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Secrets of a Tribal Energy Auditor

March 15, 2012 - 11:18am


Fawn Metcalf is an energy auditor with the Sieltz Tribal Energy Program in Oregon. Follow her through crawl spaces and under houses as she helps modest-income families save money and stay healthy and dry.

On a tiny, rural reservation 10 miles east of Newport, Oregon, Fawn Metcalf gets to work. Adorned in pink overalls and polka-dotted work boots, Metcalf prepares to crawl under the home of a family in Siletz.

Metcalf is focused on her goal of helping modest-income families save money and stay healthy and dry. “It’s gratifying to know that you are making a big difference in people’s lives,” says Metcalf. 

With a facemask in place, she tests for airflow leaks in every nook and cranny using a variety of machines and devices. Sometimes she finds other structural problems that can jeopardize the homeowners’ physical and financial wellbeing.

Oregon’s wet winters create a lush landscape, but that moisture can also create unhealthy conditions inside homes. “Our biggest problem is mold,” said Metcalf. 

Just ask resident Laura Bremner and her family of eight. 

“We were sick from October, when it started raining, all the way through ‘til April or June,” said Bremner, who moved into the brand new four-bedroom modular home in 2000. At one point, Bremner’s 8-year-old daughter was forced to move because of a bacterial lung infection that kept her on oxygen.   

After Metcalf audited Bremner’s house, the Siletz Tribal Energy Program installed an Energy Smart furnace, a dehumidifier, and a whole-house ventilation system. Some drywall was also replaced. Within a few months, the dangerous black mold disappeared. For the first time in more than 10 years, the Bremner family finally stopped getting sick. That was nine months ago.

Metcalf was trained and certified with funding provided by the Bonneville Power Administration’s Low-Income Energy Efficiency program, the Administration for Native Americans and the Department of Energy. This BPA energy efficiency program gives funds directly to the state or tribal service provider rather than to a local utility. The annual budget includes $500,000 that goes directly to the tribes. 

“Our small budget allows us to have that personal relationship. We have a small territory, a certain number of tribes that we work with,” said Carrie Nelson, BPA’s LIEE program manager. “We go visit them directly. We can really cater the program to them.”

Each tribe has different needs. Some hire contractors to perform the work. Others use the funding to train and certify a tribal member as an inspector or auditor. Once certified, the funding from BPA pays the wages for work done on the reservation. Plus, the auditor has gained a skill set that can be put to use anywhere. Once the tribe has a trained crew in place, it can then spend the funds on weatherizing members’ homes and businesses.

Last year, clients included both residential and commercial customers. Retrofits included insulation, heat pumps and dehumidifiers. Energy and water efforts consisted of:

  • 3,248 compact fluorescent light bulbs distributed and installed for 126 tribal households
  • 32 low-flow showerheads and aerators distributed and installed
  • 53 do-it-yourself weatherization kits distributed
  • 61 Energy Star appliances provided to low-income eligible tribal members
  • 30 tribal homes audited for energy efficiency
  • 11 tribal homes weatherized

To a tribal family in the Northwest, the results of a home weatherization can go beyond comfort and lower energy bills. By participating in an energy audit, families can gain benefits that are dramatic and long lasting.

“It creates savings, comfort and wellness. The funding literally changes lives,” Nelson said.