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Power Woes Mean Comfort for Insulation Firms

Contracting: Valley companies that equip buildings to stay warm in winter, cool in summer are seeing a sharp increase in consumer interest.


Between running his business from home and needing to keep his house warm after his wife gave birth to their first child, Scott Kindseth was being hit particularly hard by rising energy costs this winter.

"Every time the heater clicked on, I would see dollar signs," said the Woodland Hills finished-carpentry contractor.

The soaring cost of staying warm was enough to prompt Kindseth to get insulation for his home, which was built in 1957, more than two decades before the energy-saving material became required in all new home construction in the state.

Against the backdrop of rising utility bills and increased attention to energy conservation, business is booming for insulation contractors in the Valley.

"As soon as everybody started hearing about the energy crisis in the media, our business took off," said Steve Anderson, who reports that his Progressive Insulation Co. in Chatsworth has gotten triple the number of insulation jobs versus this time last year.

"We're rockin'," agreed Steve Reisman, owner of Everguard Home Insulation Products in Sherman Oaks.

Reisman estimates that he's 25%-40% busier than usual, and that as many as one-third of customer calls are in direct response to the power crisis. To keep pace with the demand, he recently purchased an additional truck and equipment.

Insulation reduces energy usage by minimizing the amount of hot or cold air coming into the house, and by holding in the heat from the heater or the cool air from the air conditioner longer. This requires the units to run less often and for shorter periods.

Insulating an attic in an existing home of about 1,200 square feet generally costs between $650 and $700. (The attic is the most important area to insulate, though floors, walls and windows also may be insulated.)

That investment is often returned within a year or two by savings on utility bills of as much as 40% for homeowners who go from no insulation to full insulation. The savings are generally year-round, cutting back on gas bills for heating in the winter and on electricity bills for air conditioning in the summer.

Building energy efficiency standards that took effect in 1978 require insulation of walls and attics of all new homes in the state. But in Reisman's experience, the vast majority of Valley homes built before 1978 are insufficiently insulated.

"Most people are thoroughly clueless as to what's in their attic," he said.

But as the state's power shortage heightens awareness of the importance of insulation, many are taking a peek--or asking an insulation contractor to do it for them.

The calls aren't limited to residents of older homes. Anderson notes that the original building standards required lower insulation levels than the current standard. As a result, many people who purchased new homes in the late 1970s and 1980s are opting for a retrofit to the current level.

Even buyers of newly built homes, in which insulation is mandatory, are thinking about the material's benefits.

"About every tenth call the person will ask, 'Is this going to help me on my energy bills?' " said Chip Rood, a partner at Broken Drum Insulation in Northridge, which gets many of its jobs from new construction. "That's not something people used to ask."

A sizable chunk of the Valley insulation business is also coming from owners of older homes who previously installed air conditioning units without adding insulation at the same time. This chagrins insulation contractors, who believe their air conditioning and heating colleagues should be duty-bound when they go to such jobs to explain the economic rationale for insulating.

"A lot of people didn't feel they needed it before," said Larry Holmquist, owner of All-Weather Insulation in Canoga Park. "But without adequate insulation, your unit is constantly running, and it's going to burn out."


Those who were in business during the energy crisis of the 1970s say the demand for insulation hasn't gotten to the level it reached during that time--not yet, anyway.

"In the mid-'70s, insulation was a luxury," said Progressive Insulation Co.'s Anderson. "When the new construction standards made insulation a requirement, the demand probably went up tenfold. If you could get a bag of insulation, you could sell it for just about anything."

The utility companies followed with rebate programs and low-interest financing options for insulating, and the result was a decade-long run in which the focus was on retrofitting existing homes, Anderson said.

Ron McKnight, owner of Valley Insulation in Northridge, says he was blowing in 75,000 square feet of insulation a week until the mid-1980s. After that, he notes, calls from homeowners seeking to insulate their homes became sporadic.

"It's just starting up again," said McKnight, who experienced a 25% increase in calls last month--including one from a friend who said she had never received an energy bill for more than $75, and suddenly saw her tab jump to $200.

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