Talk about hiding in plain sight: Consider a row of houses the day after a snowstorm, most with roofs frosted like cupcakes, broken up by a few roofs where all the snow has gone. Most people driving by don't see anything special. Craig Stinehour sees money.
Stinehour knows a home with a bare roof is a sure sign its attic lacks enough insulation to stop heat from escaping. When that happens, it's time for the dealer from Collins Cashway in Loveland, Colo., to knock on the door and sell the owner on the idea of weatherizing her attic. Even better, Stinehour often can point out that the state of Colorado will pay up 20% of the cost.
Retrofit insulation programs have long been the red-headed stepchildren of the green construction movement, ignored in favor of new homes and products. But unlike other green projects that appear enticing until one sees the price tag, retrofit costs can be paid for in part out of more than 900 rebate, grant, and loan programs offered in nearly every state. (Note: New programs are introduced frequently. Visit www.dsireusa.org for a current list.)
In Utah, a person using Rocky Mountain Power and Questar Gas can get rebates from both utilities for retrofit projects. Together, the two pay 70 to 90 cents per square foot of insulation. The combined rebates are so generous that a homeowner's cost of retrofitting is "virtually free," says Clint Panter, head of Stock Building Supply's retrofit team in Lindon, Utah. Given that incentive, it's not surprising that Panter's group retrofits 500 Utah attics per month. And the margins are good, too; Panter says the profit can range between 30% and 80%.
The government and utility programs are getting a huge national assist. The federal government's economic stimulus act provides $9 billion to repair and modernize public housing projects, Native American housing programs, and low-income housing. In addition, the act triples the credit that homeowners get for buying energy-efficient improvements, such as insulation, exterior windows, and doors, to 30% or $1,500.
This money comes at a time when attitudes about minimum insulation levels are changing. "What was an R-11 market is now an R-13. What was an R-30 market is now an R-38," said Dan Ohmer, Guardian Building Products' vice president of retail sales, in January at Guardian's Installed Sales Program conference. Ohmer noted that the Department of Energy now says all attics in new wood-framed homes nationwide should have at least an R-30 level of insulation, and everywhere but around Miami the government recommends an R-60 level. (See map.)
Guardian isn't the only company seeing big opportunities in retrofitting. CertainTeed has launched a program in which dealers can rent to consumers and pros a simple new system to blow fiberglass insulation into an attic. Dealers also can use the machine and offer installations. Meanwhile, at a Huttig Building Products conference near St. Louis in February, Owens Corning touted its products and declared that "pink is the new green"–an obvious play on the color of its batting.
Retrofits differ from new-home installations in several ways, beginning with the fact that sales are made one at a time. Panter hires outside salespeople for the task and pays them solely on commission, typically 15% to 20% of the cost of the job. Each job requires a home visit, and installers learn quickly to avoid the No. 1 customer complaint: leaving a mess.
Commercial and multifamily retrofits have their own tricks, participants at another Guardian session said. Among the keys: Make sure you get a proper scope of work prior to bidding; pay attention to the accuracy of your takeoffs; be aware of differences in commercial and residential codes; and meet deadlines. "You cannot tell them you will be there Thursday when they need you Tuesday," says Lex Dominey, head of Rocket Insulation in Albuquerque, N.M. "Service to the multifamily guys is more intense than to the production builders."