Helping the Hartfords and Finding a Path to More Energy Efficient Homes
The front page New York Times article on Saturday, In Fuel Oil Country, Cold that Cuts to the Heart, moved me deeply. It's the story of a retired Dixfield, ME couple struggling to keep up with their oil bills, and the anguished heating oil company balancing a marginal business with compassion for the Hartford's situation. At one point in the article, Mr. Hartford offers Hometown Energy the title to his car in exchange for heat.
It is a heartbreaking and moving story, brilliantly and wrenchingly written by Dan Barry. It clearly touched a nerve--one of the top most emailed articles on the Times as of today and now accumulating over 450 comments. Read it.
The context for this story is the significant cutting back of funds for LIHEAP, the Low Income Heating Assistance Program. People all over Maine and other cold climates, particularly those reliant on oil for heat, have depended on a contribution from this program to pay for a portion of their oil. On average, people used to get around $800. With the cuts, that number is down to less than $500. It is not unusual for a leaky house in Maine (with our housing stock, most are) to use as much as $2000/year in oil. From a year ago, the price per gallon of oil is up about 18%. Two weeks ago, at my house, we paid $3.91/gallon.
The human side of this story alone--the Hartford's and the compassionate but torn folks at Hometown Energy--is enough to motivate me.
But my interest, and the reason I spent much of the day yesterday helping organize a response to try to support this one couple, is for larger reasons.
Without question, direct support to prevent people from freezing in their homes is the moral and right thing to do. But paying for people's oil, a commodity virtually guaranteed to continue it's annual 18% per year price march, is utterly unsustainable.
Only by addressing the underlying issue--buildings that use energy wastefully--can we bring under control a government expense that has no end in sight. Those of us who work in the home performance field, or have had energy retrofit work done on our own homes, know the extraordinary economics and benefits of efficiency.
Clearly, the is a rock and a hard place situation. The Hartford's, and thousands like them, are on the verge of freezing. They need heat now. But we as a society can't print enough money to keep buying their oil in perpetuity.
My hope, in putting some effort into helping to coordinate a response to the Hartford's situation, is that we can demonstrate the economics of investing in efficiency as a far superior use of taxpayer subsidies.
I'll keep this post updated as this effort unfolds.
Update: Sunday Morning.
Upright Frameworks, one of Maine's leading weatherization companies, and DeWitt Kimball of Complete Home Evaluation Services, Maine's leading energy auditor, have agreed to do a full energy audit on the Hartford's home at no charge. I'll be joining them. We're on our way to Dixfield as of 10AM.
Update: Arriving at the House
We arrive while Robert Hartford is still at church, and meet Ike Libby, the big hearted oil man. This line from the Times story had me excited to meet him: "...Ike, whose heart, they say, is too big for his bantam size and, maybe, his business." He has clearly been moved by the outpouring of support he's partially responsible for creating, and greets me with welled up eyes, which I return. DeWitt and Kevin Casey of Upright Frameworks begin the external visual inspection, and there are many obvious issues: an entirely missing window covered only be plastic, uninsulated walls, significant leaks where the rear addition connects, a door that once went to a porch that has no function other than to leak air. Right away we see big opportunities for envelope improvement.
Update: Preliminary Audit Results
Low hanging fruit is a term often used in energy efficiency, and the good news is the Hartford's house is a cornucopia. Just from the external inspection, there are many obvious and easily corrected air leaks. Kevin and DeWitt immediately put a piece of XPS foam in missing window cavity and seal it up. The blower door test reveals extraordinary leakage for a building of this size. 4092 CFM50 with an ACH of 1.37. (For those outside of home performance, this is very leaky--CFM is cubic feet per minute of air leakage at the standard pressure of 50 pascals; ACH is air changes per hour, which takes into account the building's size. These numbers mean that a houseful of air in the Hartford's house is being replaced by another houseful from the cold outside more than once every hour. A typical goal for a semi-tight house is 0.35 ACH, but low energy buildings that have mechanical ventilation go much lower than this.) With the blower door running, DeWitt scans every cranny of the house with an infrared camera to see precisely where the air is leaking and where the insulation is compromised. At this point, the Hartford's, Ike the oil man and Erin Cox, a reporter for the Sun Journal, are a little mystified at how happy we are with these results. Really leaky houses mean generally easy fixes that result in significant, and very cost effective, energy savings. DeWitt also tests the boiler for efficiency and combustion safety. It's ancient, but not really too bad. 80% efficient with easy opportunities for improvement. Initially, It does not look like a replacement boiler would be a cost effective investment. DeWitt will complete the full audit report by the end of the day Monday.
Update: the Energy Efficiency Community Response
People in the energy efficiency community, most without being asked, are lining up to help the Hartford's situation. So far:
DeWitt Kimball, Complete Home Evaluation Services: full energy audit at no charge
Josh Wojcik and Kevin Casey, Upright Frameworks: coordination of weatherization and retrofit work. At a minimum, they will do the work under their Raise ME Up program, in which they provide their labor at cost.
Energy Circle: our company will provide at cost whatever efficiency products the retrofit team needs--ventilation products such as low energy bathroom fans, interior storm windows, switches and timers, smart strips, etc.
Grady Littlehale of Dixfield Foam Insulation has graciously donated his labor for the foaming of the basement. Grady installed the foam at the Mallett Deep Energy Retrofit project, one of the tightest buildings in Maine, and is one of the best spray foam guys around.
Anonymous Contributions: Multiple companies and people have contacted me to offer help, without any expectation of attribution. This, so far, has come from equipment manufacturers, insulation manufacturers, and many home performance companies offering support and labor.
Update: Additional Coverage
An Elderly Couple in Maine Offers to Trade Their Car for Fuel Oil, by Allison Bailes, PhD on the excellent Energy Vanguard Blog.
'America has a heartbeat:' Donations pour in for home heat, by Erin Cox, Sun Journal
Maine Freezes While Washington Snoozes, by Raymond J. Learsy, Huffington Post
Dixfield fuel company reports $100,000 plus in donations, by Erin Cox, Sun Journal (and also appeared in Bangor Daily News)
New York Times Story On Couple Without Heat Spurs $100,000 In Donations (How You Can Help), by Tara Kelly, Huffington Post
Seeing Warmth in Maine--A Community Reaches Out, by Macie Melendez, Home Energy Magazine.
Article Prompts Donations to Maine Oil Company, by Timothy Williams, the New York Times Lede Blog.
Energy Assistance Cuts Hit Home, Galvanize Action, by Leah Thayer, Building Performance Institute (BPI) Newsletter.
Energy Policy for Low Income Homeowners, on the excellent Demand Side Solutions Blog. This is a very thoughtful post on the topic of payback and the LIHEAP subsidy vs weatherization, using the Hartford's story as a case.
There have also been multiple TV segments that I can't keep track of.
Update: Tuesday, February 7
With DeWitt's audit report as our guide, Josh Wojcik and Kevin Casey are developing the scope of work for the retrofit of the Hartford's home. It looks like we'll all be on site next Weds and Thurs to complete the work.
Update: Tuesday, February 14
Josh Wojcik's Upright Frameworks crew will be at the Hartford's tomorrow to begin the retrofit work. It's expected to take 2-3 days. For the last week, we've been discussing the appropriate expenditure for the project. Given all the generosity--from the auditors and contractors involved and from the contributions Ike Libby has received--the Hartford's won't pay anything. But we all want the project to stand up to real world economics, so all the parties have agreed to open source the costs assuming this were a normal job. Here are the key factors for consideration:
- Actual oil consumption from November 28, 2011- February 5th: 300 gallons (#2 oil)
- Projected usage for a year based on 2011-12 heating season (a mild year): 1,005 gallons (#2 oil)
- Annual oil cost at current prices ($3.60/gallon): $3,620
- Numerous energy saving opportunities were identified by the energy audit with the attic and basement being the most feasible
- Projected heat load reduction from energy audit recommendations for attic and basement: 46%
- Annual dollar value of reductions based on current oil prices: $1,665
Our decision is to go with an air sealing, attic and rafter insulaton, and basement spray foam solution with a retail cost of $6,830. On a simple payback approach, this pays for itself in 4 years. Josh has open sourced his Project Scope Proposal for all to see. Part of the rationale for selecting this set of measures was that they came out to roughly the same price as the new boiler that Ike had originally offered to the Hartfords. The new boiler could have improved efficiency by about 5%. For the same money, the weatherization measures are projected to reduce heat load by 46%. A compelling comparison, don't you think?
Update: Thursday, February 16
The Upright Frameworks crew, supported by Grady Littlefield of Dixfield Foam, have spent that last two days tackling the Hartford's house. Just watching these guys, more of a swat team than a weatherization crew, is amazing. One of the more challenging parts of this project is the cathedral ceiling, with only 6 inch rafters, and badly compromised pink batt insulation. Unfortunately, the years of leaking air and moisture have taken a toll on some of the rafters and the Upright crew is forced to do quite a bit more rot repair than we'd anticipated. In the race for the blower door test at the end of the day, with the media watching, they don't have time to complete some of the spot air sealing. Josh, who is paying his team out of pocket without compensation, tells me they'll be back for another half a day to finish up.
Still, DeWitt's test results are remarkable. A 47.2% reduction in air flow from 4059 cfm50 to 2142. Air changes per hour was lowered from 1.37 SCH to .6, a gain of 56.3%. Josh believes there are a few hundred more CFM to be had.
Perhaps more importantly, Robert Hartford is already talking about how much more comfortable the house is, and though I've only been there one other time, it is absolutely noticable. Wilma, unfortunately, is in the hospital, but when she gets home I know she'll be very pleased.
Susan Sharon from Maine Public Radio is on site for all of this, and interviews everyone. Look for her piece Friday night on Maine Things Considered.
It's great to again be hanging out with Ike Libby, Josh, Kevin and crew, DeWitt, Grady and Robert Hartford. The talk (see Ike's comment below) is all about how we keep this rolling.
Update, Friday February 17
Here's the radio piece that ran tonight on Maine Things Considered. Outstanding job by reporter Susan Sharon capturing the power of this story in 4 minutes. An incredibly compelling case for energy efficiency retrofits.