Spring into action for winter
By KATHRYN EDDY
Correspondent | May 13,2013
Think winter. Really. It’s OK.
It may not seem like it, but now is a great time to weatherize your home. Spring is in full swing and the hotter months are just around the corner.
“Some people say they’ll wait until the fall, but when I ask how comfortable their houses are in the summer it turns out that the upstairs is almost unlivable until midnight. When we insulate the attic, suddenly bedrooms that they couldn’t get a kid asleep until 10 o’clock they’re in there snoozing by seven,” says Malcolm Gray, chairman of the Building Performance Professionals Association of Vermont, which is the trade organization for home performance contractors.
Gray is a local contractor and was a member of the Thermal Efficiency Task Force created by the Public Service Department in 2012. The task force was a group of about 60 members in a variety of fields tasked to provide recommendations for the achievement of the state’s energy fitness goals set out in Act 92, which was passed in 2008, as well as recommendations on how to finance them.
Part of Act 92’s goals are to improve the energy efficiency of 25 percent of the state’s housing stock by 25 percent and do so by the year 2020, also known as 25/25 by 2020.
It’s an ambitious goal, roughly equal to 80,000 homes, and the task force determined that Vermont is on track to reach half of that goal by 2020; faster progress requires larger budgets for programs like Efficiency Vermont’s Home Performance with Energy Star plan that offer incentives to homeowners for weatherization and subsidize projects for households earning less than 60 percent of the median income in their counties.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in Vermont homes, there’s a lot of fossil fuel being used and a lot being wasted. I think most Vermont homes, certainly not all, have significant opportunities for energy efficiency,” says Emily Levin of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation.
Levin also points out that many of the households that would qualify for the weatherization funding are receiving fuel assistance from the state every winter; short-term financial support now to weatherize those homes could potentially reduce the burden on the state in the long run.
Levin is very involved in the Home Performance with Energy Star program through Efficiency Vermont, the state’s energy efficiency utility and resource. Efficiency Vermont works with contractors like Gray throughout the state to subsidize energy audits and efficiency improvement projects.
“It’s not always what people think; the air leakage that a homeowner might feel as a draft doesn’t mean replacing all the windows. It’s often a matter of insulating the basement, attic and tops of walls,” says Levin.
Those types of projects can be much more manageable for a homeowner to undertake; generally the comprehensive cost is somewhere between $5,000 to $10,000. With incentives from Efficiency Vermont and some from the federal government those costs can be reduced. And with financing packages from banks like VSECU available, the loan payments can be covered by the savings made from increasing home efficiency by 20 to 30 percent.
Levin says this is a great year for homeowners to have an energy audit with $100 instant savings and special deals through Efficiency Vermont for weatherization projects. Seventy towns across the state have also signed up for the Vermont Home Energy Challenge, a community-based push to achieve the 80,000 home goal in time. Towns have pledged to improve the energy efficiency of three percent of their respective housing stocks.
“They can be creative with how they promote the challenge, which is trying to rally the state and the great network of town energy committees and volunteers around this goal. That’s one of the things that makes this state so unique; we’ve got an amazing volunteer base and individuals and town energy groups that are really excited about this,” says Levin.
For those considering such a project, Levin and Gray both advise a homeowner to get the energy audit if they’re serious about doing the work. Usually a two- to three-hour process, the audit involves a comprehensive evaluation of the energy fitness of the house. Gray says the reason for Efficiency Vermont’s heavy incentive of up to $750 back just for reducing air leakage in the house is that it’s one of the cheapest and easiest ways to save energy.
“You’re heating that escaping air — the sensible energy in each cubic foot of air is pretty significant, especially over time,” he says.
Air leakage is tested during an energy audit by sealing up the house and installing a blower door in one door. This depressurizes the home to a point that simulates the conditions of 20- to 25-mile an hour winds; where the air gets in there’s a leak.
“Sometimes we find some surprising leaks. One house was pretty tight, except for upstairs under the vanity in the bathroom. There was a plumbing connection that went up through the roof. So during the test there was a breeze coming from under the sink. Apparently the homeowners had sometimes had problems with freeze-up with the sink, which was in the center of the house, and that’s why. Sometimes you can take care of problems that people don’t even know was a problem,” says Gray.
Once insulation work is done, air leakage can be reduced by up to 18 percent or more. And that isn’t the only benefit — the air quality in the house can be improved as that air that would bring in both outside particulates and anything present in the walls is reduced. Noise reduction has also been reported. All of these elements in the comfort of the home can be improved.
“Basically it comes down to: there’s no reason not to insulate your house,” Gray says. “It’s not as sexy as granite countertops, but it packs much more of a return.”
Other tests include using infrared cameras to read where insulation in walls may be lacking; heating system evaluations; health and safety evaluations; checks for asbestos, mold, wet basement, carbon monoxide, radon, and more.
“We essentially unload about $10,000 worth of tools to do the audit,” says Gray.
Gray’s company, Montpelier Construction, does about 35 to 40 such projects a year and has worked with Efficiency Vermont’s Home Performance with Energy Star program since 2006.
“If I hadn’t been doing home performance work when the economy tumbled, we probably would have lost about four people but we were able to keep everybody on,” he says. “And it’s good work, you do something and people actually can really feel the difference. A lot of times it’s surprising.”
For more information, you can visit www.efficiencyvermont.com, or call their customer service hotline at (888)-921-5990. You can talk to a real person from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m,, Monday through Friday about anything from appliance replacement to finding a contractor for an energy audit.