‘Green collar’ homeowners team up for energy efficiency improvements

It has only been in recent months that the term "green collar industry" has made its way into the American parlance, partly as a result of the federal and state government efforts to build a new industry that is more environmentally and fiscally viable than those currently in crisis.

Home energy audits sometimes use advanced tools like infrared cameras and air pressure gauges to identify leaks and inefficiences.

Home energy audits sometimes use advanced tools like infrared cameras and air pressure gauges to identify leaks and inefficiences.

It has only been in recent months that the term “green collar industry” has made its way into the American parlance, partly as a result of the federal and state government efforts to build a new industry that is more environmentally and fiscally viable than those currently in crisis.

What is a green collar business? It is one that offers a service which aims to improve our relationship with the environment. Typically this involves reducing the reliance of homes and businesses on finite natural resources – like gas, and water.

But it also often involves finding ways for homes and businesses to save money, for these finite natural resources are expensive, and getting more so.

A green collar operation is perhaps best described by an example, and one of the fastest growing segments of the industry is the home energy audit.

Simply, a home energy audit involves taking a look at your home and finding ways to improve how it captures and uses the energy put into it. The motivation for the homeowner is often the great reductions in energy bills – heaters run less, air conditioners become redundant, hot water is provided more efficiently. But the environmental benefits are undeniable.

Eager to bring the theory into practice and convert the hypothetical benefits to real ones, an energy efficiency group in Issaquah has begun a program of energy audits for local homeowners.

The Sustainable Issaquah Home Energy Efficiency Group has been meeting since the middle of this year, to discuss ways in which homeowners can take part in the burgeoning green collar industry.

This week that discussion gave way to action, with five homes in Issaquah undergoing audits – the first step in making those homes more energy efficient.

The audits are being conducted by Issaquah’s Gary Wood, a founder of the Home Energy Efficiency Group and one of the main drivers in bringing ideas about energy efficiency to this city.

The Reporter first caught up with Wood in July of this year, when he was doing some training and in the process of becoming certified as an energy auditor. Four months later and his home energy auditing company, Applied Performance Technologies, is up and running.

The audits this week were certainly not the first in the city. But what makes them unique is that the homeowners are part of a group – they are going through the audits together, enabling them to share not only the experience and ideas, but also the cost of any improvements.

According to Sustainable Issaquah’s Erik Schneider, mobilizing groups of homeowners to undertake energy improvements together is a key way to bring the benefits of energy efficiency to streets and neighborhoods, rather than just isolated houses here and there.

“It’s also means that, as a group, we can share the information we get back from the audits, and gauge a clearer picture of just how much of a difference the improvements will make,” he said.

For one, the group will compare energy bills, and enter the data into a computer program Wood runs that calculates a home’s efficiency.

“It is a spread sheet tool, where you enter the data of your energy bill. The tool knows what temperature it was for each and every day in the period – it’s calibrated for Issaquah,” Schneider said. “You select what components of your house are on gas, or electric, and you get back a score which evaluates how efficiently you are using the energy you pay for.”

The shared experiences of the group will go a long way to improving the information out there for other homeowners interested in an energy audit.

But where the real strength in numbers idea comes through is when it’s time to make improvements.

Schneider and Wood are eager to stress that home energy auditing is not about selling.

“It’s about advising,” Schneider said.

“What energy auditing does is to help homeowners figure out what they can do to get the best return,” Wood told The Reporter.

He conducts two types of audits; the full works, using advanced tools like infrared cameras and air pressure gauges to identify leaks and inefficiences. Then there is the “clipboard and flashlight audit,” a visual inspection of things like insulation, window sealing, and heating systems.

What happens next is very much up to the homeowner, and through the Home Energy Efficiency Group, Wood is taking the “advising rather than selling” idea to the fullest extent. In the next few months he will give workshops on what homeowners can do themselves to improve their home’s efficiency.

“This could be things like getting up in your crawl space with a calking gun – the dirty work,” Schneider said. “The great thing about doing it as a group is that we will share some of this work, share some of the resources. For example, there is one guy in the group who knows a bit about plumbing. He’s said he’ll help with insulating the water pipes. We can share the labor, the skills, and anything we need to buy we can share the cost.”

While energy efficiency is a growing part of new home construction, it is the older homes, like many of those found in Issaquah, that offer the greatest potential for energy savings.

Homes built before 1970 use nine percent of total energy consumption in America – more than all the houses built since 1970 combined.

And Wood told The Reporter “by the year 2050, 75 percent of all houses standing have already been built by now.”

It is not only Sustainable Issaquah and energy conscious locals that realize home energy efficiency makes a lot of sense – so does the state and federal governments, and they are offering financial incentives to residents to encourage work to be done.

The federal stimulus package included a the tax credit for energy efficient improvements, covering 30 percent of eligible costs, up to $1,500.

The deadline for that program is December 31 – for more information go to www.energystar.gov.

And in October, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced more than $14 million in grants for programs providing energy efficiency upgrades to middle income homes and small businesses in Washington.

Issaquah’s Terry Phelan, who had an audit done by Wood several weeks ago, said she was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of the rebate and grant program.

Following Wood’s recommendations, Phelan paid for repairs and improvements to the duct system, crawl space, and operation of the extractor fans, in her Newport Way home.

The total value of the work was over $1,000 – but Phelan only ever saw a bill for $450. Through Puget Sound Energy’s rebate program, suppliers receive credit directly from the energy provider, saving homeowners the hassle of submitting receipts for reimbursement or waiting for tax returns.

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