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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Advice for a new energy crisis

It's a lot like the old advice, but will homeowners buy in?

It's not like energy prices have never shot up before.

But this winter, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, it looks particularly bleak: Oil could exceed $2.23 a gallon in the Northeast, a 32 percent jump over last year. Natural gas could cost $14.36 for 1,000 cubic feet, 44 percent more than last year. Electricity is expected to be higher. Even the price of cordwood is going up as the cost of gasoline used to cut, haul, split, and deliver it rises.

And although there are some new strategies for saving energy at home, and utilities are trying new ways to get consumers to use those strategies, it's not like homeowners don't know what to do, because the basics haven't changed.

The question is, will the certainty of much higher prices motivate more homeowners to conserve energy?

Hundreds of thousands of people have availed themselves of the energy audits that utilities in Massachusetts offer, but at best only 30 percent of them have taken the auditors' advice, said Karin Pisiewski, consumer affairs coordinator of the state's Division of Energy Resources. That's a lot better than the 5 percent that were acting on the audits in the late 1990s, according to a report from that time, but it shows that even among people interested enough to seek an audit, much more could be done to save.

''After 25 years of government intervention, there are still a lot of uninsulated houses out there," said Kim Boas, administrator of the Home Energy Loss Prevention Service, which provides home energy audits in some Massachusetts communities. He does say he senses a new urgency among people calling his agency seeking ways to save heat and money, which are essentially the same thing. ''There is a certain amount of desperation in people's voices," he said. It's ''much different from last year."

For those people and everyone who might not have been paying attention before, here's a recap:

Increasing a home's insulation is still the best measure anyone can take to save money on energy. Depending on how drafty a house is, and what steps are taken, homeowners could save as much as 25 percent, Boas said. ''There's no doubt in my mind after doing this kind of work for 16 years that the major overlooked conservation measure for older houses is insulation."

Good windows are also important, but your old ones would have to be cracked or rattling before repairs or replacements would give the same return as R19 or better insulation in the attic, said Boas. R numbers describe a material's ability to insulate; the higher the number, the more stalwart the material.

Spending a day looking for drafts and leaks with a caulk gun, a can of spray foam, and some weather stripping is a relatively easy, cost-effective way of keeping the warm air in. Even well-insulated houses could have the equivalent of a 25-square-inch hole to the outside world when you add up all the small cracks.

Seals around doors and windows deteriorate, so those are always places to work on. Plumbing and electrical chases are prime targets, as are areas around the foundation and leading into the attic. Holes in interior walls are often overlooked, but they can lead straight to the outside and are well worth plugging. Ducts in houses with forced-air heating systems are notoriously leaky, and taping those up goes a long way. And for any system, have the furnace serviced regularly.

Turning down your thermostat overnight and whenever you plan to be gone for more than four hours will save energy and money. ''There's a lot of misinformation about this," with some people clinging to the notion that it takes more energy to heat the house back up in the morning than it would to leave the thermostat up all night, according to John T. Walsh, senior project administrator for conservation for the Western Mass Electric Co. Even in relatively tight houses, the air changes over about every hour, said Walsh, and in a leaky house it can be as little as 10 minutes. He estimates that you save 1 percent of your energy cost for each degree you turn down the heat. He recommends turning the heat down a maximum of 10 degrees because if you go too low you risk hitting the dew point, which causes moisture in the air to condense.

Once the basics are taken care of, you can turn your attention to the bigger things -- such as seeing if your major appliances, especially the furnace, meet modern efficiency standards. There are also new technologies and innovations, such as high-tech windows, programmable thermostats, and alternative approaches to heating water (see next page), that take longer to justfy the expense, but remember: As fuel prices rise, the time it takes to recoup your investment falls.

Home energy audits, where a specialist comes to your house and assesses how efficient it is, have been available to Massachusetts homeowners since the early 1980s. More recently, utilities have started offering cash inducements to increase the likelihood that homeowners would follow through on the recommendations.

One thing most homeowners in the state can get is a 50 percent rebate of up to $1,500 for approved installation of insulation, air sealing, and other efficiency measures. As an alternative, NStar Electric offers a $400 instant rebate and no-interest financing to eligible customers, said Lisa Rinkus of MassSave, which contracts with some of the biggest local energy companies to provide audits. Incentives in some parts of the state include rebates on replacing inefficient appliances and freebies such as highly efficient light bulbs and sink and showerheads that cut water flow.

Retrofitting can include drilling holes in walls in order to blow in cellulose insulation or spraying a foam that dries into a hard, spongy substance to seal air leaks, according to Rinkus. Customers having energy efficiency measures installed as part of the retrofit may use sophisticated diagnostic tools to make sure the house is buttoned up. These could include a blower door test, which pumps air in to measure how tight a house is, and scanning the exterior with an infrared camera for heat loss.

Walsh said his company has instituted three levels of energy audits, the most basic being a walk-through with a specialist ticking off areas in need of improvement and a more comprehensive inspection that includes a combustion efficiency test on the furnace. A higher-tech audit that includes the blower door test costs money, but consumers can recoup the cost when recommended improvements are completed.

But Walsh emphasizes not overlooking little things you can do on your own, such as replacing screens with storm windows and washing windows -- especially the ones facing south -- to maximize solar gain. Lock windows to reduce air seepage. Close your curtains and blinds at night and open them when the sun is shining.

Commenting on the higher energy costs, Walsh said, ''I've been trying to get people to do something for 18 years, and people are finally now listening. People are really panicked, and everybody wants an audit now, but unfortunately these are pretty small programs and there will be long waiting lists."

Rinkus said calls to MassSave, which will set up an audit or direct you to an auditor in areas it doesn't serve, have more than doubled since last year. So far, said Rinkus, her auditors have been able to meet demand.

''A lot of people don't know about these rebates, and when they find out about them, they say, 'Oh my gosh, I should have done this a long time ago,' " she said. Go to or call 866-527-7283 to find out about having an audit done of your home.

Architect Bruce Coldham, who has been a practitioner and an advocate of high-performance ecological building for 25 years, compares the lack of attention to simple conservation measures by builders during periods of relatively cheap energy to the failure to construct adequate levees in New Orleans. Both would have been a bit more expensive in the short run but now are likely to cost a great deal more.

''What do we do now that the dung has hit the fan again?" is a question many people are asking now with skyrocketing fuel prices, said Coldham, who is chairman of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. New technologies haven't supplanted the basics, he said: ''This is a mantra that has been delivered for 30 or 40 years. It may not have been sufficiently interesting 10 years ago, but now the stakes are higher."

Coldham pointed out that along with technology, lifestyle choices greatly affect energy consumption. Some people ''can't imagine not being able to circulate around the house in their underwear during the winter," he said, while others are willing to put on an extra sweater and put up with slightly colder temperatures. Two families living in identical units can consume dramatically different amounts of energy depending on behavior, he said.

Taking a long view of the current rush to respond to higher fuel prices, Coldham said that Americans have essentially chosen not to conserve to the extent that we could. ''Jimmy Carter expressed the need to conserve energy as a moral challenge in the 1970s and he lost the election," said Coldham. The fact that, historically, people don't follow through on the recommendations they get from energy audits doesn't surprise him. ''They feel comforted by all these things that they could do, and they're forever getting around to doing them," he said.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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