Is Your Home A Hummer? Community Energy Challenge Will Help Pursuit Of Energy Efficiency
by Anne Maertens
Anne Maertens graduated in March 2010 from Western Washington University with an environmental journalism degree. She is now writing for EnergySavvy.com and doing a bit of freelance work.
On the edge of Mount Baker Highway is a building that is more than a hundred years old. Through the elderly building’s threshold, which is arched by a bountiful wreath of dried hops, the musky smell of brewing beer hangs in the air.
Dark, 12-inch-wide cedar boards vertically line the building’s interior walls, which are part of the original structure. However, a closer look into the quarter-inch wide cracks between the boards reveals a modern, gray foam material that has been wedged there to improve the building’s energy efficiency and ultimately save the business owner hard-earned cash.
Vicki Savage, owner of The North Fork Brewery, knows three things well: beer, pizza and energy efficiency. Savage, a self-proclaimed energy geek, is taking part in the Community Energy Challenge to save money and reduce her carbon footprint.
The Community Energy Challenge is a program established by the Opportunity Council and Sustainable Connections to offer assistance to commercial and residential owners who want to make their businesses and homes more energy efficient.
Using $2.7 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Community Energy Challenge was created in 2009 to reduce energy waste, stimulate the job market and lower the cost of utility bills for home and business owners, said Emily Riesman, Sustainable Connection’s Energy Program AmeriCorps VISTA. This challenge is one of eight similar programs being developed with Recovery Act funds throughout Washington state.
The challenge’s funding was just a sliver of the $16.8 billion from the Recovery Act that was distributed by the Department of Energy for renewable energy and energy efficiency, according to the Department of Energy’s website.
According to Seattle’s Sightline Institute, a not-for-profit think tank, improving energy efficiency nationwide has the potential to create 1.7 million jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.1 gigatons and save $1.2 trillion.
In Whatcom County, the Opportunity Council and Sustainable Connections expect to create at least 35 jobs and improve the energy efficiency of 150 businesses and 900 homes. The Opportunity Council is also expecting the program to spur nearly $10 million of construction activities in the local economy, according to www.communityenergychallenge.org.
Energy efficiency improvements can save homeowners up to 30 percent and businesses up to 15 percent on their utility bills, Reisman said. For The Northfork Brewery, which spent nearly $21,000 on utilities in 2008, that is an annual savings of $3,000.
Sustainable Connection Members Take Part In The Challenge
Savage’s actual savings will depend on the energy efficiency improvements she decides to implement in her brewery, and she has several options to choose from.
“What I liked about the suggestions—everything from hot water usage, to heating, to air conditioning—[is that they] showed a return on investment, which would have been hard for me to know as a layperson,” Savage said.
Sustainable Connections, which is in charge of the commercial side of the challenge, provides Energy Management Facility Action Plans to its participants. The action plan lays out a list of quick fixes, low-cost upgrades and long-term savings opportunities.
In the quick fixes category, Sustainable Connections recommends Savage set a programmable thermostat to a heating and cooling schedule that will cater to the restaurant guests and focus on saving energy while the restaurant is closed.
Other quick fixes include lowering the water heater temperature from 130 degrees Fahrenheit to 110 degrees, sealing up some holes between the heated restaurant and unheated brewery, as well as a few other easy changes, according to the action plan.
Low-cost upgrades include installing a pre-rinse spray valve in the dishwashing area and adding insulation and air sealing in the attic. Air sealing is a measure taken to reduce the leaky areas in a home using materials such as caulk or foam inserts.
Measures that are more expensive and therefore have a slower return on investment are improvements such as replacing the furnace and air conditioner with an air-source heat pump or replacing the water heater with a condensing demand water heater, which is set up to heat water as you need it rather than keeping it at a constant temperature all day.
“It was like I was given a menu,” Savage said, “and I could pick my appetizer, entrée and dessert. It was great because obviously the low-cost, short-term things were done right away.”
One thing that Savage had her employees do right away was to seal up the cracks between the cedar boards in the restaurant with a thin gray foam rope designed to keep the cool air out in the winter and in during the summer months. She also “dewatted,” or removed bulbs from some of the light fixtures.
As part of the program, Savage committed to a Goal Setting plan, which means she promised to make certain improvements by a due date she chose. For example, she promised to replace her pre-rinse spray valve with a more efficient version by Oct. 31, 2009, and she said that she has followed through on that promise.
To Savage’s surprise, the way to go about saving energy wasn’t as focused in one direction as the Mount Baker Highway, but instead, there were several factors to consider. For example, switching to electric heat may reduce her energy bills, but it would increase her carbon footprint.
“Instead of just a straight-line logic, there were a lot of little branches off the tree,” Savage said. “That was really interesting to me because I’m kind of an energy geek.”
In order to help make those branches clear, Reisman helps write the action plan reports that guide business owners through the energy-saving process.
Reisman works with the commercial side of the challenge, which is available to all small businesses (under 500 employees) in Whatcom County. The initial $65 participation fee is being covered by Sustainable Connections for SC business and affiliate members. She said the program has been “slowly emerging from its cocoon” since spring of 2009 when Savage signed up to be the first participant in the challenge. While the program is still growing, the Recovery Act funding must be used by the end of 2012.
Because this is a program that has never been done before in Whatcom County or many other places in the nation, the Community Energy Challenge is being performed as a pilot program that other communities may mirror for their own benefit.
An important part of the pilot test is to see if the program can be sustainable. Reisman said that there are many ways that the program could be considered sustainable.
“In a dream way, it would drive demand so hard that people would realize how fabulously smart energy efficiency is,” Reisman said, “and they’d be able to pay up front for the services that we’re now subsidizing.”
Reisman said one of the most important aspects to making sure that the pilot program is functional is to employ energy analysts and contractors who are knowledgeable and can perform the energy improvements properly.
“One of the biggest barriers to energy efficiency [in the past] has been that some 90 percent of improvements … are put in improperly, which leads to a 30 percent reduction in their efficiency,” Reisman said. “It’s really important that it’s high quality, and we really push that with the contractors.”
As of March 2010, four building analysts (commonly known as energy auditors) and five contractors have been selected to work with the residential side of the Community Energy Challenge. In order to participate, the analysts and contractors had to meet certain qualification standards, and all of the contractors’ work must be inspected by the Building Performance Center, which is a division of the Opportunity Council.
A separate building analyst is in charge of all of the commercial participant inspections. Also, commercial participants are able to use other contractors as long as they meet certain standards, Reisman said.
Creating Green-Collar Jobs With Recovery Act Funds
Providing additional training and work for contractors allows them to specialize and stay busy, which will lead to the contractors hiring more employees and subcontractors, said Shawn Collins, the Opportunity Council’s residential Community Energy Challenge manager.
“A huge reason the Opportunity Council is involved in this is looking at this as a jobs-creation program,” Collins said. “One of our largest interests is getting people back to work in the community.”
The opportunity to focus these contractors on properly installed energy efficiency measures will foster in a new field of work for many people, he said.
By using the Recovery Act funding to generate economic activity in the local economy, Collins said the program is working to show that creating jobs in this new field (commonly known as green-collar jobs) is an effective way to reduce energy use and give home and business owners a return on their investments.
However, the road to creating these new jobs has been a bit bumpy and long because of certain stipulations included in the Recovery Act, said Kyle White, manager of the Opportunity Council’s low-income Weatherization and Home Repair program. One of the biggest challenges for the Opportunity Council so far has been trying to grapple with the Davis-Bacon Act and the Washington state prevailing wage.
The Davis-Bacon Act is a federal law that was enacted in 1931 for people who worked on public works projects during the Great Depression. The goal of the act was to ensure that public works employees were receiving the same wage as people who weren’t being paid through government funds.
So, if a contractor who specialized in Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) work was being paid with Recovery Act funds and the average price for HVAC work was $45 per hour, then that contractor would have to be paid $45 per hour for any HVAC work done through the Community Energy Challenge. In theory it’s a good idea because it gives people a living wage, White said.
However, it gets a bit tricky because “weatherization,” which includes measures like insulation and air sealing, did not have a set wage. The federal government quickly realized the problem and determined a weatherization prevailing wage, which is a wage equal to what they would be paid from a non-governmental source, White said.
But then the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries said that the Opportunity Council would have to follow state and federal prevailing wages, which put the program managers back to trying to determine the ins and outs of the different state prevailing wages.
There are six different wage levels separated by categories, such as sheet metal work, and a category called “other,” which essentially includes weatherization work like air sealing.
In other words, if one employee who is working on a house does work in all six categories, they have to record how much time was spent doing each type of work and will be paid accordingly, White said. This means their salary could range from $16.50 per hour for a few hours of “other” work to $28.97 per hour for a few hours of sheet metal work.
An important part of hiring contractors for the challenge was making sure they were able to follow prevailing wage standards, White said.
As manager of the Weatherization and Home Repair program, White does not work directly with the challenge, but he and his Building Performance Center crew still have to follow prevailing wage requirements because they are also using Recovery Act funding.
In order to qualify for the low-income program, homeowners must earn 200 percent or less than the federal poverty standards, not to exceed 60 percent of the area median income. If someone who meets these standards applies for the Community Energy Challenge, they will be directed to White’s program because all weatherization participants receive 100 percent of their energy efficiency upgrades for free.
Converting Homes From Hummers To Hybrids
Homeowners who do not fit the low-income standards will still receive a subsidized energy assessment for $95. These assessments have a $600 value, White said. Also, the low-interest loans are designed to help make the improvements more affordable.
However, because the loan details have not been finalized, the residential side of the challenge is still on hold. Homeowners who are interested in having their home assessed have been added to a list the Opportunity Council will draw from when the program is ready. Collins, the residential challenge manager, said there are more than 250 people interested in an assessment as of May 2010.
Collins said he doesn’t look at the list as a waiting list because rather than fixing homes one by one, the Opportunity Council wants to package the homes geographically, neighborhood by neighborhood, in order to lower the cost for contractors.
For example, one contractor may be in charge of upgrading all the participating homes in the York neighborhood. This would save the contractor money on transportation and allow them to buy certain items, such as insulation, in bulk to use throughout several different houses.
Although the residential program is still in the works, some people have gone through different routes to improve their home’s energy efficiency. Todd Edison, Carrie Blackwood and their two children participated as one of the two families on the television show “The Greenest House,” which aired over the summer and fall of 2009.
While participating on the show for three months, they had their home assessed for its energy efficiency, which included a blower door test and a duct pressure test.
The blower door test identified the areas on the exterior of their house, also known as the building envelope, that need to be sealed or insulated, and the duct pressure test used a gray smoke to identify the areas on their ducts (located in the crawl space) that were leaking.
“I think we had a vague idea [about how efficient our home was], but we certainly discovered a whole lot more than we ever would have imagined,” Edison said. “It’s funny because I didn’t even realize we didn’t have insulation under the floor.”
Edison said that when the duct pressure test was performed, he could see smoke pouring out of the seams between the ducts, which had once been sealed with duct tape that had degraded over the years.
Using a glue-like substance called duct mastic, Edison said he sealed off the leaks by painting the mastic over the seams. Then the ducts were wrapped with insulation. The pressure test was performed again after the improvements were made, and he said that they saw significant difference. Through the duct sealing and the other improvements, there was a 75 percent overall reduction in air leakage from their home’s envelope.
Blackwood said the most effective improvements they made in their home were all done for less than $500. The insulation installed under their floor, which would have been the most expensive improvement, was subsidized by both Cascade Natural Gas and Puget Sound Energy. The subsidies brought the cost down from around $2,000 to $500, she said.
For installing floor insulation, Cascade Natural Gas offers a rebate of 45 cents for each square foot of insulation installed, and Puget Sound Energy offers a rebate of up to $400.
The insulation was also eligible for the federal residential tax credit designed to cover 30 percent, or up to $1,500, of energy efficiency improvements.
“If anyone asked ‘how can I reduce my carbon footprint,’ I would say, get a home energy audit … it will give you a list of things to do that are very inexpensive,” Blackwood said. “People think [to save energy, they] have to do all these expensive things like buy solar panels. They don’t; those are just options.”
In the end, the Edison/Blackwood family was the winner of The Greenest House challenge. For the grand prize, they won an electric car that they plug in every night and costs them the equivalent of approximately 25 cents per gallon, Blackwood said.
Even though they are now using the electricity to power their car every night, the improvements they made for the show balance out the car’s energy use, and they still manage to save some money on their utility bills, not to mention they money they save on gasoline, she said.
According to their November 2009 Puget Sound Energy statement, they managed to use 63 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity less than the year before while still plugging in their electric car every night. For the January 2010 statement, the car was in the shop and was not plugged in. This allowed them to save 443 kwh compared to the January before.
While not everyone can improve their home’s energy efficiency through a television show, people can still make a difference in their homes by taking part in the residential Community Energy Challenge, which is expected to begin retrofitting homes in May 2010.
Whether a challenge participant’s main concern is saving energy, reducing their carbon footprint or making the United States more energy independent, the concrete results from energy efficiency improvements will help to achieve all of those goals.
For more information, please go to http://www.communityenergychallenge.org or contact Commercial Conservation Services at 360-647-7093 x113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s your home energy report? Calculate it here: http://www.energysavvy.com/estimate §