Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Welcome Audit

By Bob Ferris

As l look at all the excitement over a potential "Cash for Caulkers" program whereby the federal government helps finance home audits and energy retrofits via tax credits. I am reminded of what we did in our Valley in Vermont last year. We basically latched onto a small pot of grant money and used it to purchase some basic energy saving devices such as CFLs, heater blankets, and low-flow shower heads as well as train a cadre of volunteers to go to their neighbor’s homes to do first blush energy surveys.

The surveys were very cursory but they also included an important calculation. And this calculation was the per square foot energy use. Essentially we looked at power bills and fuel use (i.e., electricity, gas, oil, and wood) to calculate how many BTUs (British thermal units) a house was using. This number was generally huge but got more manageable when divided by the house’s square footage. While these numbers where pretty huge too, the general rule of thumb was that if you were using 40,000BTUs per square foot or less you were probably doing pretty good in Vermont where temperatures of -25F or so were seen once or twice a winter.

My wife and I did mini-audits on a dozen or so homes and did basement to attic walk-throughs looking at insulation, age and type of heating systems, and condition of appliances as well as tracking down energy vampires like always-on appliances. Over all it was a great experience for volunteers and home owners, but it always came down to that last push of the calculator button and the BTU calculation. It was a "drum roll please" type of moment.

After a while we and others began to sense where we were BTU-wise as we walked about the house. Big give aways were house age with the pre-1980s houses being pretty leaky energy wise unless they had been retrofitted with insulation and new windows. And the old farm houses were generally slightly better than those built in the 60s and early 70s when energy was felt to be nearly free. Our end numbers ranged from about 31,000 BTU/SF for a friend’s newly built, super-insulated house to a heart-breaking 150,000 BTU/SF for a single mom working two jobs. Her house was the worst performing we found, but we didn’t do any of the pre-1978 mobile homes scattered in remote places around the Valley.

This project was a success on a number of different levels. First, it used a "neighbors helping neighbors" approach and nothing but good can come of that. The second benefit was that folks like our single mom got educated about potential actions they could take as well as sources for assistance including community heating aid programs, furnace replacement monies, and contacts for neighbors who might just stop by with a free load of wood. And we really got folks to start looking at their energy bills and energy awareness is where you start.

My point in all of this is to let folks know that while the Cash for Caulkers program is likely to be a wonderful addition to our energy reduction portfolio, that people do not have to wait for action from Congress or the White House. They can simply get together with their neighbors and do something. And harnessing human energy and goodness is always a wonderful thing!