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Retrofitting the Home: Audits and Energy Envelopes

by Terence P. Ward   
News about energy costs in the Hudson Valley never seems to be very bright. In the past few months, Central Hudson was acquired by a Canadian company, another harsh winter caused heating costs to spike for many families, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made the determination that the best way to solve New York City’s power problems is to artificially raise rates in the counties just north of the metropolis. Among this mostly dark news there is one shining beacon of light, though: New York State is still helping homeowners who are interested in cutting energy costs. 
Thermal imaging allows energy auditors
to see whether air is leaking from a home.
“An energy audit is the first step that anybody should take,” says Ann Guenther of the Climate Action Coalition in New Paltz. She and her husband, Dan, have lately been working with their group on “solarizing” the community, but they both agree that an audit should be at the beginning of any energy-saving strategy. 
“We’re encouraging people to get their houses in order at the same time as getting solar, and treat it all like a package,” said Dan. Providing recommendations on how to tighten up a house’s energy envelope is the crux of what NYSERDA’s Home Performance with Energy Star program is all about. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority coordinates certified experts who analyze the structure and airflow in a building in order to provide opinions about how to reduce energy usage. The agency also pays for the audits in nearly all cases–it’s an income-based program, but 92% of applicants get the audit for free, and the top 8% only have to pay from $50-250 for the service. 
“There isn’t anyone who shouldn’t get it,” said Mike D’Arcy, a municipal outreach coordinator for RUPCO, the Rural Ulster Preservation Corporation. Families making up to 200% of the median household income for their county will have the audit paid for entirely. That means anyone making up to $142,600 in Ulster, $166,200 in Dutchess, $148,000 in Columbia, or $116,800 in Greene County. “I’m helping people save money, so they can afford food and fuel,” D’Arcy said. 
Hugo Jule works as an outreach coordinator for both RUPCO and Clearwater, and has to explain quite often why these audits are valuable. It’s about “basic building science principles,” he explained. “Heating, ventilation, air conditioning, air sealing, insulation and moisture being the most important ones. During the winter, we pay to heat the space where we live, usually by heating air or water. And during the summer, we pay for air conditioning to cool our homes. If the building envelope is not properly air-sealed and insulated, then the hot or cold air simply escapes through the attic and every crack in the house.” 
Jule is a good spokesperson because he’s had an energy retrofit completed on his own home. “The actual energy retrofit consisted mainly of air sealing and properly insulating the attic and basement, therefore reducing the air infiltration or leakiness of the home by over 60%. This means the air that I pay to heat or to cool actually stays in the house much longer!” 
In addition, Jule installed a water heater that can be up to four times more efficient than an electric one, further reducing the use of fuel oil for water heating. “A certified Building Performance Institute (BPI) Home Performance contractor is the most qualified to identify the systems in a home that use the most energy and make proper recommendations,” Jule said. 
Once an audit is done, NYSERDA also has some programs to reduce the cost of getting the work done. Rebates and low-interest loans can help make work replacing windows and blowing insulation into walls more affordable, and landlords should take note: if a building has four or fewer apartments, it’s the income of the tenants, not the property owner, which determine eligibility for financing. Rebates will give 10% cash back, further easing the transition to a more cost-effective, energy-saving home. 
One program that is near and dear to the Guenthers is On-Bill Recovery, which is used to pay for solar installations. The eligible homeowner won’t see the savings on their electric bill right away, because the difference will be used to pay for the cost of installation. That’s one of the ways that the Climate Action Coalition is trying to encourage residents in New Paltz to consider solar, but in rural Ulster County, sometimes the people who most want to jump in with both feet are the least likely to benefit from home solar panels. 
“Environmentalists often have trees over their houses,” Dan Guenther said ruefully. “We need about 80% exposure for it to make sense, but we were told we only had about 20%.” 
Types of insulation.
Interest in energy efficiency is leaking into the municipal sphere, as well. RUPCO got the Town of New Paltz to sign onto its “Green Jobs Green New York Partnership Pact,” which means that the town’s newly appointed energy liaison, councilman Dan Torres, will work with the nonprofit to identify trusted contractors and make residents aware of the benefits of the often free energy audits. New Paltz’s neighbor to the north, Rosendale, is looking into getting an audit of its sewer treatment plant. That’s a decidedly more complex–and more expensive–prospect than assessing a home, but the potential savings could run into the thousands, which is a big deal for any town laboring under the strictures of the state’s tax cap. 

There is also the prospect of simply purchasing electricity made from a renewable source, like wind or solar. Many of the energy service companies, or ESCOs, which often call people during their dinners to make their pitch, are selling some form of green energy. While the customer can’t actually purchase only wind-produced kilowatts for use, their signing on ensures that more renewable energy enters the grid, greening the entire system. While that doesn’t necessarily save one money, there’s an argument that saving the planet is a good investment, too.