Energy audit saves Lansing resident's life

Deb and Kim Volker (left to right) of Lansing give credit to a home energy audit performed by Winneshiek Energy District's Green Iowa AmeriCorps program for saving Kim's life. A recent energy audit of their Lansing home revealed a water heater that was not properly ventilated and leaking LP gas. Submitted photo.

by Lissa Blake

It’s common knowledge that a home energy audit can help save money.
But for Lansing resident Kim Volker, it saved his life.
Volker, 63 years old, of Lansing, and his wife, Deb, have been doctoring for cancer for several years. Kim has CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) and Deb has colon cancer.
While both are all too familiar with the fatigue associated with treatment, Kim came down with a respiratory ailment in October that he was unable to kick all winter. “I was coughing, tired and losing weight. I kept going to the doctor. They put me on five different antibiotics and none of them helped,” said Kim.
Kim was even referred to a pulmonologist in La Crosse, WI, “who really couldn’t explain the way I felt,” he said of his continued health mystery.

Meanwhile, the Volkers had applied for a grant through Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission to participate in a Direct Install home energy audit through the Winneshiek Energy District’s Green Iowa AmeriCorps program. “Our house is 128 years old, so we thought it would be a good idea,” said Kim.
The day the Green Iowa AmeriCorps team came to perform the audit, the Volkers were undergoing treatment in La Crosse when they received a call from their daughter. “We got a call from Samantha that they had inspected the house and had found the hot water heater was not vented properly and was leaking gas,” said Kim.
Kim said he was told that while, normally, LP gas emits a foul odor, similar to rotten eggs, in this case, the clothes dryer vent was helping the smell escape, but the carbon monoxide was staying in the house.

Laura Ruen is the logistics coordinator for Green Iowa AmeriCorps in Decorah. She said when she and the other two team members entered the basement of the Volker home, she immediately saw the problem.
“The top of the water heater was just corroded and rusty. We could tell by looking at it that it had been spilling gas. The flue above the water heater was tipped downward, so it wasn’t ventilating the exhaust the way it should be,” said Ruen. “In addition, the water heater was turned way up, so it was probably heating all the time.”

Kim said his bedroom is located directly above where the leak was occurring. Even though Deb typically sleeps in a living room recliner due to her arthritis, the couple’s five-year-old granddaughter stays over regularly.
“She comes every weekend and likes to stay up late with Papa to watch TV until she falls asleep,” Kim said. “She was sick all winter with cold and cough symptoms and we didn’t know what it was,” he said. “We’re just lucky they caught it.”

After the audit, Kim immediately called the gas company to come shut off their LP, and they have since had their water heater replaced. That was several weeks ago, and Kim said he started feeling better right away.
“I got to the point where I was worried I would go into the bedroom one morning and he’d be gone,” said Deb. “I always thought when old folks said they were withering away it was a euphemism, but I could see that actually happening."

The Volkers encourage everyone who is eligible to take advantage of the audit. “I’m so glad they did the survey. They did save my life,” said Kim.
Ruen said she is just glad the Volkers took the audit seriously and bought a new water heater. “We can recommend changes, but people don’t always make them. When Kim called to say we saved his life, it definitely made me feel good. I am glad they were able to get it fixed and that he doesn’t have to be sick anymore,” she said.

Operated through the University of Northern Iowa's Center for Energy and Environmental Education, Green Iowa AmeriCorps is a community service program. It was founded in 2009 to address conservation and sustainable usage of energy resources in several Iowa communities as they struggled to rebuild from the devastating floods of 2008.
The Northeast Iowa team is one of six teams in the state. Ruen said common Direct Install items include new light bulbs and faucet aerators as well as weatherizing around windows and doors. Average cost to the homeowner for the improvements is between $70 and $150.

To sign up for a direct install through Green Iowa AmeriCorps, visit, then go to programs and click on Green Iowa AmeriCorps. Next click on “click here to sign up now for a direct install.” The program covers residents and businesses in Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek counties.
Green Iowa AmeriCorps offers free materials to veterans, persons with disabilities and those who are 65 and over or who have low income. If the team travels outside of Winneshiek County, a $25 trip charge is assessed, which can be shared if there are at least two homes that sign up. For more information, contact Ruen at 563-382-4207 or visit