'Deep-energy retrofits' take root in homes

The talk at an annual building conference in Boston is about how to reduce energy use in houses by more than 50 percent. Early pilot tests show it can be done, but with steep costs.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

BOSTON--Perhaps not surprisingly, wrapping a home in an air-tight seal and adding insulation dramatically lowers utility bills. But the question is: can people afford it?

On Thursday, contractors who could be considered pioneers in "deep-energy retrofits" presented results from their projects at the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association's BuildingEnergy conference here. In general, the data from early projects in Massachusetts shows that these energy makeovers delivered big gains in efficiency--on the order of 50 percent to 70 percent.

A superinsulation project under construction in Arlington, Mass. where two layers of foam insulation are added on the outside of the home. Martin LaMonica/CNET

There are a number of techniques to cut building energy but the one these contractors often focus on is superinsulating, or sealing the building "envelope" and adding insulation, both inside and on the exterior of buildings.

In one multiphase project in western Massachusetts, the homeowners anticipate getting a 70 percent reduction in energy use by adding a layer of foam insulation on the roof and outside walls among other enhancements. Slashing energy use means lots of insulation: the roof will have an R-value, or insulating value, of 59, which is two or three times that of a typical New England home.

Closer to Boston, a superinsulation project at an 85-year-old, two-family home in Arlington, Mass., was able to reduce the amount of heating oil by about two-thirds in its first year, according to homeowner Alex Cheimets. In that case, homeowners decided to seal and add insulation to the exterior of the home when they had to replace the aging shingles.

Another project where only the roof was replaced and extensive air sealing done was able to reduce cut energy usage by 44 percent based on the same average heating days, according to David Joyce, the president of Synergy Companies Construction, who worked on the project.

Although it may sound fairly straightforward, the actual detail work of sealing a building envelope and adding insulation can be very difficult, contractors report. For example, adding insulation to the exterior walls requires builders to treat windows in a very different way, taking into account sealing as well as drainage. Once homes become air-tight, they need to have a mechanical ventilation system, such as a heat-recovery ventilator, to circulate outdoor air into the structure.

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Another barrier to deep-energy retrofits is the cost. The project in Arlington cost about $100,000, although a smaller home could be roughly half of that, according to Synergy Companies Construction. Another approach to keeping costs down is to phase the construction over many years.

In these initial cases, the building owners are obviously highly motivated to cut energy for environmental or other reasons. But that doesn't mean there isn't a return on investment. A deep-energy retrofit at North Hampton Brewery is six years on a $200,000 investment, said the contractor, Sean Jeffords from Beyond Green Construction in western Massachusetts.

When on-site power generation is added, such as solar panels for electricity and hot water, it's possible for these super-efficient homes to become net-zero energy homes.

Tools needed
Deep-energy retrofits are still uncommon, not only because of the cost. Massachusetts is running a pilot program in which it plans to have 150 deep-energy retrofits (or 300 partial retrofits) over the next three years, which will be funded in part through utilities energy-efficiency programs. The size of the rebate ranges from about $25,000 to $40,000, according to Larry Masland, an energy efficiency planner in the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.

But even when subsidized, there remain challenges, speakers said Thursday. Finding contractors with experience in deep-energy retrofits is difficult and homeowners generally don't have access to a lot of information. Meanwhile, subcontractors such as electricians or plasterers typically don't take great care in preventing air leaks, which is vital in this sort of project.

Increasingly, general contractors can use software for modeling and blower door tests to check air tightness. Certifications and rating systems are emerging, including the HERS score, which gives an overall efficiency grade. Some contractors are also pursuing the PassiveHouse certification, a super-efficient building design system which originally took root in Germany. Other certifications are the U.S. Green Building Council'sLEED for Homes rating and EnergyStar.

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Homeowners (and builders) need ways to measure the effectiveness of contractors' work and anticipated return on investment, said Jeffords of Beyond Green Construction. "At the end of the day, (homeowners) need tools and have a lot trust in what you do because their neighbors haven't done it," he said.

Other barriers to adoption are a lack of financing options for what are large investments and skilled workers, Jeffords added.

But when builders and homeowners focus on efficiency, the results can slash the ongoing expenses of heating and cooling a home.

Simon Hare last year began started a project to rebuild an 1850 gunshop in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston that would be so energy-efficient that it wouldn't need a heater. With the coldest months now behind him, Hare on Thursday reported that his family was able to survive the New England winter with only occasional use of an electric space heater when temperatures dipped below 30 degrees. Because of the lack of drafts, his family has felt comfortable with the indoor temperature at 60 degrees, he said.

Clearly, deep-energy retrofits are on the extreme end of cost and effort when it comes to making homes more energy-efficient. But creating a tight seal and insulating can be done whenever there are major renovations to a home, such as replacing a roof or siding, said contractors.

In many cases, homeowners can significantly cut their utility bills--and environmental footprint--on their own by turning off unused appliances and plugging holes around their homes with caulk and expanding foam.