Weatherize for Good
By Steven McGrath, Solar Oregon Board Member
Taking a holistic approach to helping your house, the environment, and your community, all at the same time!
The old way
Suppose you decided that your car could stand to be more efficient. You see a sign that says “We’ll make your car get up to 3% better gas mileage!” You stop in, and for a nominal fee, someone adds air to your tires, up to the maximum recommended pressure (or a little beyond). You drive away, and sure enough, you do see a modest improvement in gas mileage. Would you now head off into the sunset, confident that you’d done your part for more efficient transportation?
This probably sounds silly. After all, you’d probably want someone to look more comprehensively at your car, providing a full tune-up, while checking or changing your fluids, and making sure your vehicle is safe. In short, you’d want a qualified mechanic to look at your car as a system, rather than offering a one-size-fits-all solution that only addresses one piece of the puzzle. Adjusting your tire pressure may be part of the answer, but the impact will be minimal if other areas need attention.
While most people would not consider such a piecemeal approach to improving their car an adequate or complete solution, improving our home’s energy performance is still commonly addressed in a similar fashion. We hear that more insulation, new windows, or a new furnace are the answer; invest in that improvement, and settle in, satisfied that your home is now efficient.
The problem with this approach is that it ignores the fact that all parts of our home act as a system, and that the best answer lies in addressing the system holistically, rather than piece by piece. When we undertake one, two, or three energy improvements individually, we will experience savings, but deeper savings, as well as improvements to the safety, comfort and durability of our homes remain untapped, perhaps for a generation! This represents a lost opportunity to make a real difference.
Home Performance with ENERGY STAR®
With improvements in the understanding of how the elements of a house interact over time, the discipline of Building Science has been developed. Practitioners of building science aren’t just looking at the energy saving potential of an individual building component, but rather look to ensure that the whole structure provides a safe and comfortable environment for its occupants, is built to last, and minimizes energy waste. They do this by performing a comprehensive assessment of the home, using tools such as a blower door and duct blaster to measure the leakiness of the building “shell” and duct system, an infrared camera to look at insulation levels, drafts, and moisture problems, and combustion safety tools to make sure gas or other combustion appliances aren’t putting carbon monoxide or other toxics into the indoor air. They also thoroughly examine the existing insulation and air boundaries, to ensure they are aligned and that ventilation is adequate where needed to avoid rot, mold or related problems that can degrade a structure or cause health problems over time.
After analysis and modeling, the homeowner is presented with a list of what can be done to improve the home’s performance, as well as the interdependencies between these measures. For example, while adding insulation to an attic may be recommended, sealing all the leaks from the house to the attic is likely to be recommended first, so air doesn’t simply blow through the new insulation, rendering it ineffective. Simple yet labor-intensive efforts such as air and duct sealing will often be shown to offer much more benefit for the investment than “sexier” options such as new windows. Many homeowners will not choose to move forward with everything at once, but by knowing how their choices interact, they can make intelligent decisions about the first steps they want to take, while remaining aware of further improvements they may choose to make later. Even so, when working with Oregon’s older building stock, it is not unusual for contractors to be able to cut a home’s energy consumption by more than half, while homeowners immediately notice dramatic increases in comfort!
Once work is completed, testing on the house is repeated, to make sure the goals were achieved, and to assure that the house is left with healthy and appropriate ventilation.
In Oregon, this comprehensive approach to weatherization is available under the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® program as managed by the U.S. Department of Energy through the Energy Trust of Oregon. Contractors working under this program employ technicians certified in building science by the Building Performance Institute (BPI) to perform testing and develop recommendations. Just as with solar, the Energy Trust of Oregon administers a network of Trade Allies, and provides a range of incentives for undertaking an assessment and related upgrades.
With the growth of Home Performance in Oregon, many contractors now participate in the Home Performance Guild of Oregon, which provides opportunities for members to network and exchange information related to the trade.
Clean Energy Works Oregon
One problem raised by taking a comprehensive approach to energy upgrades is that a good package may have a significant cost, perhaps $15 - $30,000. To help overcome this barrier, the City of Portland, in collaboration with the Energy Trust of Oregon and a range of community groups, created a pilot program called Clean Energy Works Portland, which demonstrated the use of financing with no upfront cost, and repayment on the homeowner’s utility bill. This meant no advance commitment, no new bills, and that the cost of repaying the loan would be offset by savings in utility costs.
Stemming from the development of the pilot program, Portland and its partners sought grant funding under the recovery act, to promote the growth of Home Performance weatherization throughout Oregon, and create new green jobs in the process. This resulted in the creation of Clean Energy Works Oregon, a new non-profit with initial funding from ARRA grant funding under contract with the City of Portland, but with a mission to reach out throughout the state. A unique aspect of both the pilot and current program centers around the Community Workforce Agreement, which sets out standards in pay, training, and diversity, to ensure that the growing industry is as healthy for society as it is for the environment.
Weatherize for Good
As part of the pilot project, an experiment was run using a community organizing approach to help make home energy retrofits happen. The Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good (MACG), an organization of non-profits and religious institutions, sought out contractors willing to work together to raise the bar in areas of community involvement, service delivery, and workforce development, to undertake the neighborhood project known as “Changing the Climate in Cully”, in Northeast Portland. Through extensive grassroots organizing and outreach, more than 10% of eligible homeowners signed up for a Home Performance evaluation in a brief period, with significant and gratifying results for this middle-income community. All participating contractors used weatherization workers trained by and hired from Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA), through local 296, with many coming from Cully and surrounding neighborhoods.
As a result of the positive experience of working together in Cully, participating contractors and MACG came together to form the High Road Contractors and Community Alliance (HRCCA), as a new nonprofit dedicated to promoting a high road approach to weatherization through community engagement and action. The Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and the Sierra Club are now also active participants in the HRCCA.
HRCCA participating contractors agree to high road employment standards in collaboration with LiUNA and HRCCA non-profit members, and have put on community recruitment events, leading to the training and hiring of new weatherization workers from traditionally underserved communities. Contractors share a small portion of the revenue from each project to support the outreach efforts of the community organizations, and are active in efforts to improve opportunities for workers and access to quality weatherization for the community. Homeowners may choose to participate through Clean Energy Works Oregon, or may elect another approach to financing their project, depending on their needs.
HRCCA’s current campaign is known as Weatherize for Good (http://weatherizeforgood.org). Weatherize for Good is an effort to bring together all the values that we associate with a sustainable future; reduced resource consumption, better jobs, and an improved economy, all while supporting community involvement and strengthening community institutions.
Call to action
Clean Energy Works Oregon is offering Spring bonus incentives for homeowners who sign up before the April 30th, with up to $2500 in rebates for homeowners in the Portland Metro region, Rogue Valley, or Klamath or Lake counties. Homeowners in the Interstate or Lents Urban Renewal Areas (URAs) of Portland are eligible for an additional $1000 in rebates for signing up by month’s end. Homeowners in Central Oregon are eligible for up to $3700 in rebates until May 15th.
If you are in the Portland Metro area and would like to sign up through Weatherize for Good, or learn more, go to http://weatherizeforgood.org/index.php and click on Apply Now, call 503-893-9240, or enter the instant rebate code COHRA at the Clean Energy Works Oregon website. Weatherize for Good is not yet available outside the Portland Metro area, but Clean Energy Works Oregon can match you with a contractor in your area.
Weatherize for Good, http://weatherizeforgood.org
Clean Energy Works Oregon, http://www.cleanenergyworksoregon.org/
Energy Trust of Oregon Home Performance program, http://energytrust.org/residential/evaluate-your-home/home-performance-energy-star/ - includes videos illustrating the Home Performance process
Home Performance Guild of Oregon, http://www.oregonhpcg.org/
Building Performance Institute, http://www.bpi.org/
Home Performance with ENERGY STAR®, http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=hpwes_profiles.showSplash
Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, http://iafnw.org/macg/w4g
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon – Oregon Interfaith Power and Light, http://www.emoregon.org/power_light.php
Sierra Club - http://oregon.sierraclub.org/goals/energy.asp
Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA), http://www.liunabuildsamerica.org/weatherize
Solar Oregon board member Steven McGrath firstname.lastname@example.org is the owner of Sustainable Solutions Unlimited, Inc., an HRCCA participating contractor.