Manufactured homes are among the few affordable housing options for many low-income Minnesotans, but they can be notoriously drafty and expensive to heat and cool, placing a significant energy load on many residents.

A public-private partnership is reporting progress with an initiative to reduce that burden by connecting manufactured home communities with local utility programs and weatherization contractors paid for with federal dollars.

The Clean Energy Resource Teams aim to reduce the energy load of all Minnesotans to less than 5% of their income. Over the past four years, he’s made a special effort to target manufactured home communities, where about half of residents earn less than $35,000 a year.

“There is a real opportunity to reduce their energy load,” said Joel Haskard, co-director of Clean Energy Resources Teams, a collaboration involving the University of Minnesota Extension Service, the Great Plains Institute, the Southwest Regional Development Commission and the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

More than 180,000 Minnesotans live in manufactured homes, some of which were designed for southern climates and have little insulation to protect against the rigors of the state’s harsh winters.

A Minnesota Department of Commerce report released in 2016 indicates that half of community residents are eligible for low-income weatherization. More than 40% use electric radiators in winter for heating. Faced with a tough energy load, two-thirds of residents are open to energy efficiency measures, but a third said financial constraints could hold them back.

Clean Energy Resource Teams has received three grants of $25,000 each to focus on manufactured home communities over the past four years. Although small, the grants have allowed the organization to conduct pilot projects in communities to see what works. The most recent program reached 22 communities.

Despite the mobilization, obstacles remain. Staff print out energy information in multiple languages, but not all residents understand the benefits of a more efficient home. Not all residents want help from the government or nonprofits to improve their homes either, Haskard said.

Utility programs exist to help pay for efficiency improvements. However, residents often still have to pay part of the cost and they lack the necessary financial assets, Haskard said.

Yet the Clean Energy Resource Teams have come up with a strategy that seems to be working. First, they find a factory manager or community leader to help create an event known as a “blitz”. Then, instead of relying on their goodwill, the nonprofit organization offers community leaders a $300 gift card to justify their time.

Leaders pick a day for the blitz, usually when rent is due or a community event is being held. At the event, leaders enroll residents for federal energy assistance if they are eligible, offer a conservation kit, and sometimes direct them to local utility representatives who can help.

Haskard said utilities sometimes offer to trade in fixtures for new ones and give out conservation kits that include LEDs, faucet aerators, low-flow showerheads, window stickers and heating tape that keep pipes warm during colder seasons.

“We try to give them some advice,” Haskard said. “If it’s recent immigrants, this housing may still be a relatively new concept with many different systems, like radiators and boilers. We try to help them better understand how to keep their home safe, comfortable and as profitable as possible. »

Northfield Healthy Communities Initiative provides energy efficiency kits to manufactured homes. Credit: CERT / Courtesy

Residents also hear about weatherization programs in their area from local suppliers and Home Energy Squad, an energy efficiency program offered by Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy through the Center for Energy and Climate. ‘environment. Home Energy Squad personnel performed on-site work on the manufactured homes, such as weather stripping and other quick fixes.

Manufactured homes have little insulation compared to typical homes, he said, and they tend to reside under floors. Weatherization can replace insulation made of better materials that will reduce the bite of winter heating costs, he said.

Clean Energy Resource teams and their associates often knocked on the doors of residents who had not attended the event and delivered conservation kits while answering questions. The effort reached just over half of all park residents. “We try to cover the entire park as much as possible,” he said.

Many residents have taken the advice and signed up for weatherization or used the kit to make their own modifications to reduce their energy use. Haskard estimates that the 22 parks served by the program will collectively save more than $53,000 annually on energy bills.

The most responsive, unsurprisingly, were parks owned by tenants, not real estate companies. “They own the land below, they own their units, they own the office,” Haskard said. “It’s great to work with them because they understand that saving energy helps residents save money.”

Northfield’s nonprofit Growing Up Healthy has distributed conservation kits at community gatherings and received positive feedback at parks, said Jennyffer Barrientos, executive director. The kits included expanding foam for insulation, window stickers and other items to improve their homes, she said, adding that some residents had received prior training on using the materials.

Barrientos said the pandemic was limiting scope for dropping off kits, but she’s heard of families adding programmable thermostats and replacing old light bulbs with LEDs. Now, Growing Up Healthy is working with Northfield and Faribault to encourage mobile home residents to sign up for free Home Energy Squad tours.

The Healthy Community initiative supports Growing Up Healthy. Its senior director, Sandy Malecha, said the organization created a mobile home rehabilitation coordinator position to work with residents after seeing the need emerging from the manufactured home energy program. The coordinator will help residents make repairs, add insulation, install weatherstripping and replace furnace filters.

Organizations that participated said the events provided an opportunity to reach residents who may not be familiar with the different programs. For example, Willmar Municipal Utilities attended an event at Regency Mobile Home Park last year and conducted outreach to many immigrant families who live in one of the city’s manufactured home communities, a said Christopher Radel, Safety and Energy Coordinator.

When the children returned from school by bus, Radel and others spoke to their parents, working closely with two Spanish-speaking translators and Karen. More than 75 people were present. The utility distributed LED light bulbs, information on rebates and water conservation. Nonprofits at the event reached out to people having trouble paying utility bills, considering Headstart, or seeking opportunities to teach English as a second language. “It was very successful,” Radel said.

The Carolyn Foundation recently awarded another $25,000 grant to Clean Energy Resource Teams, and Haskard hopes to use it to bring solar power to four to eight communities. One way to reduce energy loads would be to install solar panels on community centers or park offices, which residents support financially. Another approach would be to build community solar gardens with subscriptions targeting residents.

The organization will also work with manufactured home communities on energy programs sponsored by the Department of Commerce or foundations. “We have great plans ahead,” he said.