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I-Team: Complaints About Mass Save Program Draw Scrutiny From Attorney General

BOSTON (CBS) -- Talk about your highs and lows. Just hours after Doug and Lea Sims welcomed their first child to the world in November 2014, the new father got a concerning call at the hospital.

"My heart really sunk at that point," Doug remembered.

He learned firefighters were at his home in Carver, putting out flames that had sparked just feet away from the nursery they had carefully prepared.

"Most of the damage happened right in that area," Doug said. "You come home and everything you worked so hard for is pretty much ruined."

While workers repaired the home, the young family spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in a trailer parked in the driveway.

Investigators determined the culprit was insulation that was improperly installed against a wood stove pipe.

"It's a pretty cut and dry thing," Doug said. "There's a space there for a reason. It's not supposed to be filled in with anything."

Months earlier, the couple had added insulation to their home, thanks to incentives provided by the Mass Save program.

The enormous statewide initiative provides free energy assessments for homeowners and allows them to get subsidized energy upgrades to save energy and money. Roughly 100,000 Massachusetts residents take advantage of the program every year.

Utility companies like Eversource and National Grid manage the program, which is largely funded by a surcharge consumers pay on their monthly energy bills.

But the contractor assigned to the Sims' home had failed to pull a permit, so the insulation job never got a second look.

"In hindsight, I wish I'd asked about it," Doug said. "I'm 99 percent sure if a permit was pulled and the inspector came out to the job site, it's something that would've been corrected."

Attorney Marc Chapdelaine represents a Saugus family who also opted for insulation work after receiving a Mass Save assessment.

However, during installation, workers punctured the heating system ductwork, filling it with cellulose.

"The first time the furnace came on, the entire house filled up with black smoke," Chapdelaine said. "They had to throw everything away."
Chapdelaine said his clients moved out of the house for several months while cleanup occurred. Even after returning, he said the family had respiratory problems. They eventually sold the home for a price below market value.

"Nobody had the requisite training to do this work and that's the big issue we see here," explained Chapdelaine, who has a pending civil case in Essex County. "There's got to be oversight. There has to be somebody from the top looking down."

Cambridge resident Ann Sweeney also questioned the professional expertise of workers who provided weatherization upgrades at her home. Among problems she encountered, Sweeney said the sloppy application of insulation foam inadvertently glued a ski boot to the attic floor.
"One guy was clearly doing the work for the first time and was being trained on the job," Sweeney said. "Unfortunately, this inaugural training happened at my home."

The I-Team spoke with Attorney General Maura Healey about some of the complaints, asking if there is enough oversight for consumers who participate in the Mass Save program.

"It's something that we're looking at," Healey said.

Scrutiny about the program first surfaced in a February I-Team report, which revealed hundreds of consumer complaints against a former prominent Mass Save contractor, Next Step Living.

In March, the Boston energy company abruptly shut down without warning, leaving about 2,000 Mass Save customers in limbo.

To date, the Attorney General's office has received nearly 60 complaints about Next Step Living.

While she supports the program, Healey told the I-Team the number of complaints and consumer horror stories deserve a closer look.

"Energy efficiency programs are a good thing," Healey said. "We just need to make sure these utilities and others are doing the proper look to make sure these programs are at the end of the day going to help, not hurt consumers."

Utility companies tell the I-Team contractors who participate in the Mass Save program are licensed, certified, and have to meet a list of requirements. They are also required to follow all state and local laws, including pulling permits.

The utility companies also say there are significant quality control measures in place. A lead vendor inspects roughly half of weatherization jobs, surpassing national standards, the utilities told the I-Team.

"Our goal that all customers who choose to participate in the Mass Save program have a positive experience," a National Grid spokeswoman said. "We are constantly monitoring and looking at the program's design to better serve our customers."

Rick Taglienti, owner of Framingham-based Rogers Insulation, said he does not believe there is an oversight problem with the program. He said on average, roughly a quarter of his Mass Save projects are inspected.

"That feedback helps us get better," Taglienti said. "We go over reports with our crew chiefs. We know what we did well and what we didn't."

Looking back on their experience with the house fire, Doug and Lea Sims still believe the Mass Save program is a positive opportunity provided to Massachusetts residents. However, they think there should be an emphasis on making sure all contractors follow the rules.

For instance, a number of other consumers have contacted the I-Team in the past couple of months, saying they discovered contractors never pulled permits on their Mass Save projects.

"You would think they would be pushing to make sure a permit is pulled and the job is done correctly," Doug said of program administrators. "A perfect example is what we lived through."

Ryan Kath can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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