I-Team: After Insulation Horror Stories, State Requires More Oversight

BOSTON (CBS) – State safety officials are demanding more oversight for the thousands of insulation jobs taking place across Massachusetts, now requiring contractors to pull a permit for the work.

The move comes after a series of I-Team reports illustrated some of the horror stories, and safety concerns, from sloppy installation of the energy-saving material.

“Things can go very wrong if it’s not done properly,” Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner Matt Carlin told the I-Team. “That is a major concern.”

Carlin said the agency that determines statewide permitting requirements, the Board of Building Regulatory and Standards (BBRS), relaxed insulation rules last November to help streamline the thousands of projects taking place through the Mass Save program.

The huge statewide initiative is managed by utility companies and funded largely through a monthly surcharge on consumers’ energy bills. The program offers heavily-subsidized upgrades to homeowners, including insulation work.

Basic insulation work would no longer require a permit, the BBRS ruled. However, anything more complicated, like cutting holes in drywall to blow insulation into walls, would still need a permit.

The I-Team discovered that was not happening, and the consequences could be devastating to homeowners.

For example, while they were in the hospital for the birth of their first child, Doug and Lea Sims learned their Carver home was on fire. The culprit was insulation that had been improperly installed against a wood stove pipe.

It was a problem that would’ve likely been spotted by a building inspector, but the Mass Save contractor had not pulled a permit.

“You come home and everything you worked so hard for is pretty much ruined,” Doug Sims told the I-Team in April.

Carlin said he started hearing a flurry of concerns from area building inspectors and fire safety regulators about the unpermitted work, and the safety risk it posed to homeowners.

“Oversight is critical. We also need to make sure we have experts doing the work,” the DPS commissioner said. “Going forward, I think it would be extremely important for every contractor to be vetted and not for someone to say, ‘Geez, that Mass Save contract is pretty good. I want in on that.’”

In February, the I-Team reported on the growing number of consumer complaints against prominent Mass Save contractor, Next Step Living.

The following month, the energy efficiency firm abruptly closed, leaving about 2,000 Mass Save customers in limbo. Many had already paid deposits for energy upgrades. Others experienced problems with already completed work and suddenly had nowhere to turn.

The Attorney General’s Office was flooded with complaints. When the I-Team checked early this month, consumers had submitted 159 complaints against Next Step Living (122 this year).

The ceiling in this West Roxbury home collapsed after a Next Step Living insulation job. (WBZ-TV)

The ceiling in this West Roxbury home collapsed after a Next Step Living insulation job. (WBZ-TV)

A West Roxbury homeowner, who asked not to be named, had her ceiling collapse after a Next Step Living insulation job.

“I was shocked,” she told the I-Team. “I never really knew why you had to have building permits for everything, but now I see why. A lot can go wrong!”

Mass Save has helped the homeowner get the upstairs room cleaned and repaired, which is taking place this week.

State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey is among the safety leaders to applaud the change in permit rules.

“Increased oversight of this work by building officials can only give added protection to homeowners to ensure the work is done correctly,” Ostroskey said in a written statement.

Ryan Kath can be reached at rkath@cbs.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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