Summer 2012

Close to Home | Going Deep for Energy Savings

The Victorian home of UCS member Edith Buhs and her husband, Peter Thomson, in Jamaica Plain, MA, may be 100 years old, but after undergoing a “deep” energy retrofit (DER) last year, it’s plenty comfortable. “If it’s 40 degrees and overcast, I’ll bake some cornbread and we’re good for the night,” Edith says.

Unlike most energy efficiency upgrades, DERs take a holistic, whole-house approach and thus achieve greater savings: from 30 percent to as much as 90 percent, depending on the home’s baseline efficiency. They also improve a home’s resale value, reduce energy costs, improve indoor air quality, and provide market demand for renewable energy technology and contractors.

Upgrades to Fit Every Budget

Many components of Edith and Peter’s DER were upgrades to structural elements that were badly in need of replacement, including older double-paned windows, storm doors, siding, and trim. As these items were installed, the contractor ensured they were well-insulated and had no air leaks. They had already installed a super-efficient “co-generation” system that generates both heat and electricity for the house. Edith and Peter are completely satisfied with the results. “Our home is quieter, more beautiful on the inside and outside, and the temperature more comfortable and even throughout the house in winter and summer,” Edith says. “Since we bought our home six years ago we’ve reduced its carbon footprint and our operating costs about 75 percent.”

The decision to undertake the DER was, as Edith puts it, “a once-in-a-50-year opportunity” made possible by an incentive program through her utility company and a loan from a family member. But Edith points out that homeowners who can’t afford to tackle a DER all at once can do it in stages by finding a like-minded contractor and working together on a master plan that addresses each need over time. “Maybe add cellulose insulation to the walls next year,” she suggests, and when the roof is at the end of its useful life, “replace that with the best available material, insulate it, and seal it.” When asked about her return on investment, Edith notes that the DER, like many home improvements, is not about payback, even if it saves money today or tomorrow or pays for itself down the road: “Nobody asks us what the payback is for a new porch.”

Spreading the Word

As part of the incentive package from their utility company, Edith and Peter were required to host at least three open houses to showcase their efficiency improvements. “This was not a big ask,” says Edith, “as [education] was part of the point. Plus, our neighbors keep dropping by for advice on how they might make a few changes themselves.”

Given the federal government’s failure to address global warming, Edith and Peter believe they—and we—have no choice but to move forward as individuals, while pushing for change at the state and city levels. Peter, the environment editor for a public radio program, hopes that their ambitious project will spark similar efficiency efforts by friends and neighbors, and help build support for change from the ground up (literally).

Also in this issue of Earthwise:


Does thorium offer any advantages over uranium as a nuclear fuel?