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TheFreakOut: Button It Up, A Confession

Posted Oct 08 2008 6:52am
by Heather Rae

Here in Maine, politicos making hay of rising (and now dipping fuel) costs are calling for troops of weatherization crews to be unleashed into the homes of the state's neediest residents. This initiative is not "low-income weatherization" which services the poorest, but an attempt to button up the homes of the next economic tier. These troops of state-trained energy auditors will be armed with state-subsidized air infiltration measurement devices ("blower-doors") and infrared cameras.

Political jockeying of a prominent state financing organization over the training and oversight of these troops -- and angling for the monies made available via RGGI, forward capacity markets, Federal "green jobs" funding and a proposed, but rejected, request for bond funding -- is evidence that there's something at stake here, something significant enough for the governor himself to broadcast tips on weatherization via satellite link-ups. I hope it's not just money, power and turf, but I'm not convinced.

The State has no energy office; it was dissolved years ago. There is no authority under which these home energy improvement initiatives and programs, those that serve the general public, comfortably fit. A governor's task force plan, released this past summer, did not call for establishment of such an authority. That's a shame. The State is mired in political gamesmanship, as homeowners FreakOut over the costs of staying warm against the cold weather that is already upon us. I've stoked the wood stove many times in the last week.

For two years, the Maine Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program, with funding from various state and federal resources, has aimed to raise the bar for energy improvements, to build awareness of the economic benefits of buttoning up a home and to train people who understand the complexities of interacting building systems, indoor air quality, ventilation, and combustion safety (that is, entry of toxic gases into the home from combustion appliances). I am the project manager of this program. We have aimed to transform the market. We have aimed to uphold nationally-recognized standards for energy renovations for a new profession that still has no recognized name. We have aimed to build a sustainable "whole house" industry, aka, jobs.

This week I am at a conference in Massachusetts for specialists in the whole house/home performance field. I can say that in two years, despite enormous obstacles and a fast-changing landscape, this little program has made enormous strides, not by the criteria of a program that must demonstrate kWh and therm savings, but in elevating the standards of home energy audits and improvements in the State, and in moving this "whole house" industry forward.

Weatherization (or winterization as is the case in Maine) is a catch-all word; there is much more to to it than a tube of caulk and bundles of pink asbestos batts. Not too many years ago, just after a layoff from an electric and gas utility (where one might presume employees would gain a clue or two about home weatherization...I never even heard the term while there), I launched into an energy improvement of my own home. At the time, I also sat on the energy committee of a local Sierra Club where a fellow member was an energy auditor. I'd seen pictures of that "blower door" thing. To me, it was geeky, strange, incomprehensible.

Unsurprisingly, I royally botched my home energy improvement. I had no understanding of thermal boundaries, air infiltration, carbon monoxide backdrafting, or energy savings to investment ratios of the improvements. I purchased $600 of pink asbestos batts from a big box store (which provided no instructions about proper installation...no guidance on air sealing prior to installation...no description of which way the barrier should face, or if I needed one at all, for the application.) I had no measure of the leakiness of the house prior to my big pink batt project, and I had no way to verify whether or not I had actually made an improvement. (I can take an educated guess, now, that in removing from the attic floor the blown in cellulose and its perpetual plumes of dust, that the pink batts made the home less energy efficient.) I took no steps to ensure that the beastly gravity furnace was safe, though I knew it was energy inefficient. I liked it because it was silent. When I sold the house, it was determined to have a crack in the heat exchanger and was replaced. (It wasn't safe.) I had placed a carbon monoxide detector in the outlet at the floor of the house, not in the upper part of the room where the carbon monoxide would have been.

Call me stupid. I was, and I offer this confession as a caution: my ignorance is prevalent.

A few things I did do right such as the storm windows and the pleated thermal blinds to block the blazing southern Colorodo sun. Those are the sorts of Do-It-Yourself improvements that politicians love to impress upon their constituents. The rest of it, the building science and the physics of the building's systems, I have been told by politicians, are too complicated, too much for people to grasp. We all recognize that home improvements can be very expensive and many homeowners cannot afford them...so I am asked to give them the Do-It-Yourself talk and to leave out the bits about thermal boundaries and all that science stuff.

I can't. If weatherization crews -- as opposed to fully trained "whole house" professionals held to energy renovation standards -- are unleashed, there is the risk of damaging a home and the health of its occupants...to the point of killing someone with toxic gases. If the only solution politicians want to hear is DIY without the geeky science, there is the same risk. A political solution to the FreakOut that eschews professional guidance is dangerous and irresponsible.
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