Efficiency Angel

Brenda Franklin, energy auditor and low-income program coordinator, Neighborhood Energy Connection, St. Paul, Minnesota

Brenda Franklin, energy auditor and low-income program coordinator, Neighborhood Energy Connection, St. Paul, Minnesota. |  Photo by Rubinstein Photo

I started out as a union carpenter back in 1994. I was an insulator for three and a half years before moving to commercial carpentry. After 15 years I hurt my back, and that was the end of my construction career. I was off work for about a year and a half and happened to find the Neighborhood Energy Connection. I applied as a crew member, but they wanted me to be a crew leader. I started in 2010, trained to be an energy auditor, and took over the low-income program. My life has come full circle. I didn't think I'd ever be back on the energy side of things. 

When low-income customers get energy assistance, the money goes to the utility to help pay their bills. So the utilities approach them further, knowing that financial assistance may not be enough. That's how we sign them up for visits. The customers get all the work done for free.

I go around the house and inspect everything. I look to see how much insulation is in the attic and walls, do safety tests on the furnace and water heater to make sure they're not backdrafting or leaking carbon monoxide. Ventilation is always an issue, so I measure the flow of exhaust fans and make sure that once we tighten up the house, we're not going to create moisture issues. I have a crew with me that does some quick and easy installs--changing lightbulbs, replacing thermostats, that kind of thing.

I write up a "scope of work" and price it, then submit a work order. There's a certain budget per house, and it's up to us to prioritize the most important items. A contractor does the work, and then an inspector goes back out and makes sure the work has been done to our specifications. 

So many homeowners don't have a clue about their houses. I can't tell you how many homes I've been to where people have never looked in their attic. I've been in houses that had been burned and gutted and later fixed, but the attic was still charred and had structural damage. The homeowners didn't know because they hadn't looked in the attic before they bought it. 

I show homeowners what they can do to lower their utility bills. They can seal air leaks, put weather stripping on doors, put 3M plastic on windows, and install water-saving devices like low-flow aerators. There's a great device called TED [the Energy Detective], which monitors your electrical usage throughout the day. It seems like everything we have is still using electricity even though it's turned off. That's called "phantom load." I can tell people they need insulation and this and that, but the biggest thing is making people aware of the little things they can do every day to help save energy. 

I've had some gratifying moments. There have been elderly people with high carbon monoxide levels and no idea that it's happening until we get there and test their furnace. We have an HVAC [heating, ventilation, air-conditioning] person come out that day and replace their furnace. It's potentially saving a life. 

There are frustrating moments too. Here's this wonderful program that puts dollars out there to help families, and some people don't have the areas cleaned out ahead of time so that we can do a full inspection. Some of the houses are filthy--extreme hoarding and that sort of thing. There are some sketchy situations where you wonder whether it's safe to be there. But so far I haven't had to call the police or anything. 

I wouldn't be the person I am today if it wasn't for my time in construction. I am very tolerant. You put up with a lot that would never be tolerated in another work environment. I'm not as physically strong as I once was, but I'm mentally and emotionally tough. I don't think I'd be able to crawl around attics if I hadn't developed that toughness from being in construction.

The best part of my job is when I am able to help these people get insulation, a new furnace, something you know they can't afford. They're working so hard at their jobs but can't make ends meet. I get hugs and tears when I tell them, "This is what you're getting." They can't believe they're getting it for free. 

This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign

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