Tuesday. They examined the furnace and hot water heater. They attached an oversize fan to the front door and drew air out of the house to accentuate drafts. They discovered numerous air escape routes, including uninsulated cavities in the family's attic.
The energy audit was free to Steinbach and her husband, Rob, who are among the first families to quality for an expanded Weatherization Assistance Program funded by the federal program. About $15.7 million is available to city residents through the program, which hopes to help 700 families per year.
The Steinbach household of six received the energy diagnosis and qualified for the corrective work, which will begin within two weeks, with an income of less than $59,060.
"We don't want to think of this as a poverty program," said Ken Strong, the director of Energy Efficient Homes, an agency of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development that is overseeing the program. "The house qualified because it was in good condition. If it had a bad roof, we wouldn't have been able to help."
As a result, the Steinbachs will get about $5,000 worth of weatherization in the form of furnace adjustments, insulation and sealed air passages.
Strong said city homeowners and renters can request weatherization assistance by calling 311.
The energy-loss investigators found that the Steinbachs' three-story home, which includes an attic, was vulnerable to leaks around a kitchen-bath addition that had been put on decades ago when fuel costs were not as much a concern as they are today. The added rooms and bath were leaking warm air because of insufficient insulation.
"Ninety percent of what we do you will never see," said Michael A. Lafferty, a city Department of Housing and Community Development buildings superintendent, as he completed a study of the home, which the couple bought two years ago for about $235,000.
"There is no general rule about Baltimore houses," he said. "Rowhouses differ from neighborhood to neighborhood. They can all lose heat. Even if they are a middle unit, they can be just as inefficient as the end unit."
Baltimore housing officials trained six energy auditors who graduated Monday from a three-week course offered at the Community College of Baltimore City and Sojourner-Douglass College. Many were unemployed or municipal workers soon to be laid off.
According to the rules of the program, a household of three can make $36,620 and qualify for the weatherization energy program. The program addresses furnaces and boilers and installing energy-efficient light bulbs, and low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators. No funds are provided to pay utility bills.
Lafferty says the funds generally will not address installing new windows, which he said are often incorrectly thought to be a way to save on energy. "It takes 90 years on average to pay back the cost of a replacement window," he said.