Energy

Insulation? A great idea. Also, unfortunately, a great scam

JULIANNE LABRECHE October 17 1977
Energy

Insulation? A great idea. Also, unfortunately, a great scam

JULIANNE LABRECHE October 17 1977

Insulation? A great idea. Also, unfortunately, a great scam

Energy

“It looks like I have a family of woodpeckers,” moans Vancouver salesman John Fell, eyeing the dozens of miniature circles inadvertently drilled in his Spanish stucco walls. The task of the two laborers he hired was simple: drill a few holes and insert foam insulation between the walls. Having bungled the drilling, they moved on to their second error: mixing too much acid with the foam. The consequence was brown-stained walls and a stench that endured for eight weeks. “I knew they were inexperienced,” Fell confesses, “but I didn’t know how inexperienced.”

Fell is only one of many unlucky Canadians being swindled in the rush to re-insulate before winter, with demand reaching a peak early in September when a federal home insulation scheme got underway. Neatly timed to a possible fall election, the fallout from the grant program has not been all good: it is providing opportunities for hucksters to prey on unwary consumers. In the first few weeks after the $1.4 | billion Canadian Home Insulation Program (CHIP) became operational on September 1, more than 17,000 Canadians contacted the project’s head office in Montreal. Of these, 13,900 have homes now eligible for a taxable grant of up to $350 to cover two thirds of the costs of insulating materials (not labor). This year, houses built before 1941 in British Columbia, Newfoundland and the two northern territories qualify, as do homes built before 1921 in New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario. By the end of the seven-year program all homes built before September 1977 will have been eligible for a federal insulation grant. In Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, where a similar program has been in operation since last February, the grant has a non-taxable ceiling of $500 and covers all insulation costs, including contracting. (The terms are more generous because these two provinces traditionally have suffered higher heating costs.)

Across the country, new insulation firms are appearing every day, many neither licensed nor bonded, and sometimes they disappear just as fast. In Winnipeg, there were 15 insulation firms last year; this year there are five full pages of insulation ads in the Yellow Pages. In Vancouver, the number of firms has doubled to 42 from the previous year. And in Toronto, about 100 new firms have started since CHIP was announced last June. Already, insulation industrialists in Toronto have formed a 10man panel to volunteer information to confused consumers and to counteract

misleading advertising. Though only about $ 1,500 is required to set up shop, installing insulation can be a tricky venture. “Everyone is getting in on the deal, bless their hearts,” says Robert Sinclair, marketing manager of Fiberglas Canada Ltd. “But this is more than just a quick-buck operation.”

Blunders and cases of blatant dishonesty have already begun to surface. In Prince Edward Island, local journalist Earle Arsenault was visited one evening by a man offering free assistance in filling out the federal insulation forms. He said he was a government official. Arsenault later discovered the man was nothing of the kind: he was getting kickbacks for each contract he brought back signed. And in Toronto, a businessman hired workmen to insert foam insulation between the walls. It was his small son who discovered they were pumping in nothing but air. Consumer complaint bureaus are swamped with calls about similar misadventures, and they expect a rush of complaints come winter, when new insulation will fast show its worth. Inexperienced contractors often use inadequate or downright dangerous insulation, such as cellulose fibre (chopped-up newspaper) which has not been made fire resistant. At best, says a member of the Nova Scotia Consumer Services Bureau, choosing the wrong insulation can “make a hell of a mess of the place.” At worst, says federal Conservative housing critic James McGrath, “many people are

turning their homes into fire traps.”

CHIP officials promise that proper insulation will reduce heating bills by one third, about $180 a year on average—but only if the homeowner makes the right choice from the more than 235 government-approved materials. As well, the maximum grant of $350 does not go as far as people might think, except for the handy do-it-yourselfers toward whom the program is geared. A two-child family with a taxable income of $15,000 will pay back about one third of the grant, or $118, through taxes. Many homeowners ask contractors to do the work, which ups the price significantly. In Halifax, the average price charged by a large contracting company for insulating a basement is $2,250. It would be 20 years before a homeowner could turn such spendings into savings. The same job done by a do-it-yourselfer costs $250.

Meanwhile, 60 civil servants are nestled in Prime Minister Trudeau’s home constituency in Montreal—administering a program the Quebec government (along with Alberta) has rejected. They’re counting on re-insulation projects adding up to one billion dollars’ worth of savings on imported oil—the equivalent of VA Syncrude-sized oil plants each year. And that, they say, “is nothing to sneeze at,” despite the rip-offs which likely will persist. For, as one politician has observed, “the program is a great come-on for a door-to-door salesman.” JULIANNE LABRECHE