The program, known as LEEPplus, assists qualifying low- and moderate-income customers with home improvements that can reduce energy use and lower their electric bill.
Master plumber Cyle Dunaway refers to Gainesville Regional Utilities’ (GRU) Low-Income Energy Efficiency Programplusas a blessing.
After moving to the area from South Florida, Dunaway was hired by Fletcher Plumbing, Inc., and put to work installing hot water heaters in the homes of GRU customers who were eligible for LEEPplus upgrades.
“I’ve installed at least 150 hot water heaters under the LEEP program,” said Dunaway during a recent installation at a home in Northwest Gainesville.
“It used to be one or two days a week,” he added about the frequency of water heater installations. “But now it’s five days a week.”
For Dunaway and other local installers – including HVAC, electricians, insulators, plumbers and mechanical contractors – aligning with LEEPplus and officially becoming a partnering contractor has a lasting impact on their businesses.
King’s Heating & Air Office Manager Brittney Kenney says GRU’s LEEPplus customers are the company’s biggest client. The Gainesville-based business got involved two years ago by answering the request for licensed contractors to partner with the program, which started in 2007 and has since serviced more than 1,800 homes in Gainesville.
“This is by far one of our biggest accounts,” Kenney said. “And we’ve gotten extra work from customers who were happy with our work. It’s forming lifelong customers for us and we’re very thankful for the opportunity.”
According to GRU’s Residential Efficiency Program Coordinator Scott Downie, partnering contractors are on schedule to complete energy efficient upgrades for 130 homes this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.
LEEP Program Needs More Contractors
And with the recent expansion of the program, which upped the amount of money allotted to each home, included renters as potential recipients, and received $1.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds over the next three years, LEEPplus is on a trajectory to help 150 residences or more next year and beyond. The only thing that may hold them back is a shortage of contractors to complete the work. Contractors interested in participating in LEEPplus can call 352-393-1460, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit gru.com/leep for more information.
When Scott Downie, a licensed HVAC contractor, joined GRU more than a year ago, LEEPplus had been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented him from going into homes for inspections and approving projects.
“When the lockdown hit, there were 77 customers in the pipeline,” Downie said, adding that only 10 homes benefitted from the program in 2021. But when things opened up in January 2022, “It swung in the other direction.”
In May, GRU made improvements to LEEPplus by increasing the amount of money spent per home on energy upgrades from $4,250 to $10,000, raising the program’s income threshold so more customers are eligible to receive home upgrades and by making the program available to renters.
Once determined to be eligible, LEEPplus participants work with GRU to decide the improvements that best suit their homes. These may include replacing or servicing central air conditioning and heating systems, repairing and sealing duct systems, installing additional insulation, replacing the water heater, upgrading electrical service panels, installing a programmable thermostat, weather stripping and caulking of doors and windows, and providing up to 10 LEDs.
There are more than 150 efficiency upgrade projects currently ready to be taken on by approved partnering contractors, including the installation of dozens of hot water heaters and air conditioning units.
Downie breaks down the need for more contractors by category. For those 150 approved projects, 90 percent involve HVAC, 80 percent involve water heater installation and plumbers, 30 percent will require a licensed electrician, and 80 percent are going to need insulation.
“A/C usually gets there pretty quickly and gets up and running, then sometimes we wait months for insulators,” Downie said about the shortage of contractors.
Currently, the LEEPplus Partnering Contractors list at GRU.com has 11 HVAC installers, three insulators, three water heaters, one air sealing and two electrical contractors.
Current partnering contractors recommend the program for reasons ranging from helping community members to guaranteed payment.
Virgil Dixon, sales rep for Newberry-based Suncoast Insulators & Specialties, is a current partnering contractor with the LEEPplus.
“It’s pretty easy to get the proposals out and everything is smooth-running. It’s probably one of the easiest accounts I deal with. We do five to 10 LEEP jobs a month. It’s steady work, because of the amount of work that comes through, it’s worth doing.”
Downie continues to meet LEEPplus-approved applicants in their residences, where he explains that each project requires three estimates from the list of partnering contractors before the installation can move forward.
His message to contractors interested in signing up is that it’s a win-win for both newly established and longtime local contractors.
“LEEP work is consistent year round, which is a benefit,” he said. “LEEP’s going to be there in the middle of January when you don’t have all that work. Partnering contractors will still be doing business, and that keeps you in the community.
Being part of LEEPplus is “not a one-and-done” for contractors, Downie added.
“Once you install an air conditioner you have that customer for at least 10 years if they sign a maintenance contract.
“If Fletcher Plumbing installs a water heater and two years later when they need toilets replaced, who are they likely to call? The company they have already dealt with. Work begets work.”