Changes that pay

Aubin Tyler  | Boston Globe | December 6, 2009

Households use about a fifth of the total energy consumed in the United States each year and generate 21 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the US Department of Energy. With growing concerns about climate change, government subsidies for renovating existing homes to a higher standard are rolling out as never before. Whether homeowners are looking at extra insulation, new heating equipment, or even solar panels, it’s easier — and more economical — than ever to lower monthly utility bills by a third or more. Here’s how to get started.

1 Get Audited

The first order of business in improving energy efficiency is to set up an energy audit. This is typically a room-by-room inspection, often with specific tests to assess airtightness and insulation. An audit will “quickly reveal the weakest link in the chain,” says Mark Price, a sustainability specialist with building systems consultants Steven Winter Associates in Maynard. Often, the priority is to stop leaking air. “If there’s air leakage, extra insulation won’t work.”

MassSAVE, a partnership among the state, energy efficiency contractors, and utility companies, offers free basic energy audits for homeowners in one- to four-family structures ( or 866-527-7283). It will pay up to $2,000 for weatherization and up to $1,000 for efficient gas heating upgrades. Most state residents already contribute to the MassSAVE program. “Every utility has what’s called a conservation charge of $1.50 or $2 per month per customer,” explains program manager Jerry Hanna. “All of that is thrown into a pot for energy efficiency programs.”

Phyllis and Marc Theermann, who live with their two elementary-school-age daughters in Wellesley, accelerated their efforts to improve their 1920 home’s energy efficiency in September after a call from a Woburn company, National Energy Audits, which guaranteed a 20 to 35 percent reduction in energy bills. “I almost never answer those kinds of calls,” says Phyllis, a writer who blogs on sustainable living for Sears. “But we knew we had [air] leakage, because it’s an old house, and we knew there wasn’t enough insulation.”

The Theermanns’ audit included a blower door test. A powerful fan that mounts into the frame of an open exterior door pulls air out of the house, depressurizing the inside; higher air pressure on the outside then forces air back into the home through any openings. “You can actually feel where the draft is coming in,” Marc says. An infrared camera is often used while the blower door is running to detect hard-to-find air leaks and areas of missing insulation. The blower door and infrared tests can cost several hundred dollars or more, but both MassSAVE and National Energy Audits provide it free if the homeowner opts to go ahead with energy upgrades, as the Theermanns did.

Cador Pricejones, a project manager with Newton builder Byggmeister, wanted to improve his own home’s energy efficiency even more — by 75 to 80 percent. He tapped Energy Efficiency Associates in Stow to rate his two-family in Somerville according to a scale called the Home Energy Rating System (HERS). Says Pricejones: “It’s like an advanced energy audit” that uses computer simulation to pinpoint areas for improvements.

On the HERS scale, less is more. Most new homes rate 100, whereas older, draftier houses can rate 130 or more. To earn the government’s Energy Star label, new homes must rate 85 or less, a level many in the business say is still too high. Increasingly, green building advocates and researchers at the US Department of Energy are trying to achieve Net Zero Energy homes that have HERS indices of zero or less. These super-insulated homes use no energy or actually produce energy from solar panels or some other renewable source. The Pricejones home, built in 1914, started with a HERS index of 120. The target? Thirty-seven.

2 Seal Up Your Home

The audit on the Theermann house showed it was losing heat from its foundation, which the contractor handled by applying a nontoxic insulating foam along the rim joist. The home also needed extra insulation. Because the house is clad in brick, cellulose (recycled newspaper) insulation was blown into the exterior walls from the inside through a series of drilled holes. “We had already installed many energy-efficient windows a few years [before], leaving only a few left for us to switch out as time and budget allowed,” Marc says. With tax rebates — about $2,000 from the utility company National Grid and another $1,500 in federal tax credits — the couple wound up spending nothing on the $3,500 job. “The results are amazing. There is almost no fluctuation in heat anymore,” Marc says. “I would estimate that we will save at least 25 percent on our heating bill this winter.”

In Somerville, a “deep-energy retrofit” of the Pricejones home included applying 4 inches of closed-cell polyurethane foam insulation on top of the old siding and trim. “It’s like putting a down comforter around the whole house,” Pricejones says. New wood siding and wood trim went over the foam. To stop air leaking from old, inefficient windows but still retain their original sash and rippled glass, Pricejones took the unusual approach of installing new dual-glazed windows — at about $400 each — over the old. The new windows act like super-efficient storm windows, while the old now function as a third glazing, which reduces heat transfer — the principle behind high-tech triple-glazed windows, which would have cost about $800 each, he says.

National Grid is now looking at a pilot program to help homeowners pay for deep-energy retrofits, which can range from about $30,000 to $100,000 or more.

“My motivation is for climate change, to reduce my carbon footprint,” Pricejones says. But “we’re also saving money in fuel and electric costs and the house is much more comfortable.” He adds: “The biggest proponent is my mother-in-law, who lives in a drafty old house in Cambridge. She loves to come to our house.”

3 Ditch Old Appliances

When it comes to household appliances that are 10 years old or older, replacing them with today’s more energy-efficient models is money well spent — and energy saved. (And new appliances add to the resale value of the home.) Under a proposal submitted for federal approval by the state Department of Energy Resources, Massachusetts residents could be eligible for $6.2 million in federal stimulus-funded rebates for exchanging inefficient clothes washers, dishwashers, refrigerators, and freezers for new Energy Star versions. If approved, the state rebate program would begin in late February or early March.

Energy Star does not rate clothes dryers, but newer models do come with moisture sensors that shut off the dryer when clothes are dry, saving energy and fabric wear and tear. To really conserve, dry clothes on an old-fashioned wooden rack or clothesline. A new Energy Star-labeled dishwasher uses less than half as much energy as washing by hand and saves nearly 5,000 gallons of water a year, according to the government’s Energy Star website.

Savings can be had for bigger-ticket items as well. For non-solar water heaters, biomass stoves, and qualified heating and cooling equipment purchased this year or next, the federal government offers tax credits of 30 percent of the cost, up to $1,500 (

4 Use Reclaimed Building Materials

Along with their new energy upgrades, the Theermanns have been remodeling their home — one room at a time — for the past 5½ years. The result is a mix of new and old, like sleek aluminum cabinets in the kitchen paired with a wall of crates found at the Brimfield Antique Show. “New construction is great, but it wastes resources,” Marc points out. “Our home is modern and recycled.”

In one of the bathrooms, the couple replaced old floor tiles with antique terra-cotta tile. “The workman said he couldn’t install it,” Marc says. “For most vendors, it’s new for them to use stuff that’s old. You can’t rely on the architect or builder to source interesting materials. You really have to push your contractor, your carpenter, your electrician.”

Their latest project is to turn the empty attic space above their bedroom into a loft office for Marc, who works from home for a German mobile-tech start-up company. He and a friend did the demolition, ripping out the ceiling in the bedroom. He’ll recycle fiberglass insulation previously used in the attic floor and plywood salvaged from the flooring. “Reusing R30 fiberglass insulation in the rafters is not the most ideal choice, but instead of throwing it all out, we are renewing — not adding to the landfill,” he says. “Plus it was better on the budget.”

He and his wife found a vendor for reclaimed lumber during a visit to the building showroom at the Green Roundtable, a Boston affiliate of the US Green Building Council. “We may pay a little more now,” Phyllis says. “We believe in treading [more lightly] on the planet.”

Charlie Allen of Charlie Allen Restorations in Cambridge recommends the Boston Building Materials Co-op as a source for quality materials, including green products. Allen kept all the wood windows, original moldings, flooring, and plaster walls while renovating his own 1839 Greek Revival home. “Old houses . . . are inherently green, because you’re not using energy to create the fabric,” he says.

5 Consider Solar Panels

In March, Nancy Robbins Thorne-Thomsen, husband Eli, and their two young children became homeowners at Wisdom Way Solar Village, an affordable green home development in Greenfield. So far, four of 10 planned two-family homes have been built, each with its own rooftop solar panels. “Because the homes are so very efficient, this capacity will net to zero — or very close — if the owners are at all careful in their electricity use,” says Anne Perkins, who spearheaded the solar village project as director of homeownership programs for Rural Development Inc., a nonprofit based in Turners Falls. Incidentally, the Thorne-Thomsen home has a HERS index of 7 to 8. In June, the utility company gave the family $30 for generating excess solar electricity. “The kids love telling people they make their own electricity,” Nancy says.

For his retrofit, Pricejones has contracted with Nexamp in North Andover to install 25 solar panels on the roof, estimated to produce 5.25 kilowatts of electricity. “With a few additional upgrades, that should take care of 100 percent of my electricity and my tenants’,” he says. With rebates and credits from the state and the federal government, he estimates that he’ll pay only $16,500 — less than half the installed cost of $36,700.

The federal government is now offering a 30 percent tax credit — without a cap — for solar panels installed by 2016, as well as for other improvements such as solar water heaters and small wind turbines (

But will solar work in chilly Massachusetts? The experts say yes. Compared with an average 5.5 or 6 peak hours of sunshine per day in the Southwest, New England averages about 4.5 peak hours per day over the course of a year, says Robb Aldrich of Steven Winter Associates, engineer for the solar village in Greenfield. “It’s not as sunny here, but the sun still shines.”