Residential energy retrofit programs test ducts, insulation, air sealing, and combustion in existing homes and make recommendations for energy upgrades that can lead to as much as 25% overall energy savings.
Mike Rogers Residential energy retrofit programs test ducts, insulation, air sealing, and combustion in existing homes and make recommendations for energy upgrades that can lead to as much as 25% overall energy savings.

Last year, Florida Governor Charlie Crist set an ambitious goal for energy savings in new homes. In the next code cycle, he ordered a 15% cut in heating, cooling, and water heating energy consumption for every new home. More cuts will follow: by 2010, new Florida homes will have to use 20% less energy than today, and by 2019, 50% less.

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is reading from the same script. The next version of California’s energy code will require a 15% savings compared with the current code. And the governors explain their policies with the same reasoning: they want to slow down the rate of climate change, and to limit America’s dependence on foreign oil.

There’s just one hitch, say energy experts: The tough new codes only apply to new houses. Phil Fairey, a researcher with the Florida Solar Energy Center, says, “If we only deal with new buildings, it’s going to take us a hundred years to turn over the housing stock. The energy-saving potential in the existing stock is much greater. The really big prize is in buildings that are already out there. It’s gigantic.”

That’s true in California also, according to Justin Dunning, program coordinator for the voluntary private-sector California Green Builder program. Dunning says that his group has estimated the benefits of tightening energy use in new homes by 35% over code, which qualifies the builder for a $2,000 state incentive and costs about $3,500 to implement. “By our calculations, that would save about a ton of carbon emissions a year per new home,” Dunning says. But spending that same $3,500 on an existing home, built in 1970, to upgrade the air conditioner to a modern unit and add R-38 insulation to the attic, would eliminate 5 to 8 tons of carbon dioxide annually, he says. “You could make the California building code 50% more efficient,” he adds, “and it wouldn’t have as much effect as if everybody in the state swapped out five incandescent bulbs for five compact fluorescents.”

Making it Happen

But how could a program of small, house-by-house upgrades be organized?

In the commercial world, Fairey says, there’s a whole industry that has sprung up around the need to upgrade big buildings. “They’re called ESCOs — energy service companies,” he says.

ESCOs target big corporate buildings where a major investment — in the half-million-dollar ballpark — will pay back with a 20% or greater annual energy savings. The ESCO puts up the capital for the upgrades, Fairey says, and takes a cut of the savings as its fee. The corporate owner gets the benefit of one-stop shopping. “The ESCO comes in with a turnkey operation, and blam blam, it’s done,” he says.

But that won’t happen in the residential market, he adds, without some kind of government support. The reason, Fairey points out, is two-fold: on the one hand, the transaction cost for thousands of small residential retrofits is a bigger portion of the cost, and on the other hand, someone needs to regulate the industry to make sure that contractors do the work right and deliver on their promises. Somebody has to provide some incentives to help cover the overhead, and then ride herd on the results, Fairey argues. “We need some kind of collaboration between government and industry.”

EPA Makes a Move

Some government agencies have caught on. A prime example is the Environmental Protection Agency, which has expanded its “Energy Star” concept for new houses into the market for energy upgrades on existing homes with its “Home Performance with Energy Star” program.

This program focuses on building an infrastructure of home-performance contractors that deliver a service in the home to improve efficiency,” says program director Dale Hoffmeyer. EPA promotes the program in cooperation with state and local agencies, utilities, and nonprofits. “They are the ones who actually run the program in the local market,” he says. "They set up training for contractors on home-performance assessments and, [how to] use diagnostic tools like a blower door or an infrared camera.” EPA sets criteria and quality standards, requiring that a whole-house assessment be done before the job begins and verification of the work take place after the job, to document the results.

Some states have already established a track record with the program. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) was the first state agency onboard and has overseen thousands of jobs since 2000, at an average cost of $5,000 to $8,000 per job. Contractors in the program come from all walks of life, Hoffmeyer says, and include energy raters, HVAC contractors, insulation contractors, and general remodelers.