Philadelphia Inquirer: Neighbors band together for home efficiency

March 20, 2012
By Sandy Bauers 

( Jean P. Barr spent a bundle on insulation and other energy-efficiency improvements for her home – just in time for one of the warmest winters on record, which means she was denied the opportunity to gloat over just how much the work would save on her energy bills.

But if the warm spring heralds an early start to a long, hot air-conditioning season, she may yet get that chance.

Either way, she is convinced that an energy audit on her home and the resulting work recommended by the auditor – the result of an innovative regional program funded by $25 million in federal funds – is worth plenty.

The breaking point had come during the cold winter months when she got an electric bill for $400.

“I hit the roof,” said the Queen Village retiree. “I had never had bills like that.”

It was inexplicable. “I don’t keep the place hot. I put on another sweater.”

Fortunately for Barr, a neighborhood group had been working on a solution.

Neighbors were queuing up for an energy-efficiency program, EnergyWorks, that had just started in the region and is available to everyone.

The program provides subsidized home-energy audits – as little as $150 for one that would normally cost $400 – and loans starting at 0.99 percent interest for the insulation, air-sealing, and other work to make a home more comfortable and bring down the energy bills.

Queen Village residents had started a sustainability committee. Given the older housing stock – Barr’s home started as one room in 1745 – their first project was an energy-audit program.

They knew about EnergyWorks, and they did it one better by getting a group rate from the auditor, Jeff Lane, president of Star Energy Solutions of Fort Washington.

When Barr heard about it, “I leapt at it,” as did nearly 20 other neighbors.

Within weeks, in came Lane with a clipboard. He stalked the house, checking doors and windows, the pipes, the basement joists. He was in search of leaks and other energy inefficiencies. He made safety checks on the heater. He hooked up a blower device to the door to depressurize the house and determine just how leaky it was.

Generally, most homeowners can expect a 20 percent to 30 percent savings in energy costs if they have an audit and do the recommended work, said Jay Murdoch, executive director of Efficiency First, a national nonprofit trade association of “home performance” workers. Even new homes are not always insulated or sealed as well as they could be.

The EnergyWorks program originated with the Metropolitan Caucus, whose members are Mayor Nutter and commissioners from the four surrounding Pennsylvania counties.

Among shared issues, energy efficiency quickly rose toward the top, said Andrew Rachlin, who until recently was the city’s deputy chief of staff for economic development. He oversaw the grant, which is from the federal Department of Energy and also has a component for commercial buildings.

Until EnergyWorks started, pretty much the only people getting energy audits were geeky types who tracked their energy bills, fretted about insulation, and had an obsession with caulk.

As word spread, more people became interested in energy audits, but many stalled because they did not know what to do next.

They were people like Virginia Thompson, a Swarthmore resident who was “intimidated by the process of how do you hire someone, how do you know they’re not just going to give you a line?”

The goal of EnergyWorks was what Rachlin calls “a catalytic intervention” – educate consumers, give them confidence to go ahead, get more jobs for auditors and contractors, and watch the energy footprint of the region shrink.

The Energy Coordinating Agency, a local nonprofit known for weatherizing low-income homes, began soliciting companies with the required certifications and now has more than 20 auditors and 100 contractors. The program teamed up with the state’s Keystone HELP – Home Energy Loan Program – to finance improvements.

Murdoch called the program “simple and elegant . . . absent some of the other well-intended but overly designed programs that we saw in other parts of the country.”

“It’s something we want to export.”

Some have said the program is too basic. While other energy audits can take a full day and result in a report dozens of pages long, the EnergyWorks audits are a few hours and the reports are generally less than 10 pages.

That was the whole idea, said Liz Robinson, executive director of the ECA, which administers the residential portion of the program. “To be frank, most homeowners don’t want 20 pages.” They just want to know what to do.

Some auditors who are not in the program have complained that it is difficult to compete with audits subsidized by the government. Supporters of the program say the point is not to undercut the marketplace, but to help it grow.

Rachlin’s analogy: “There was a time when no one had granite countertops. Then everyone wanted them. We want energy efficiency to be the next granite countertop.”

The program began in November 2010, and so far more than 900 homeowners in the region have gone through one of its audits. Of those, 641 homeowners used the financing program and collectively borrowed $5.3 million to do subsequent upgrades.

Homeowners who implemented “whole house” retrofits – as opposed to doing just part of the recommended work – should see energy reductions of 16 percent to 20 percent, according to EnergyWorks, with annual cost savings estimated to be $267 to $335 per house.

For every tax dollar spent on the program, homeowners have spent two, Rachlin said.

Insulation and air-sealing upgrades generally start at $2,500 to $4,000. But replacing an inefficient heating or cooling system can raise the price significantly.

The audits also provide benchmarks, and the report for Thompson’s Swarthmore house ranked its efficiency at 62 – roughly midway between “energy hog” and “Philadelphia area average.”

“We were pretty leaky,” she said. In came extra insulation, new doors, a better fireplace damper.

In nearby Wallingford, resident David Director watched as an insulation foam truck pulled up to the curb. “We thought our house was fairly tight until we got the blower door rest results,” he said.

When the work is finished, the ECA sends out a new auditor to check the work and see that everything has been done properly before the contractor is paid.

The follow-up blower door test on Director’s home showed leakage had been reduced 44 percent.

In Queen Village, Barr’s report was much like the others: She needed insulation, insulation, and more insulation. She needed a new basement door. And so on.

About $13,000 later, she had a new heat exchanger as well.

“I was feeling better by the minute,” she said.

It has been tough to calculate the energy savings after such a warm winter, but all three residents were certain they were seeing significant savings.

Barr, who was always fiddling with her thermostat before, set it at 62 degrees after the work was finished, “and I haven’t moved it since.”

She is not sure at what point her energy savings will pay off. But even at 89 years old, “I’m counting on sticking around long enough to see it.”


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