Win-win on savings and comfort

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MANCHESTER - Martha Thompson owns a not untypical home in Manchester - a two-story Cape-style house built in 1963. Other than adding on an additional room 10 years later, not much changed; until last year.

Then, Thompson was one of two area residents selected for a free home energy audit and insulation project underwritten by the stratton Foundation, and Efficiency Vermont, an independent, non-profit organization under contract to the Vermont Public Service Board that provides technical assistance and financial incentives to Vermont households and businesses, to help them reduce their energy costs. The organization is funded by an energy efficiency charge on consumers' electric bills.

One winter heating season later, the differences were marked - the house was warmer and her heating bill lower, she said.

She used to plan on filling her 125 gallon oil tank three times during the winter; this year she only had to call for one refill and there's fuel left over.

Places in her house, which she also heats with wood, which used to be "cold spots" were suddenly warm, she said.

"It certainly made a significant difference in the heat and comfort level," she said.

The main savings in heat and dollars come from a complete overhaul of her home's insulation, both in her basement and attic. Two local energy firms, Hand Energy Services of Dorset, and Energy Wise Homes of East Dorset, conducted the insulation work. In addition, Thompson got new energy efficent CFL lightbulbs installed as well, which have contributed to a drop in her electric bills, she said.

Thompson was the benificiary, through the area's Interfaith council, of a program that brought together a public-private partnership that aims to promote energy reduction and cost savinfs through conservation, said Lee Krohn, Manchester's Planning Director and Zoning Administrator.

The initiative grew out of an earlier project launched by the the Vermont Community Energy Mobilization Project, a pilot project launched in 2009 by Efficiency vermont to provide training and energy savings materials to local groups and volunteers. This was essentially a grassroots effort of people reaching out to other neighbors to share knowledge and implement conservation measures at time when energy costs were soaring. The town got involved in that pilot project last year, Krohn said.

Eventually, about 50 homeowners in Manchester , Dorset and Peru were helped out through basic energy reviews of their homes and advice on what they could do to save on heating costs, he said.

"The idea was to take a walk through someone's home and install some basic efficiency measures that would save them money right away," he said. "This was not an audit, just a visit."

Based on the success of that pilot project, the germ of an idea to conduct more intensive conservation upgrades in a smaller number of homes, Krohn said.

That led them to the Stratton Foundation, which maintains an "Urgent Needs" program that offered a source of funding. The foundation stumped up $3,000 plus an additional $2,000 in a matching grant.

This allowed them to hire Hand energy Services and Ted Taylor, the owner of Energy Wise Homes, to do the actual audit and insulation work on Thompson's home, along with the house of Jean Noble, another Manchester resident. Both were selected through the Interfaith Council, Krohn said. Thomas Hand, of Hand Energy, performed the energy audit and also put in the basement insulation. Taylor did the upper part of the house and the attic. Both firms did this work at a significant reduction of their normal retail pricing to help facilitate the project.

Energy audits are essentially reviews of where heat is escaping out of a house before doing its job to warm up the interior. a special infra-red camera is used to detect places in a home where the heat escapes.

Contrary to what many might think, the main culprits aren't a home's windows, Hand said.

"Windows are expensive to replace and there's usually a lot of other things that are more cost effective and result in bigger savings," he said.

In Thompson's case, she was losing a lot of heat out of her poorly insulated basement. That's not an uncommon situation for many homes around this area. Right there, about a 25 percent savings in heating costs was obtained, he said.

Ted Taylor found the same thing when he went to work on Thompson's attic, he said.

"Insulation is the first thing anyone should do," he said. "Putting in new windows is the last thing worth doing. they only take up about 15 percent of the average house and if your walls don't have any insulation you can spend $20,000 and still have a cold house."

Through insulation, a homeowner gets a return of around 30 percent a year - enough to completely pay for the cost of insulation and conservation effort within four years, both Hand and Taylor said.

Meanwhile, both the state and federal governments are still making available incentive and tax credit programs that make this an attractive time to address buttoning up a leaky house that is getting along into middle age as might be measured in human years. Efficiency Vermont has several incentive programs that offer up to $2,500 in support. The federal government is offering an an array of tax refunds and credits for renovations and purchasing approved Energy Star appliances.

Even a simple energy audit can qualify for a rebate, Krohn said.

But the hope is that these sorts of initiatives won't end here, he said.

"Hopefully, some tangible result will come out of all of this that we can point to and say look - this is the kind of work you can do in your home and here are two families who saved a thousand dollars in heatng last year and were more comfortable in their homes."


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