Separation Anxiety

When Home Performance with Energy Star launched in Maine in 2006, we defined the energy improvement process as test-in, upgrade, test-out. The parenthetical testing was part and parcel of the process, similar to a physician talking with a patient and running diagnostics to glean what’s going on – before prescribing remedies or lifting a scalpel.

Coming into home performance, energy auditors, home energy raters, and home inspectors had a predisposition – for different reasons – to distinguish the ‘test-in’ as a separate, billable service.

Now that home performance (HP) programs offer subsidized, or free, ‘test-ins,’ the mindset separating the ‘test-in’ assessment from the actual upgrades is even more pronounced. Problem is, without the upgrades, there are no energy savings to claim, not for the homeowner, the renter or the government agencies that sponsor the programs.

Residential energy efficiency programs – whether administered by utilities or non-profit community-based organization – are contending with the “stuck” factor. That is, homeowners sit on their assessments and do not move ahead with energy improvements (in HP vernacular, conversions).

Call it separation anxiety. And I’m as guilty as anyone. Earlier this spring, Sustainable Structures in Hallowell, Maine conducted an assessment of my home, for a sum; they ran the data through RemRATE to produce a home energy rating, and have mailed me a CD of their findings, including infrareds and digital photos. I have yet to open the envelope. Cite a reason, and you’re probably right … money, other house maintenance and life priorities, fear.

One solution – amidst many – to the ‘stuck’ factor is to teach home performance contractors how to better sell HP. That is, how to sell the upgrade, not just ‘test-in’ assessments.

Enter Dale Carnegie. On Thursday and Friday last, contractors representing 14 weatherization companies attended Dale Carnegie sales training in Stratford, CT. Connecticut’s Neighbor to Neighbor program sponsored the class, aiming to infuse the Dale Carnegie “buyer’s mindset” into the companies’ sales processes.

The class trains contractors to do things a different way, encouraging them to get out of their comfort zone which is, often, to talk about building science (stack effect!) and products (heat pumps, insulation, air sealant!) With lots of role-playing, the class taught contractors how to ask questions, how to engage homeowners about their homes and their true wants. Questions for the homeowner are conversational, situational, and broad. “Ask what wakes up the customer in middle of the night,” said trainer, Scott Laun. “Ask a few questions, and listen. Do not talk, let them talk.”

Daniel Martins, of Santa Energy and a veterinarian in his previous profession, participated in the class, saying, “it trains your brain to behave. What not to do when we are selling. We have to naturally talk about ourselves, and less about selling the product, and know how to relate to customers’ needs.”

These lessons are helpful for conversions, but are also useful once the subsidies have gone away and contractors find themselves in a competitive marketplace.

Conducting Home Performance

“Home Performance” used to sound like something musically-inclined parents forced their children to do in living rooms.
It’s catching on, slowly, for what it really is, and that is tightening up houses – with an ear for proper ventilation, humidity controls and other riffs on indoor air quality, and fuel-efficient climate controls. (There are geographic oddities; in Westchester, New York a common refrain of homeowners is to call all heating appliances furnaces, even if they are, in fact, boilers, and builders here have grooved on locating air conditioner handlers in attics.. That’s hot … and not in a good way.)
A long-time friend invited me to a fundraiser Sunday night for Canticorum Virtuosi at the old JP Morgan estate in South Salem which is now home to Le Chateau, a French restaurant. Harold Rosenbaum is the founder and creative director for Canticorum and he conducted two choirs’ performances during dinner.
Two flutes of champagne into the evening, somewhere between Harold’s amateur and youth choirs, a handsome, lighthearted man to my left asked me the difference between closed cell and open cell foam, and did one need to apply a fire retardant to both? His attractive wife sitting between us said nothing, and later, I asked how it was that her husband knew so much about foam. (Of all things? Really?) She said she was as surprised as I was. He said he’d been doing a lot of reading online about making his house more energy efficient, and that he was about to call an insulator to give him an estimate.
I’ve read that musical conductors have different styles, some use ‘point of the stick’ and others a more fluid arm gesture that creates a time lag between conductor and choir or orchestra.
Sitting at Le Chateau in black lace and pumps, it felt, not strangely, that the invisible home performance conductor was using the latter method — that this concept was slowly catching on, with fluid gestures and yes, time lags.
I gave the man to my left my business card, urged him not to call an insulator but to look at the Energize NY website (, where he could fill out an application for an energy assessment by a trained home performance contractor. Energize has just the right contractors to conduct his home energy improvements.

Great Day

One upside to the economic downturn is the influx of finance and technology professional entering the sustainability sector. They are ubiquitous. (“And they are everywhere, too,” as an old friend used to say.) These professionals bring to programmatic endeavors around slow food, climate change, recycling and the myriad elements of sustainability not only valuable expertise, but alacrity, defined purpose and accountability. It’s refreshing.
Energize New York – a government-funded program that markets residential energy efficiency improvements — is overseen by a local development corporation, Energy Improvement Corporation (EIC). The founder of EIC is Mark Thielking; Mark came out of the finance world (UBS, specifically). He has a focused, data-driven mission to transform the residential and commercial energy improvement market through financing loans to building owners. He draws from a pool of talented corporate, legal, finance and grassroots folk, including the non-profit Bedford2020 which helped write the grant that established Energize for the Town of Bedford in New York’s Westchester County.
EnergizeNY is under the reporting gun to deliver results (as measured in the number of homes that make energy improvements). The program is dependent on infrastructures that have less va-va-voom than corporate finance. There is, for example, the issue of extracting data from government bureaucracies … data that is pivotal to effecting market transformation … data that resides within the orbit of a government contractor.
When things that may take mere weeks to effect in the corporate world, take months to bring about (like data access), it can feel a bit like Andy Samberg’s SNL skit, ‘Great Day’ (drugs aside):
“Any problem is solvable, we can feed the hungry and cure disease
But all of that would be a huge waste of time because we live in the
You may remember … a business-suited Samberg dances and sings on a cocaine-induced high, and then backbends into a slow-mo Matrix move.
Energize has made, and continues to make, great strides in modernizing the IT systems needed for targeted marketing, with the essential support of a handful of forward-thinking contract managers at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), as we aim to get at the data that resides within the Authority’s orbit. NYSERDA is currently reviewing bids for an RFP to implement its home performance program, including the technology piece.
In effecting market transformation around energy improvements, it can feel like our hearts race along barupa papapam pam! And then we go into the Matrix. And then we’re off to the races again.

SnuggHome Surges Ahead

About ten years ago, my employer was a large investor-owned electric and gas utility in Denver. I was hired to manage the marketing of new energy technologies. Problem was, we didn’t have any new energy technologies. Not really. Our little team of two (plus a consultant) traveled to Minnesota to talk with Honeywell about smart gadgets, and then we flew to Manhattan for a trade show at the Javits Center to look at smart home networking. We hired a product ideation outfit out of San Francisco to test concepts in the newly re-structured electric market Texas called ERCOT. We met with Xanboo, a server-based web- and video-integrated home management company (err, start-up). Then it all tanked. Enron. The California power crisis. The utility dropped its pretense of interest in new energy technologies and decided to focus on ‘core offerings.’ Today, the interest in energy management has a lot more going for it. Investors and mentors, for one. Surge Accelerator out of Houston calls together entrepreneurs in energy efficiency software — among other energy-related technology — to convene for 12 week mentoring sessions: “Have you answered the call with a software solution that will manage and optimize energy consumption? We are looking for software entrepreneurs that are interested in making energy efficiency a worldwide reality with innovation.” Their key areas of interest in energy efficiency are home energy management, remote energy monitoring, and site energy optimization. The software design team of SnuggHome has answered the call and is participating in the current 12 week mentoring sessions. They are also delivering energy efficiency software solutions to that very same electric and gas utility in Denver!

Paving Path to Realistic Energy Modeling

Once upon a time, in a land called Maine, a girl (of a certain age) couldn’t help but wonder, “if you want to reward homeowners for saving energy in their homes, doesn’t it make sense to look at actual energy usage, something that accounts for behavior, as well as structures?” Soon, there were others, too, in lands far to the west and south who shared this wonder, antagonized by a protocol of projecting energy savings based on structural details. Perhaps modeling needs to be in line with actual utility bills and oil deliveries, and those actuals would better reflect energy savings, and more realistic carbon savings. Perhaps there needs to be a “before and after improvement” verification of savings, and a way for everyone to keep track.
The girl (of a certain age) checked out of the world for a couple years, to Southeast Asia where she found her bliss in colorful silk, and when she returned to the world of energy, she met a man who had a vision, in a land called New York. And he was called Tom. And he introduced her to people paving a path of realistic energy projections. And they were called Snugg Home.

A Geek’s Dream

The space where energy meets IT is a geek’s dream. Four years ago, about when I took an extended hiatus from blogging for cleantechblog, the available software and hardware options that supported residential energy efficiency were slim, and the solutions, clunky. Home performance and energy rating professionals had paper data collection sheets and time-consuming modeling software that unappealingly overestimated energy savings and sometimes heating load. No web-based solution – and none with homeowner-friendly graphically illustrated information – had made it to market.
The exercise for the home performance contractor went something like this …. collect the data in the field on paper, drive back to the office and (after working all day) enter data into software loaded onto a single a computer, then email or print and mail (or drive) it to the homeowner, and perhaps also to a government-funded energy efficiency program, if they gave you a compelling reason to do so, like volumes of sales leads, or better yet, cash. If a homeowner wanted a loan to pay for home energy upgrades, they were handed printed forms to be hand-filled and faxed.
I was curious about the possibilities of streamlining the data communication processes in this field when one home performance contractor in Maine showed up on a job with a handheld tablet. Disliking the software solutions available for the home performance profession at that time, I spouted off that the home performance industry would find its wings when Silicon Valley and the IT/telecommunications industry got into energy software.
This was 2007, before iPads, Android, SmartPhones, and Google Chrome … and before Central Maine Power installed a smart meter on my house.
Since then, the opportunity to collect and manage energy data has exploded with the introduction of these tools. (I am finger tapping this blog entry on an iPad2.)
The convergence of IT and energy efficiency nearly defines cleantech, and the leaders in this space are coming not out of Silicon Valley or the Massachusetts Tech Corridors, but San Francisco and Boulder…
more about them next week.

Why I Love Solar, Even Though I’ve Never Bought It

My article last week was entitled Can I Hate the Solar Bill of Rights and Still Love Love Solar?  The comments back ran the gamut, including posters ripping me suggesting I must have oil company ties (to be fair I kind of do) and one asking did someone “pee in my cornflakes” and calling me an “uneducated teabagger”.  But by and large the comments and emails I’ve received agreed that the Solar Bill of Rights as written is not kosher, and supporting my reluctance to sign it.

So I thought I should follow with a short summary of why, despite the costs, the hassles, and the so-called “Solar Bill of Rights”, I love solar and solar technology anyway.

#1  It’s the only love it and leave it, plug and play, solid state, fuel-less, clean, no moving parts engine known to man (that doesn’t include the words Tesla, perpetual, or overunity). And it can scale up OR down.
#2  The largest potential energy resource on the planet, and as any good oilman knows, the only technology that matters is that which is applicable to the biggest honking resources one can get one’s dirty little hands on
#3  It’s got the fastest falling cost curve of any energy thing of any type on the planet
#4  It’s the only distributed generation technology worth a damn, and even if I never buy solar or try to go “off the grid”, I want to know I can tell the government and my energy provider to pound sand (maybe I am a closet teabagger!)
#5  Power with no fuel + no emissions = theoretical heaven on earth
#6  The cleantech sector needs it, and it can make us money
#7  It’s just d#%$ sweet and I like it, for crying out loud!

So Long Live Solar, and Die Solar Bill of Rights!

Neal Dikeman is a partner at cleantech merchant bank Jane Capital Partners LLC, the creative force behind companies in solar, superconductors, fuel cells, and carbon, chief blogger of and Chairman of, and a partially reformed energy guy.

Why My GridPoint Energy Audit Sucked

Bad day for energy efficiency the other day.  I have a new house (actually a new to me 55 year old house), and was all excited to have an energy auditor come out and energy audit me.  After all, I write Cleantech Blog, and did an article not too long ago urging all homeowners to get an energy audit – see What You Should Do if You Really Believe in Cleantech.  So after an admittedly limited job of looking around I went with Standard Renewable Energy.

Most of the big box home improvement retailers have a energy audit practice, as do tons of little companies, but I figured, owned by Gridpoint which is backed by investors like Altira who I know and like, would be a good “pure-play” choice for a cleantech blogger.

But perhaps I’m a naive chump who just expected too much.

I ordered a their $149 Essential Energy Audit (full details below) figuring if I liked the audit I could order a more expensive one complete with more toys and high powered analyses later. I’d get my audit done, get my plan, and then geek out for a bit thinking about all the marginally economic things I could do (windows have been done, insulation is coming).

“Which Home Energy Audit is Right for You?

An energy audit from SRE is an extensive home energy efficiency evaluation. It’s performed by an energy efficiency expert and shows you how your home uses energy and how it wastes it. The audit results in a customized plan that empowers you to make energy-saving choices that fit your budget and your lifestyle. And our energy efficiency experts can help make it easy for you to implement the recommendations you choose.

Essential Energy Audit ($149) – A great starting place to identify issues affecting your home’s energy efficiency.  The Essential Energy Audit is a 41-point detailed visual inspection of every part of your home including: doors, windows, walls, attic space, insulation, air conditioning equipment, appliances, and lighting.

Complete Energy Audit ($499) – Builds on the Essential Energy Audit by incorporating diagnostic tests that can pinpoint specific energy efficiency issues and identify your best money-saving improvements:

  • Duct blaster test to diagnose duct leakage
  • Blower door test to identify leaks in your home’s envelope such as around doors and windows
  • Thermographic infrared scanning to evaluate the flow of heat through your home and pinpoint problem spots due to leaks and missing insulation

Comprehensive Energy Audit ($849) – Combines the Essential and Complete Energy Audits with an analysis using energy modeling software that calculates your home’s HERS (Home Energy Rating System) Index. We’ll use the software to provide a cost-benefit analysis of each of our energy-saving recommendations so you can see which have the greatest payback.

The Energy Efficiency Experts

As environmentalists with a passion for finding ways you can use less energy in your home, we’re committed to mastering home energy efficiency:

  • We incorporate industry-leading building science knowledge to ensure a complete picture of how your home uses energy
  • Our extensive technological and practical experience helps us make the best energy efficiency recommendations
  • We use a total approach to evaluate your home’s individual performance and address all areas of your home’s energy use
  • We provide custom solutions tailored for you and your home”

Frankly what I was looking for was the “41-point detailed visual inspection” plus the “customized plan”. I will quote again in bold italics just for the record:

“The Essential Energy Audit is a 41-point detailed visual inspection of every part of your home including: doors, windows, walls, attic space, insulation, air conditioning equipment, appliances, and lighting.”


“The audit results in a customized plan that empowers you to make energy-saving choices that fit your budget and your lifestyle.”

So here’s what happened.

I ordered the audit.  It got scheduled quickly (though they were a little backed up so they came out a couple of days later).  My wife and I both worked from home that day so we could be audited, watch what he did and take notes.  As an environmental scientist she was almost as interested as I was.

On the appointed day our energy consultant showed up.  We spend a few minutes chitchatting about why we want an energy audit, how we use the home, what we like in comfort, that sort of thing.  At this time I do tell him that I’m a blogger in the sector and am excited to blog about my energy audit.  He’s a very nice, and knowledgeable guy.  He’s never heard of Cleantech Blog though.  We show him our utility bills.  He takes copious notes.

Then he says it won’t take him too long, he needs to go through the house, inside and out, and in the attic, and go through his checklist.  Then we will sit down and review it.  We say great.  We follow him some trying to watch, but he tells us not to worry, he will take us through it all when he’s done.

. . .

30 minutes or so pass.  He comes back, we gather in the dining room and sit down. Our auditor asks a few more questions.  Gives us some good information.  We discuss the advantages / disadvantages of insulation vs radiant attic barriers.  He tell us our duct work isn’t sealed well, but is still tight enough that it’s not worth worrying about yet.

Karen my wife, starts to take more notes.  Karen likes home constructor projects. He says don’t worry about notes he will send us his write-up afterward to make it easy for us.

We ask him what we should do.  He tells us a solar attic fan.  SRE3 sells them for an “excellent price”.  $950.  And radiant barrier or more insulation, price maybe a couple of thousand each.  SRE sells that too.  I say, but my utility bill in the heat of the summer in July was only $126, without insulation, and before the new double paned windows got put in.  We ask him how much each of those items is likely to save, he mentions 10-20% each at most, without lifting his pencil.  I’m thinking thousands out, and $10-$20 a month back?  He agrees. Then discusses how important a solar attic fan is.  I ask what about one of those cheap metal silver fans instead of a $950 solar attic fan.  He says they never work.  But the solar attic fan is warrantied and the price includes installation.

A few other things happen.

I say I’m not sure I’m interested in the solar attic fan (to save $20 bucks in June, July and August?), but we will need insulation and I’d like to know what a radiant barrier costs.

We end the conversation (on Friday) where he promises to send me a quote on Monday.  I did note that my detailed inspection and customized plan, became a write-up of his notes and now a “quote” on insulation/radiant barriers.

I say nothing except I’m looking forward to getting the write-up.

I then ask, as he’s about to leave, what about weather stripping around the doors.  He says, “Oh, I didn’t check that” – note to self to check, isn’t weather stripping like the standard everyone should do it home energy efficiency item?  He now takes us around to the doors and discusses the weatherstripping.  He gives us some good tips, but we notice he is no longer taking copious notes. Note to self, aren’t you also supposed to have your hot water heater wrapped in insulation?  Ours isn’t.

Energy consultant leaves.  Time allocation:  1/3rd chit chatting on what we want, 1/3rd walking around the house looking for expensive things they sell that we might buy, 1/3rd trying to get us to buy a $950 solar attic fan for an uninsulated house with a $126 July bill, interspersed with a few tidbits of useful info.  Ok, that’s flippant, but it’s close.

Energy consultant comes back.  Says he called the office and they asked him to get the $149 check.  I pay it.

Day 25+, still waiting for my customized plan, checklist on the detailed 41 point visual inspection, write-up of the energy audit notes, or sales quote, or whatever he actually intended to send me.  At least we know the Gridpoint sales management process is working.  They don’t bother sending quotes to cheap homeowners people who aren’t going to buy a $950 solar attic fan – even those who thought they bought an energy audit.  Maybe I’ll send this blog to their PR department and see how well that process is run.  I already found out their A/R department is well run.

PS I still believe in energy audits, obviously just not a Standard Renewable Energy, a Gridpoint company, energy audit.

Neal Dikeman is a Partner at cleantech merchant bank Jane Capital Partners LLC, chief blogger for, the chair of and a founder of cleantech ventures Carbonflow and Zenergy Power.  He is a Texas Aggie.

Blogroll Review: Corny Carpet, Cocoa Car, and Carbon Consolidation

Pretty much everything you eat these days contains corn, whether in the form of corn syrup, sauces, starch, or other food additives. Pretty soon, we will also get upholstery made from this plant. Already being used for biofuels, corn is also a chemical feedstock.

Joel Makower shared this story from his attendance of a gathering of investors and entrepreneurs in cleantech:

For example, there’s a carpeting fiber made from corn instead of petro-based nylon that requires nearly a third less energy and emits nearly two-thirds fewer greenhouse gases. It is being manufactured at a repurposed polyester factory.

This is just one example of many, where businesses see as an opportunity to further sustainability goals into their plans.

Imagine eating your furniture once it’s ready to be disposed! :)

And speaking of food, Megan Treacy at EcoGeek reports of a racecar that runs on the waste products of chocolate manufacturing. Even more remarkable is that the steering wheel, seat and car body are made from plant fibers including carrots, flax, soy, and other vegetables.

In other news…

* Greentech Media says a shopping spree has begun for carbon accounting software.

* Karla says that Waxman Bill is flawed.

* At VentureBeat, Matt says funding is falling except for energy storage.

* Maria has some cool pictures from the American Wind Energy Association meeting. Check out the small wind turbines!

Ontological Shock

by Heather Rae

The term came up over lunch. A group of home energy evaluators convened at King Eider’s pub in Damariscotta. That morning, we had completed filming of an energy evaluation with the film crew from Maine Public Broadcasting Network. We were talking about the future of the country and the economy and our children; these topics, with this group, erupt out of discussions about energy and oil and staying warm in Maine. Curry Caputo, principal at Sustainable Structures, Inc. was one of the energy evaluators. He said his uncle, a therapist, uses a term to describe the end of cheap oil in America: Ontological Shock.

Everything as you know it and believe it to be true — will come into question. After an evening of “Googling” ontological shock, and watching the indie film, Crude Awakening/The Oil Crash, (a chillingly calm alarm) it occurred to me that we in Maine are getting a taste of what’s to come as the age of easily accessible and cheap oil comes to a close.

February’s storms put a stranglehold on mid-coast Maine. First, there were the power outages. Wide swathes of mid-Coast Maine remained without power for days. Which meant many were without heat. Which meant water pipes were a-freezin’ and a-crackin’. The toilets didn’t flush. Parents shuttled their broods to coffee shops and YMCAs and college gyms to find warmth and hot showers.
Generators rumbled throughout the neighborhood and town. The regulator on the propane tank froze somewhere around 5am. (For a minute, it appeared that the silencing of the generator’s roar meant the resumption of grid power, but no.) The 90-year old great-aunt in the apartment unit was out of power and heat and hot water. Schedules were scrambled; meetings were canceled and offices closed.
As if we were living in a third world — struggling to engage in a first world economy — we shoveled snow from roofs, walkways, driveways. And then we were hit with back-to-back storms. Construction workers removed the sky’s deluge before they began repairs. Snow plows plied the roads throughout the night long, their drivers appearing bleary eyed at the local Irving station to down coffee and donuts…or as the day became night, they joined the plumbers at the local bar, on emergency call for bursting pipes and flooded basements, smelling of oil in their insulated overalls, taking in a beer or two before the next call. The hair is greasy and the clothes aromatic. For all of us. A giant yellow DOT plow had stuck in a towering bank of snow, and the plow itself had cracked into threes. The tips of trees bowed into roads, cracking huge limbs, strewing twigs and draping power lines.
My drive to town was glistening and beautiful. We settled in to simply getting by.
And, I couldn’t help but wonder, what if there were no fuel for the furnaces and boilers and DOT trucks…or it were so expensive to operate snowplows and heat homes that we could only wait for the sun to melt us into recovery?
Spring is officially here, event if the snow lingers. Trees remain bent to the roads, and the memory of this winter will be forced upon us for a while.

The Appraisal

by Heather Rae

A homeowner who recently relocated from New Jersey to one of the swishier towns of Maine asked me last week, in the context of his search for a home energy renovator in the State, ‘why is Maine so far behind?’

That same day, a friend delicately offered, in the midst of admiring my taste in a wood burning stove and counseling me on my life, ‘you’re at the beginning of something that hasn’t really caught on yet.’ She was refering to home energy renovations.

My mood mercurial around this topic of tightening up homes, Matthew Wald’s informative article “Emphasis on Weatherization Represents Shift on Energy Costs” in the New York Times brought a twinkle of promise.

Yet, it was just this past week when the results of an appraisal on my renovated home arrived by mail. (The upside to the downside of this latest financial debacle is the opportunity to refinance at a lower rate and take out some cash to pay for that new wood burning stove…or insulating the attic roof…maybe better yet, use the dough for a trip to Asia to visit family; it’s been a rough year. Then again, with employment — even in the “green” sector — an unknown, the money will likely be parked in a bank account.)

The house appraiser was an attractive, communicative and intelligent, middle-aged woman. I showed her the air sealant and insulation in the basement with its moisture-remediating rubberized floor covering. I described how the roof over the bay windows had been rebuilt and filled with air sealant and insulation to stop the air flow between the floors of the balloon frame and add thermal resistance. With a Vanna White wave at the new Rinnai energy efficient on-demand water heater, I described how the old leaky electric water heater and the leaky ductwork for the old furnace had been heaved, along with the furnace which was replaced with a Monitor. I told the appraiser I was directing money to reducing energy demand in the house, rather than on increasing energy supply. I noted that the new refrigerator and the new high-end dual fuel stove were energy efficient. Where once were window weights, I fingered over the cavities that are now filled with foam. These improvements should result in “deep energy” savings. The appraiser was concerned about the interior doors that I still have yet to scrape, sand, paint and rehang…and the old windows that will be refurbished (not replaced) as time goes on. She said the house is pretty. (It is.) I should have mentioned that there would be a test to measure the reduced air infiltration from the improvements — that along with the other improvements translates into energy and carbon savings. Though it might not have mattered a whit.

Matthew Wald’s article describes the sleuthing skills of building evaluators very well (“Call is CSI: Thermal Police”). He writes of the macro upsides of tightening up homes: reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and relief for the national energy grids. But when it comes to the micro upsides of weatherization (what it might mean to the homeowner needing assistance in financing the energy improvements), the article takes the common veer into the world of low-income weatherization and federal funding of those programs. The segue is so deft, I reread the article a few times to pinpoint the detour. A similar detour is found in Senators Snowe and Feinstein letter to President-Elect Obama urging tax credits for energy efficiency in the built environment.

The road not taken seriously enough is weatherization for everybody else, those who do NOT qualify for low-income programs. What of weatherization (or home performance or whole-house energy renovations or whatever you like to call it) for the middle class — my class with its sinking wages and layoffs? I am no stranger to it…or the enormity of tightening up a leaky old house, financially, emotionally and physically — or the turning of the stomach at the site of the oil bill.

Maine has a robust program under the community action programs and financing through the State’s housing authority to weatherize homes of the poorest (a designation that was expanded by the governor to include more families.) In a recent study by Efficiency Maine, 82% of the 80 new homes evaluated throughout the State on energy performance failed to meet the International Energy Conservation Code.

Before the New Jersey transplant called, another man had called to ask if the State had any rebates or incentives for insulating a home. The answer has always been easy: no, there aren’t any. I direct these callers to Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiencies and Tax Incentives Assistance Project rather than follow closely the policy twists and turns of legislators near and far. I hear rumors of all kinds, but as yet, the answer is still, no, there are no incentives or rebates for energy efficiency measures from the State.

In the “Improvements” section of my home appraisal, under “Additional features (special energy efficient items, etc)” the appraiser wrote: “Open deck (7×27), covered entry porch & attached barn (15×27). No addditional value considered for woodstove due to being considered personal property.” Not one word about the energy efficiency improvements — nor that the old wood stove is leaky and extremely inefficient.

I feared the appraisal would not account for the money dumped into the house, spent to upgrade plumbing, heating, electrical and structure — many with “green” elements. It barely did: One of the many downsides of this latest financial debacle is falling real estate prices, reflected in the appraised value.

The energy-efficiency improvements might have found a home in an energy-efficient mortgage. These mortgages were rolled out beginning the fall of 2008, but my lender, a large State-based bank, never mentioned them. The efficacy of “EEMs” in achieving “deep energy” savings is being questioned in other parts of the country.

I described the appraisal to the man who called looking for insulation rebates; he said that the energy improvements will make a difference at time of sale. I can only hope.

The Catholic Church has been in the news recently, defending its treatment of Gallileo, a man who dared to assert heliocentricity as fact in the halls of theology. Give our addiction to oil the weight of theology, and an analogy to the man with a telescope is apt. We are all at the beginning of something that hasn’t really caught on yet — and it challenges nearly everything in which we have had faith.

Getting Content Into Sustainability Wikis

by Marguerite Manteau-Rao

(This post originally appeared on La Marguerite blog)

Sustainability wikis such as Wikia Green or Appropedia have an important role to play, in the gathering of solutions for a sustainable future. The big challenge of course, is how to engage contributors into volunteering free content. As a content creator in the sustainability field, with hundreds of articles to my credit, all on blogs, I yet have to contribute to a collaborative platform. I started sharing some of my reasons in previous posts, here and here. In a nutshell:

  • I am comfortable with blogging. It is what I know, and past the initial hurdle of setting up a blog, which by the way is very low, it’s been smooth sailing ever since.
  • I like the feeling of being in control, and of having all my stuff in one place.
  • When I contribute to other blogs, it is usually a boost for my recognition and helps enlarge my audience.
  • Contributing to other blogs is a no brainer; hardly any setup is required, and I usually do a slight rewrite to address issue of duplicate content.
  • I love the creative freedom of writing whatever I want whenever I want.
  • My blog is also a social place to meet cyberfriends I have made along the way, and who keep coming back for more discussions.
  • I get tremendous satisfaction from direct feedback from readers, particularly when something they read on my blog, either from me or other readers, is making an impact on their thinking or behaviors.
  • There is lots of reciprocity going on amongst bloggers, thanks to linking, trackbacks, and pingbacks. As a result, the give and take feels very fair.
  • Although I am very familiar with wikis, have consulted for wiki startups, and have started several private wikis of my own, I find making the move from blogging to contributing to public wiki platforms a huge step.
  • First, there is the issue of time. If I could somehow export content that’s already on my blog, automatically, I would consider it.
  • Second, is the problem of attribution, and ownership of content. Although, I am not one to hang on to my creative product with steel claws, it is very important to me that I be given credit for it.
  • Third, is the issue of duplicate content, and how that might affect ranking of original content with search engines. If content is going to be exported automatically, and frequently, I would not have the time to do rewrites to avoid duplicate content problem.
  • My blog is not my only source of content either. There are quite a few projects I have been working on, that are sitting either in some files on my desktop, or in Google groups discussions, and that I wouldn’t mind sharing, if I could just turn those over with one click.

The bottom line is, if you want my content, make it super easy for me, and make sure I get credit for it.

There is a huge pool of potential content providers like myself, scattered all over the Internet, and elsewhere, who could share their knowledge, under the right conditions:

I will end by sharing my dream of the perfect sustainability wiki. Imagine a place where you can find nearly all that has been published about sustainable solutions all over the world. Imagine that contributors would not have to worry about adapting their content to the specific wiki requirements. Wiki editors would take care of that chore. Imagine that contributors could get credited each time, with ample linkage back to their original websites. Imagine a widget that would allow contributors to send their content automatically to the wiki in one click. Imagine that getting my content on the wiki would be all benefit for me, in addition to the reward from helping the greater community. Imagine . . .

Maybe this discussion can be continued at the upcoming Open Sustainability Network Camp that will take place in October, in San Francisco?

Marguerite Manteau-Rao is a green blogger and marketing consultant on sustainability and social media. Her green blog, La Marguerite, focuses on behavioral solutions to climate change and other global sustainability issues. Marguerite is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. Since Sarah Palin’s VP nomination, she has also been impersonating Ms. Palin at What’s Sarah Thinking? blog

My aura is…

by Heather Rae

One of three dealers of Benjamin Moore paint in my travel distance (which is getting shorter and shorter with the increase in gas prices) carries the new Aura line, as well as the EcoSpec low-voc line of paints.
Farther north, along Route 1, another dealer is weighing the costs of the investment in the new machines needed to carry the Aura line against the sales potential; this dealer carries the EcoSpec line and, as evidenced by the dust on the paint can, it’s not a fast moving product. (And the sales guy told me so.)
Inland a bit and north, the third does not carry Aura or the EcoSpec line. For those unfamiliar with Maine, the progression up the coast and inland is an economic transition as much as geographic one. It’s also a transition from areas where “green” products are known, respected and carried…to one where they are not, or not so much.
What’s got my goat in making the decision to try the new Aura line is the marketing. I sat in my car outside the paint store down south and stared at the promotional poster for some time. The marketing is clearly aimed at women …“What Color is Your Aura.”
It took some sleuthing on the part of the paint dealer to tell me the VOC content of the paint (pre-colorant). To my surprise, the Aura paint line is backed by GreenGuard and qualifies for LEED credit. The dealer printed out the product information buried somewhere on their website where I couldn’t find it.
Aura, which uses only waterborne colorants for tinting, comes in at 47 Grams/Liter of VOCs.
By comparison, the Regal line (the standard line I’ve been using) comes in at nearly three times that amount of VOCs. (“Unthinned, this product is formulated not to exceed 150 Grams/Liter.”)
I can’t bash Benjamin Moore for putting the eco-benefits of this paint low on the list — number seven out of eight in the list of attributes of Aura paint with ColorLockTM.
In marketing home performance, our limited market research indicates that homeowners follow-through with making significant energy-saving improvements to their homes not because it’s “green” or “the right thing to do,” but because the improvements make the home more comfortable, healthier, safer and/or increase the value of the home. The checks get written to tighten up the house to get the bats and the squirrels out of the attic, not necessarily because they reduce carbon footprints.
Here in Maine we market home performance as an investment-grade evaluation. The energy and money savings, the innoculation against rising fuel costs…while these are the measurable goals we seek to obtain, these have not been the messages used to sell home performance services. I’ve been monitoring comments submitted by homeowners seeking these home performance evaluations. It’s a mixed bag of desires.

So, if Benjamin Moore wants to appeal to my feminine aura with the simplicity, freedom, versatality, harmony and great design ideas found in this paint, have at it. I just wish somewhere on that promotion was a mention of GreenGuard or LEED compliance.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, is a consultant in sustainability. She currently manages a home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built out a biobus using green building materials and wrote on cleantechblog of her drive from Colorado to Maine and her quest for biofuels. In 2007, she began renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Taking Control

by Heather Rae

Maine Congressman Tom Allen hopes to dislodge Senator Susan Collins from her Senatorial seat. Allen spoke a few weeks back at an event sponsored by the Hydrogen Energy Center and other energy-oriented organizations at the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick. Allen said that without the right kind of leadership in the executive office, real progress on clean energy will not be made. As we’ve seen.
While the Pentagon asks for the biggest budget hike since World War II, the Bush clean-tech plan gets mixed reviews. Christian Science Monitor Reporter Brad Knickerbocker writes: “After seven years in office, President Bush’s positions on energy and climate change are clear: Emphasize increased energy supplies over conservation, favor voluntary steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, oppose international efforts to force changes in national policy, and make sure nothing puts too much stress on the economy.” (See Dick smile.)
Grist has posted a chart of the presidential candidates’ positions on energy and climate, and Solar Nation has posted the League of Conservation Voters’ round-up.
Not waiting for the leaders to get on board, or steer the nation into a ditch, Maine’s Midcoast Green Collaborative is organizing its second clean energy exposition in Damariscotta. Last April, the Expo was well-attended, focused and informative. Peter Drum, a young attorney who moved his practice from Washington to his home state of Maine, is one of the founders of the Collaborative. In the leadership vacuum, smart, hardworking visionaries step in.

“On April 18, 2008, Midcoast Green Collaborative is holding our second annual Maine Sustainable Energy Expo). This event is designed to showcase sustainable building and remodeling methods and technologies, sustainable energy production technology, and more sustainable transportation choices.
The Expo puts consumers in touch with vendors and contractors who specialize in green home building and renovation and renewable, disperse energy production. Some attendees told us that from the vendor/contractor side, they had more serious contacts at our show than at any other event in the State including the Bangor and Portland home shows.
From the consumer side, they were thrilled to see that so many sustainable energy technologies were available in-State. We would love to get input from all of you and invite you to attend. Last year, we had an overwhelming response.
Though we marketed the event from Portland to Bangor, we actually had attendees from as far as New Hampshire and New Brunswick, Canada. Thousands of people attended our event and we believe that it is the biggest event of its kind in Maine. The exhibitor lists were filled shortly after they were sent out. We are now trying to locate additional space for other exhibitors who have contacted us.
The greater social impact of this effort might not be obvious, but we feel that the potential impact of efforts like our Expo are incredible. Maine Watch, this weekend, highlighted LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program). While programs like LIHEAP are critical to getting people through this winter, the answer, really, is to make it easier to get through the winter.
Our governments have been woefully irresponsible with our energy policy. By keeping energy artificially cheap, we have provided little incentive to winterize and weatherize homes, introduce more efficient transportation choices, and consume locally. On the other end, we have provided very little regulation for home/factory home/mobile home construction for insulation, CAFE (coporate average fuel economy) standards have not been raised in over two decades, and very little money has been provided for renewable energy research.
Therefore, U.S. policy has provided neither significant market incentives nor increasing efficiency regulations over the last 28 years. Our efforts will make it easier for people to make it through the winter here. Our goal can be reached with green home building, better energy standards that are enforced for all new homes, and renovating the current housing stock.
With our initiatives, we are hoping to ‘teach people to fish’ rather than giving them a fish (i.e. LIHEAP). Our energy audits offer performance improvements that range from very inexpensive (replacing old bulbs with CFLs) to expensive (replacing all of the windows in a home) and gives the approximate energy savings of each improvement.
People are grumbling about the economy and with good reason. The stimulus package, as it was so aptly pointed out by a morning edition commentator, is a little like the Federal government saying to its close friend ‘Gee, I am sorry that you have cancer. Have a cookie, you’ll feel better.’
If we truly want to change our economic well-being, we HAVE to get our energy use under control. Frankly, every President and Congress since Carter has been completely irresponsible about the most pressing issue of our time; fossil fuel dependence. Nixon arguably did more than Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush the Second put together.
If you want to track the U.S. economy, you need only look at fossil fuel prices. In the 1990s, fuel was cheap and the economy roared. Today, oil is nearly three times the cost it was just a few years ago. When the average home heating budget goes from $1200 to $3600 a year, that is a big decrease in disposable income and does not include the additional expenditures for gasoline that further erode disposable income. These increased fuel costs make everything more expensive because of the structure of our economy. Food is grown in intense cultivation, shipped and average of 2500 miles in cold storage, and then consumed. The same is true of retail goods made and shipped all over the world.
This is probably the most counter-productive structure for an economy and can only exist in an era of dirt cheap fuel. Those days are fast becoming history. This goes for all goods. Of course, as everything gets more expensive, more people are pushed into foreclosure, bankruptcy, etc.
Fossil fuels are not going to get less expensive, significantly, ever again. In fact, they are even undervalued today. If you want an idea of the amount of ‘human labor’ stored in a gallon of gas, just try to push your car the number of miles that it gets per gallon. If your car gets 20 miles per gallon, try to push it 20 miles.
If we, as a nation, don’t do something soon, we are looking at a long term, perhaps never-ending depression in this country from today’s standard of living as oil prices rise, global climate change and ocean level rise (and the huge impacts from such events), and increasing marginalization and indebtedness of the U.S. as a world power (see the Wall Street Journal’s recent article about the diminishing power of the U.S. vis-a-vis Russia and other oil states) . That is why these are such critical issues.
Our energy Expo is just our first step in trying to help solve, what is really a quiet national emergency. The good news is that there is still time, though very little, for the U.S. to retool its economy and civilization. We must dramatically change but such change is possible. The Expo is a way for us to do our part to get our communities to change and is thus a positive and empowering event. We can take control of our energy future and usher in a new era of energy independence, local sustainability and domestic economic development, we need only make the commitment to do so.”

Other Goings On This Week
I was to head to Washington with my husband of 2.5 months, and scheduled to ask Senator Collins a few questions about federal energy policy to “fair and balance” Allen, Grist, Solar Nation and all. It turned out to be a wretched week; my husband collided with a sand truck on icy Route 1. He emerged alive and OK, but with cracked neck vertebrae. Washington (and heaven, thankfully) can wait. My thanks to everyone who has expressed support, to PenBay and Maine Medical Hospitals, to amazing family, and especially to Dr. Chip Teel.

A Head-Knocker

by Heather Rae

Consider a basement, a typical basement in rural Maine. Call is what it is — a cellah — a five foot high, dirt-floored head-knocker, with a boulder emerging from beneath its easternmost foundation wall. Add some radon, as radon is pervasive in these parts. Throw down some plastic sheathing; ‘affix’ this sheathing to the craggy foundation ledge with bricks and rocks. Tromp all over it in muddy boots. Add to this spider den a new 275 gallon oil tank and an older horizontal Thermapride forced air furnace. Connect the furnace to a badly built, unlined, chimney and a labyrinth of ductwork that heats only the first floor. Note the flexi-duct added as an afterthought to route warm air to the upstairs bathroom. Bring in a metered town water pipe with a spigot that does not entirely turn off the main water supply. Watch the copper plumbing waver unsecured from the floor beams. (See the plumbing break at random joints when James and John go to reconnect the copper pipes to the clothes washer. See the undulating plumbing trickle water, preventing James and John from soldering joints for hours on a Friday afternoon. Hear John ask his wife to take a taxi to a meeting; he won’t be home too soon.) Rejoice that the electrical box and wires appear to be new, functioning and properly installed (although the remnants of knob and tube wiring remain.) Consider that this homeowner would prefer the furnace and the decrepit chimney go away altogether, along with the $1800 cost to line the chimney with steel…steel because the emissions from burning oil are so corrosive. Know that I would also like a tighter, more comfortable, healthier and more energy-efficient house, whether or not this basement, this crawlspace, is included in the thermal envelope…most preferably, not. Can the house be made energy efficient enough to warrant a propane-based heating system? Rephrasing that, can it be done without huge costs for landscaping and water and radon remediation prior to air sealing and insulating? I have been jonesing for PEX (cross-linked high-density polyethylene) that won’t bust in freezing temperatures. It’s easier to install and move and repair. (I’m hoping it’s greener than copper, but that’s another matter entirely.) By replacing the copper with an insulated chase of PEX and foaming the underside of ceiling of the basement can I consider ridding the basement of the furnace and its leaky ducts and removing the chimney? Can I then phase in an on-demand hydronic heating system — the one that will heat hot water, too? It’s all so easy in theory to make a house energy efficient, but these conundrums are as painful as knocking a head on a cellah beam.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Ups & Downs

by Heather Rae,

On about the eighth hour of scraping the lead paint off of the exterior of the old summer kitchen this weekend, the word, ‘torch’ comes to my mind. My mind wanders in the tedium; my moods mercurial. Take a torch to it, I think. The thought wings away; I envision a wall of smooth, ivory-painted cedar clapboard and keep scraping.
I’m vulnerable to passing comments these days. At the ‘transfer station’ (aka, the dump), I collar a stranger in an antique Ford pickup. He agrees to haul a vintage electric stove and hunk of cabinetry from my house to the dump. He claims a discarded oak chair from the wood pile. I later learn from his neighbors that he is a former commissioner of a large government agency in Maine. He says, ‘I did what you’re trying to do, and I’ll never do it again.’ I fight feeling disheartened and foolish. On Sunday night, a former publisher of newspapers whom I had met at a sustainable energy expo drops by the house, leaving his convertible red Mercedes sportcar running. I am in my PJs at 7:30pm, sick with a cold and happy for the company. He’s come to this town to take pictures of the straw bale house that is going up a block away. (I can see the vehicles of the construction crews from my kitchen window. We will have two straw bale houses in this town upon its completion; the first is four houses down my street and is finished in stucco.) The publisher walks through this old house and exclaims, ‘oh, this is great. What a great house!’ My mood lifts. Later in the week, an antiques dealer stops by to inquire about a Russian pot that he had seen in the dirt-floor basement of this house (‘It’s worth $750′.) He is upset that I have removed the original, lead-laden cabinet in the old summer kitchen. I feel guilty. I give him an art deco lighting fixture. All the other fixtures have gone to a ‘stuff’ dealer on Route 1. On Monday, the mailman hops out of his buzzy little white truck, hands me the mail and says, ‘the house is looking better every day.’ I need to hear these encouraging words.
There’s a hole in the wall in the upstairs bedroom where the Jotul stove vent has been removed. I’ve torn down a plaster and lathe wall between a bedroom and an abutting space to create a master bedroom. Now there’s a seam exposed to the balloon framing and cellulose insulation. I’ve torn out the code-violating kitchenette in the closet off of this bedroom. It needs sheetrock…or something. I’ve gone through two young men who excessively assure me that they can sheetrock and do good work. Neither do. I talk with them about insulation and the embedded energy of sheetrock and consideration of alternatives. The words have no meaning. In scraping the old summer kitchen, I confirm that the sill is rotting. I remove the clapboard and board around the sill. I tear out the old windows on the north side — with views of the neighbor’s garage and clothes line. The northern exposure will be double-walled and double-insulated with one small window.
Moving forward, after lots of deliberation and conversations with my home performance contractor, I have decided on a Baxi on-demand boiler for heat and hot water. With the Baxi, the old oil-fired (79% AFUE) forced air furnace and ductwork in the basement will go away. I can then remediate the moisture in the basement, air seal it and apply a vapor barrier without the obstruction of the furnace. With the Baxi, the electric water heater tank that takes up a corner of the make-shift kitchen will also go away. And, the Baxi will obviate the need to line the chimney to the tune of $1800: the Baxi vents through the wall. It can be solar thermal-ready, for future installation of a solar thermal panel on the roof of the summer kitchen. At 94%-96% AFUE, the Baxi qualifies for a Federal tax credit. It’s a plan that sounds like progress.

Other Goings On This Week
I hear from exhibitors at LightFair 2007 this week in New York City that the CFL controversy is heating up. The article in the Portland Press Herald about the woman who broke a CFL in her home and was instructed to cordon off the room has been making the rounds. Two people sent it to me over the last few weeks asking what’s going on up here in Maine. The response, I think, is to look what’s going on at LightFair, and to ask why other energy-efficient lighting technologies don’t have the consumer facetime of CFLs. More on that later.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Dear Sam

Dear Sam,

We met at the narrow, cavernous bar in the Philadelphia Airport. You were heading home to Ohio from Maine, a business trip. I was heading home to Maine from Ohio, a business trip.

You were in Maine to refurbish a commercial building in a long-time-ailing, once-industrial town. I was in Ohio to learn about building green.

I called you an idiot for being a climate change sceptic. You might remember me.

My flight delayed in Philadelphia, I lay on the floor at Gate 14 waiting (and waiting) with a copy of Vanity Fair, the Green Issue, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio photo-montaged beside an adorable polar bear pup. This magazine is not my usual read…so Hollywood, so New York gossip, so superficial. I suspect it may not be yours either.

Feet aloft, here’s a taste of what I saw in this heavy, glossy magazine stuffed with ads for cars, fashion, gadgets and alcohol:

  • an ad in black and white of sexy and sweaty young models obliviously getting it on in Diesel clothing while Manhattan, London and South Dakota flood. In one of the ads, a model dreamingly straddles a palm tree. The Diesel pitch: “Global Warming Ready.”
  • ad ad for Levi’s “eco jeans. 100% organic cotton” with a full-page image of another half-naked couple geting it on.

But for an ad from Abundant Forests, the line-up is the usual overdose of consumerism. I read that Lancome is “embracing a range of eco-chic initiatives” and “will plant one tree for each of the first 10,000 bottles of Cell Defense that are sold.” (That’s a lot of landfill for one tree, right?) I read that a beauty entrepreneur “has launched support of the endangered sea life [coral] with a luminescent two-toned powder compact encased in nickel and embossed with a coral branch” A portion of the proceeds from the compact will benefit research on the effects of global warming on coral reefs.

I understand your sceptism about climate change…your aversion to ditching the Expedition you worked hard to afford. I have my loves as well (imported perfume, imported wine, soft toilet paper.) I understand that the messenger (“Algore”) isn’t a trusting source for you. I get it. It can be hard to get past the messenger, but you said you would try.

I hope your project in Maine moves forward. As I heard in Ohio, the greenest building is the one not built. If we should meet again, we can talk about greenwashing, starting with the ads in Vanity Fair. If you do pick up Vanity Fair, read the article about Myron Ebell at Competitive Enterprise Institute. I mentioned it and him at the bar. It’s a very good article. We can talk about astroturfing. And, next time, I buy the drinks.

PS I’m sorry I called you an idiot.

Other Goings On This Week
My brother and his wife are gutting their house in the Hudson Valley. They just bought it; it needs a gutting. I stuck around last Saturday for an interview with Radiant Construction, contractors who bring Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) credentials to the project. I liked them, partly because Joe Levy and I scuffled over green building concepts. Joe uses Icynene(R) Spray Foam. The program with which I work, Home Performance with ENERGY STAR(R), advocates dense-pack cellulose. Personally, I’d use both depending on the application. Joe said the whole-house ceiling fan was a great way to remove warm air from the house. I was taught whole-house fans are bad. The fan is going away when the ceiling is opened up to the rafters, so that argument ended abruptly. Ken Tohinaka of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation said during the ACI Conference in Ohio, “it’s better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.” The saying could easily apply to green home construction. I look forward to seeing how my siblings and I attempt to get things approximately right.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

ACI Conference 2007

by Heather Rae

Cleveland hosts the 21st ACI Home Performance Conference this week. Over 1,000 people registered to exchange information about “house as a system” building design and operation.

ACI President, Laura McNaughton, greets attendees, “As this conference opens, the issue of climate change and the urgent need for affordable energy present both environmental challenges and economic opportunities. Many people are struggling to stay warm, and we wonder if we are running out of fossil fuels. At the same time, consumer demand for green homes that are energy efficient, durable, comfortable, healthy and safe has made the ‘house as a system’ approach more relevant than ever. Home performance contracting is poised for mainstream expansion.”

ACI attendees represent the crossroads of residential energy; there are utilities, national laboratories, government agencies, technology vendors, non-profits and, of course, consultants. I attended a full-day session with the EPA on the national Home Performance with Energy Star program to learn how to best manage and market the program and how to motivate contractors and homeowners to participate.

Time and again, studies and anecdotes find that people’s priorities for their homes are comfort and operating costs, indoor air quality (health), resale value and environmental impact. All of those concerns are addressed through home performance.

Our challenge with home performance is not so much to ‘transform the market’ but to create a market for a concept that is entirely new to the general public. Unlike green billboards — like solar panels — which announce to the neighbors one’s ‘greenness,’ home performance is a mostly invisible endeavor. Like solar, however, the energy benefits of home performance can be measured and used to demonstrate ‘greenness.’ The EPA (with the help of Performance Systems Development, my employer) is working on a certificate that lists the improvements made to a house — things like air sealant, moisture remediation, insulation. The certificate for the Maine Home Performance with Energy Star program will include carbon savings as well. A homeowner can take that information to the IRS for tax credits, to the bank for home equity loans, to the real estate market, and to future carbon trading markets.

The certificate is a marketing hook for a concept with significant marketing challenges, the first one being that nobody knows what you’re talking about. (‘Oh,’ you might hear, ‘energy audits!’ Well, sort of, but not really, you might reply, as you force yourself not to talk about science or diagnostics or even energy but about the things that really matter to people like drafty rooms and wet basements, ice dams and moldy rec rooms and the costs of maintaining a home.)

Efficiency remains the red-headed stepchild but is gaining recognition. Greg Thomas, president of Performance Systems, and past president of ACI, wrote of a report by the American Solar Energy Society (Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.), “fifty-seven percent of the expected carbon reductions would come from efficiency, followed by only fifteen percent from wind. The remaining sources were geothermal (not heat pumps, but hot earth), biomass, concentrating solar and solar PV, and biofuels, such as ethanol. Interestingly, this is almost in reverse order to the attention these possibilities get in the press.”

The potential for dynamic marketing of home performance is as big as the challenges and the rewards.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

The Party’s Over

by Heather Rae

This past Friday, I put down the crowbar and power-downed the computer and drove to Portland to speak about home performance at a workshop, “Global Warming, Cool Solutions.” The workshop was part of a one-day conference called “Achieving Global Energy Security.”

Held in a LEED Gold-designated building, it was a provocative day sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maine Council of Churches, Sierra Club, Peace Action Maine and others. Unlike “silo” meetings, conventions where the choir convenes to sing to itself, this conference painted the big picture that is often missed in silos — the connections among climate change, environment, economy, energy and foreign policy, peaking oil, nuclear proliferation, the health effects and hideousness of war, and morality. Somehow, the conference planners spun the negative messages positively into workshops around solutions. Those solutions are clean energy: renewables and energy efficiency. And conservation. The conference presentations are being posted on the website:

Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times magazine (The Power of Green): “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are – including a car culture. But if we want to continue to be who we are, enjoy the benefits and be able to pass them on to our children, we do need to fuel our future in a cleaner, greener way.”

A photograph of an Iraqi man holding a fainting or dead young girl in his arms, her leg blown to bits, flesh and bones dangling, was still with me at 2am the night of the conference. So was Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford’s reference to Richard Heinberg’s, The Party’s Over. Dr. Ashford paused, breaking from her presentation as the audience chuckled at the image of a businessman holding a gun to his head to say, it was a fun party wasn’t it? But now the guests have gone home, and we’re left with our house in disarray. After the fossil fuel party, what will the response be of this industrialized nation addicted to oil: Will we go the way of Cuba that adapts by adopting distributed micro-solutions, or will we go the way of totalitarian North Korea and enter into dark stagnation?

The message I heard at the conference was that everyone can do his and her part, everyone can take action to find solutions to these pressing global energy-related issues. (I also heard from Efficiency Maine that it has established the first program in the country to reclaim used CFLs at the point of purchase.) This past week, seven contractors came to my house to take their field exams for the Building Performance Institute certification. In the vernacular of building science, all seven found that various parts of this old house “communicate” with one another. That is, air flows freely every which way in her balloon frame.

This old house, she’s a talker, and I’ll shut her up as best I can. Tightening up a house is not radical change. Nor is buying a hybrid car. Or screwing in an energy-efficient light bulb. But I doubt it’s enough. A while back, I sat down with an aide to Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) and suggested that monies be taken from the war chest and allocated to solar R&D and market penetration. Apparently, that’s radical; the aide nodded at the suggestion, politely. It should be a lot harder to be polite in the face of the blown flesh of an innocent little girl.

Other Goings On This Week
Another party that’s over…
Pete McCloskey, a one time candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination, explained his reasons for leaving the Republican party and included this: “Earth Day, that bi-partisan concept of Gaylord Nelson in 1970, has become the focus of almost hatred by today’s Republican leadership. Many still argue that global warming is a hoax, and that Bush has been right to demean and suppress the arguments of scientists at the E.P.A., Fish & Wildlife and U.S.Geological Survey. I say a pox on them and their values.”

Me too.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

Green Theory, Green Practice.

by Heather Rae

The bank and I closed on the 1880 Federal-style house two weeks ago. The renovation possibilities that earlier filled me with giddy excitement are now all around me: the old wood floors, the near floor-to-ceiling windows, the high ceilings and the old summer kitchen that juts out behind the boxy structure of the main house. Today, I’m a little less giddy.

During the bidding process, I asked two home performance contractors to walk through the house with me. For this, I donned new Carhartt bibs and jacket – both a bit big for my frame and building ambitions. On a cold winter day, the roof covered in snow, the first home performance (HP) contractor, a former homebuilder, checked the integrity of the fieldstone and brick foundation, the horizontal ThermaPride furnace, the electrical system, and the wood framing and clapboard. He observed things like the plastic sheets on the dirt floor of the half-height basement, serving to block moisture gain in the living areas of the house. He said the electrical could not handle electric heat. At $.15 a kWh, it and the electrical space heaters promoted by the local utility, for me anyway, are non-starters. The big stuff looked OK, so I made a bid…a really, really low one, a bid so low that it insulted the seller’s agent. Nice foot to start on in a very small community. The seller came down slightly and the bargaining game and inspections began.

During the inspection process, I did not hire a home inspector. I hired a plumber, a chimney inspector and the second HP contractor whom I met at a HP training session last August. For $100, the plumber told me the plumbing was old and no plumber was going to fix anything without replacing it. (Perhaps it was a wasted $100, but there it was, spoken.) For $300, the chimney guys cleaned out the old chimnney and performed a Type II inspection. The vent connector had been blocked 90% by the debris falling down the interior of the un-lined and ill-maintained chimney. Which had to go. At least the top half. Maybe a $2000 job for new chimney and flue liner. It is not the price of the chimney that set me off: It was the poor maintenance that could be a health hazard, potentially poisoning people (like me and the previous renters) with carbon monoxide.

The HP contractor arrived with an infrared camera. We had agreed to skip the “blower door” test at this stage. The “blower door” measures the leakage of the house. We would do the test later, both before and after improvements had been made to the shell of the house. The infrared screen showed black where there was no insulation in the walls of the house’s thermal boundary. There were few missed spots. I was quietly hoping there would be NO insulation and then the house would be prime for well-installed dense-pack insulation, performed by someone I knew was trained and certified in “whole-house” HP. And I could be there monitoring the insulation job with an infrared – a contractor’s worst nightmare of a client.

The HP contractor checked for moisture in the attic. With a smoke stick, he tested holes in the plaster walls and around the attic access. I pointed out the bathroom exhaust vent that features a view between the blades to the outdoors. From the walkthrough, I know warm air is rising into spaces it shouldn’t, like the attic — a huge, glorious, uninhabited space smelling of old-world carpentry. I also know the roof is getting on and should be replaced. I’ve often said that I love standing seam metal roofs for their ‘green-ness’ and their aesthetic. Yet, for this house, it will be architectural asphalt with a projected 30-year lifespan.

On an entirely other level of dreams, perhaps the roof would be standing seam metal. And, I would replace the forced air furnace with a super-efficient EnergyKinetics System 2000 radiant system bringing elegant warmth to flat, wall-mounted radiators in every room, even upstairs where the ducts do not venture. The old summer kitchen would run off of solar thermal and PV. And, the attic, growing dormers with views of the Kennebec River, would be a hide-away for (someone else’s) grandchildren or for writers to write. In practice, these dreams, like my dreams of a green renovation are tempered by lathe and plaster, old pipes and a limited budget.

Next: Demolition!

* Check out the photo of wind turbines on the front page of the Carhartt website.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.