Derek Franz
dfranz@eaglevalleyenterprise.com

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March 7, 2012
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Green savings

There is a historic home up Brush Creek Road near Sylvan Lake State Park Visitor Center that represents the past and future.

The house was built in 1936 and was ahead of its time for the area in terms of its design. With help from the Energy Smart program, it might soon be ahead of its time once again.

Energy Smart Colorado is aimed at stimulating jobs and the economy through energy savings. The program is funded by a $4.9 million federal grant and covers Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison counties. It officially wrapped up its first year with a report that came out March 2.

"We may be on our one-year anniversary but we were working on it 24 months," said Yuri Kostick, a home energy advisor for Eagle County's Energy Smart team.

According to the numbers in the report, the program is accomplishing its goal.

Through Energy Smart, home energy assessments currently cost $50, but the price may soon increase.

"The market value for that is around $500," Kostick said.

Those assessments help people find how they can upgrade their homes to be safer and more energy efficient. Not only that, but when applicable, they come with direct installments of items such as programmable thermostats, 10 energy efficient light bulbs and more.

"According to the Department of Energy, just installing a programmable thermostat and 10 efficient light bulbs can have an annual energy savings of 10 percent if they are used correctly," Kostick said. "That's significant."

The light bulbs themselves cost about $3.50 at retail, Kostick said. Energy Smart gets them at cost.

The hope is that the assessments will lead to home energy improvements, which translates into more jobs for specially certified contractors such as Rusty Buick, who assessed the old house on Brush Creek last week. Even the assessments add up to more jobs.

Buick was a general contractor in the valley for 15 years before becoming certified as a Building Performance Institute (BPI) Energy Analyst and Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) Energy Rater.

"Things slowed down in 2008, so I looked for additional ways to stay busy," he said. "I was certified about a year before Smart Energy started. The program increased my business 200 to 300 percent."

In addition to making home assessments more accessible and affordable, Smart Energy helps homeowners get in touch with BPI- and RESNET-certified contractors for making home improvements. More importantly, the program offers rebates up to $1,000 as further incentive.

The rebates are made possible by the grant and through partnerships with such entities as Holy Cross Energy and Source Gas.

There is also tuition assistance for contractors looking to become certified for these jobs. Colorado Mountain College and Western State College help with most of that assistance.

Eagle County's Energy Resource Center (ERC) started with five energy raters and signed on six more.

The bottom line is that the program is accomplishing its goal of making a positive economic impact all across the board.

In Energy Smart's yearly report, $258,780 was spent on assessments and direct installments; $776,910 was spent on home improvements; and annual energy cost savings amounted to $171,565. The total economic impact is $1,207,255.

The process for a home energy assessment begins when a homeowner signs up by visiting the website at http://energysmartcolorado.com or calling (970) 328-8777. An analyst calls within three days to schedule an appointment.

Buick said an assessment starts with safety checks for any combustion appliance.

"A lot of gas systems are not operating properly," he said. "People will run their furnace for 15 years without giving it much thought, so a home assessment is an opportunity to check it out."

Next is an inspection of the mechanical room, checking for proper pressurization. Without that, dangerous byproducts such as carbon monoxide could leak back into the house.

After the utility checks, the house is sealed, with all windows and outside doors closed. A fan is installed in one doorway to suck air out of the house. The amount of air going out of the house is equivalent to amount going into the house. That's when a person can literally feel air coming through the walls.

In the old Brush Creek home, air leaked in at corners where ceilings met the walls, through recessed lighting fixtures and all kinds of places that appeared to be sealed but weren't. So much air was coming up through the basement that it was hard to close the door, as if pushing it closed against a strong wind. Interestingly, the original windows from 1936 leaked less than windows made in the 1970s and '80s.

"It's crazy that a home of this quality would be in the middle of Eagle (in the 1930s)," Kostick said.

While the fan is sucking air out of the home (which in effect sucks air into the home through its "leaks"), a manometer is used to measure in cubic feet per minute how much the house leaks. An infrared camera is also used to observe and document where cold air is coming in.

On camera, the cold air appears in shades of blue and purple. It can be seen infiltrating the home from all directions: blue streaks moving in like ghostly snakes.

Calculating how well the house is sealed - it's good to have a certain amount of air leaks for proper ventilation - and where the leaks are, a report and recommendation are given by the assessor.

"This information helps a homeowner address how to fix it and how to fix it cost effectively," Kostick said.

For example, adding more insulation to an attic won't necessarily do the trick if it's not the right kind of insulation for the job and if it's not installed properly. That's why work eligible for rebates must be done by certified contractors.

The report and the recommendation is the time in an assessment when any direct installations is done. That is also the time when potential rebates are determined.

If a homeowner decides to follow up with a home improvement, Smart Energy can help him or her get in touch with a certified contractor from a registered directory. Some contractors like Buick do assessments and improvements while others only do one or the other.

Eagle County's ERC conducted 385 home energy assessments last year and a total of 219 home energy improvements were made. Of those, 209 of those resulted from the assessments and 10 from the rebates. That amounts to an assessment-to-job conversion rate of more than 54 percent.

A goal of the program is to demonstrate a 15 percent energy savings in participating homes in at least 10 percent of the existing houses through the three-year term of the grant. That translates as 4,100 units out of a total of 41,000 in all three counties.

Scott Shlosser, whose family now owns the Brush Creek home, said they considered scrapping it at first.

"Everybody said to tear it down," he said. "When we looked into the history, we decided it would be a bad thing to do."

The home was built by Al Boynton, who opened the first gas station and sporting goods store in Eagle. The property includes one of the first small hydro-electric units in the area, which Shlosser's family also wants to restore.

"The question is how to balance the historical aspect with upgrades," said Shlosser, who owns a building in Eagle that he recently upgraded for energy efficiency.

"The heat loss was tremendous and the improvements made a huge difference," he said.

The Energy Smart program is economically driven but the environment benefits as well.

If people are saving more money on energy bills, they are more likely to spend the extra dollars in their communities, and that's a byproduct of the money going into added jobs for contractors who might be out of work otherwise. And of course, energy efficiency is better for the environment.

"For every dollar you save on energy, you're also saving energy," Kostick said.

He said the program and incentives encourage spending on energy improvements at a time when people are inclined to hold onto their money.

"There's cash on the table for a limited time right now," Kostick said. "It's only available as long as it's available."


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The VailDaily Updated Mar 8, 2012 02:38PM Published Mar 7, 2012 12:37PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.