Commitment Phobia

October 5, 2012 | Amanda Kolson Hurley

In my last post, I described the process of getting my first-ever home energy audit, which began with me “deprogramming” the behaviors that had kept me from scheduling it in the first place. After walking through the house with the auditor and observing the blower door test, I felt like I knew my home a lot better than I had the day before.

It had been a useful doctor’s appointment — but I was still waiting to be issued my prescription, i.e., the audit report.

About 10 days later, the report — prepared by Maryland energy efficiency company ecobeco — appeared in my inbox. It grouped the auditor’s recommendations into a few categories (Health & Safety, Efficiency & Comfort) and clearly displayed them in tables. It estimated the cost and annual energy savings for every improvement I might undertake. It also told me where I should go online to find federal, state, and county incentives.

There were pictures — some showing the scary regions of my house that I try not to think about, like the crawl space that’s populated by jumping camel crickets. Jonathan Ferree, my auditor, recommended adding XPS foamboard to the ceiling of the crawl space to reduce energy transfer between it and the living/dining area above.

And then there were the hard diagnostics. My blower door test results showed the rate of air exchange at cubic feet per minute. (The basic principle of a blower door test: it depressurizes your house, then measures the airflow required to maintain a pressure differential with the outside. The more air required, the leakier the house.)

Blower Door Test Results: 3,938
Your Home’s Building Airflow Standard: 1,015
Your home is 387% of standard

Three hundred and eighty-seven percent? That’s not a leaky house — that’s a sieve.

I was definitely, immediately interested in learning about the upgrades I could make. Jonathan’s chief recommendations were heavy air sealing and insulation. Each measure would cost around $2,000 — but my utility, Pepco, will chip in 50 percent of that.

However, the payback period gives me pause. 25 years. I’m not impatient; I’d just like for these upgrades to pay for themselves before my son (now six) graduates from college.

If only the SAVE Act had already passed. In case you’re not familiar with SAVE, it’s a bipartisan bill in Congress that would change mortgage lending rules to factor in energy efficiency. Among other things, it would allow homeowners to bundle energy efficiency improvements into a mortgage refi.

Not having $6,000 lying around, I’d love to have this financing option. But Congressional gridlock means I’ll have to keep waiting.

Fortunately, Maryland’s BeSMART Home program does offer low-interest loans for efficiency improvements. I'm not sure if I qualify, but I may apply for one.

Or…I may not. It’s hard to commit to a four-figure investment, with the attendant paperwork, when the carrot is $81 or $28 (!) in annual savings on my utility bills. I’d rather pay down my credit cards or build my son’s college fund, to be honest. And that’s a problem for efficiency advocates.

Efficiency brings a variety of tremendous benefits, not least that it will help us mitigate an urgent global problem (climate change) while saving money. At the scale of the single house and the individual/s who run it, however, the benefits are less compelling. Especially when green features are routinely overlooked as a selling point by home appraisers and real-estate agents — something that IMT is working to correct. It'd be nice to know that if I decided to sell the house, I could recoup my investment.

When lending formulas give an assist to the buyer of an efficient home, when appraisers recognize the added value of (hidden) insulation and ENERGY STAR heat pumps — that’ll be the nudge so many of us need to make the commitment.

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Amanda Kolson Hurley

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