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Utility Energy Audits Compared to a Performance-testing Audit

I recently was made aware of the following letter written by John C. Lepore of Bernardston, Mass., and published in the Boston Globe:

Who is making sure our “public’’ utilities are really improving our energy conservation? (“Utilities support energy savings,’’ Oct. 8).

MassSave has not improved energy conservation. Their “energy audits’’ are far from effective and they are not sharing any real data to support it. I know. They audited my home and said it was already as good as it could be; gave me a little weather stripping, a couple of light bulbs and patted me on the back for doing a “great job!’’

Then I sought out a home performance assessment by a private firm with highly trained professionals that does not sell energy. I am seeing far greater savings and a plan for saving me even more.

MassSave is another example of how the utilities are “saving us.’’ Where is the evidence that their weatherization works?

In general, most utility-sponsored home energy audits are designed with several objectives:

  • To show a customer how he or she uses energy in the home
  • To demonstrate how the customer’s energy use compares to other similar homes giving him an idea of the opportunities for improving his energy efficiency
  • To inform the customer about incentives and/or tax credits that may be available to help him with energy improvements
  • At Progress Energy Carolinas, we provide interested customers with a Customized Home Energy Report. The report is customized with modules of information, depending on how the customer answers questions concerning his or her energy usage. For example:

  • If a customer has a 15-year-old HVAC system, he would get a module showing him potential savings and rebates for replacing the system with a more efficient one.
  • If a customer has a 12-year-old refrigerator, he would get a module about the savings associated with replacing it with an Energy Star model.
  • Most utility audits don’t provide diagnostic or performance testing that can identify hidden problems--usually in the building envelope or duct system--that may be causing high-energy usage. These performance-testing audits usually utilize diagnostic equipment, such as the following:

  • Blower doors
  • Duct blasters
  • Infrared cameras
  • The performance-testing audits are usually much more expensive than a utility audit but also provide much more detailed information to the customer.

    It is important to understand both utility audits and performance-testing audits serve a useful purpose for the customer, but it is up to the customer to decide which type of audit will best meet his or her individual needs.

    Hal Lowrance is supervisor of residential energy efficiency with Progress Energy Carolinas.

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    Simple Solutions Won't Work Alone; Comprehension Is the True Agent of Change

    There's so much information available today about what's bad for the environment--and better for it--that a greater number of people can discern between their green and not-so-green lifestyle habits. What's more, plenty of people will admit to them. My sister, for example, admits to using paper napkins despite a general awareness that using cloth napkins would save trees. She doesn't hate trees. It's just that she believes that paper napkins better suit her needs. And I have a suspicion that she doesn't know enough about the impacts of disposable paper products to compel her to change.

    Like millions of others, my sis is not yet willing to give something up that she's grown accustomed to or fond of, even though she knows it's wrong and the solution she's chosen to ignore is a simple one. I believe people fail to make even the simplest changes because being told to do something is not nearly as effective as getting all the facts so we can make fully informed, educated decisions about our actions. In other words, we need to complicate the argument if people are going to be compelled to change.

    Helping people stop doing something they've done for years requires more than introducing them to a new way. It requires an explanation of ecological and economic considerations--not to instill guilt but reason. Usually, the habits we've fallen into aren't completed using reason--they've become an automatic behavior we no longer think about. To break a bad habit--a non-addictive one, anyway--requires interrupting a mindless ritual with consciousness that allows us to focus on not just what we can do, but how much more advantageous a new behavior can be. The bottom line is we can accomplish a lot more when using our heads.

    Take the example of my sister's paper-napkin habit: I recently asked her why she prefers paper napkins. Her reasons are as follows:

    1. They are easy to grab and easy to throw away.

    2. For messy eaters, paper is better because when one gets soiled you just grab a new one.

    3. They are cheap.

    I try not to give my family unsolicited advice, but when my sister agreed to answer my questions, she opened the door for me! This was my chance to give her more to think about to bring about that simplest of conversions from paper to cloth.

    Hold-out Reason No. 1: Paper napkins are easy to grab and easy to throw away. If you switch to cloth napkins, you would presumably keep them in the kitchen--where you eat--and therefore, it would be no easier to grab a paper version than a cloth version at meal time. Paper is "easy to throw away," but it's precisely because paper napkins are disposable that you can run out of them just when you need them. But most importantly, their disposability is what makes them so bad for the planet. For example: Natural forests are being destroyed at an unsustainable pace and tree farms that replace a small percentage of them do not mimic a forest's critical ecological function. Pulp and paper mills require huge inputs of chemicals, energy and water. They are also among the worst polluters to air, water and land of any industry in the country. Rapidly discarded paper represents a huge percentage of the waste stream, and paper napkins and towels in particular have zero chance of getting recycled.

    Hold-out Reason No. 2: Paper napkins are better for messy eaters. Paper is better for messy eaters because you can soil one and go right to the next and to the next? Actually, this scenario demonstrates how unsuitable paper napkins are for the messy eater! If you need two or three paper napkins to get through a meal, they are clearly inadequate for the job. One cloth napkin will last through the messiest meal.

    Hold-out Reason No. 3: Paper napkins are cheap. Paper napkins are not cheaper than cloth. My sister's household probably uses close to 2,000 paper napkins a year at a cost of around $30. Thirty dollars could also buy around one dozen cloth napkins--a one-time purchase. (You could make your own for much less.) My sister's paper-napkin habit has already cost her more than $250 this decade! In her lifetime, she'll spend thousands of dollars on paper napkins and paper towels if she doesn't kick the habit soon.

    Whatever wasteful, un-green habits you are clinging to, don't limit yourself by only considering what is better behavior. Find out why it is better--for you and the Earth. The answer can be much more persuasive than the over-simplified argument of "do this, not that."

    Crissy Trask is a speaker, writer and consultant, helping people discover and pursue a more eco-conscious way of life. This blog first appeared on her Web site, www.greenmatters.com. Crissy’s book, It’s Easy Being Green, A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living, is a favorite resource of Eco-Logic Founder Christina Koch.

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    The Spirit of Greenbuild

    Last week I attended my seventh-consecutive Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, and I have to admit this year’s event was extra special for me personally. The show afforded me my first opportunity to get out in front of a large sampling of the green-building industry and share what Eco-Logic is all about. As most of you probably know, I previously attended Greenbuild representing a nationally circulated magazine geared toward architects in the green-building space. That magazine helped me find my passion in this industry and inspired me to go out on my own and report about topics that are covered less frequently—the nuts and bolts of a green building, the practical solutions, the decisions and concessions that are made during the design and construction process and after. These stories are less glamorous than showcasing the beautiful completed building, but they certainly are not less important, especially now when misinformation and confusion abound.

    As I walked into the Phoenix Convention Center for the first time on Wednesday morning, I wondered how people would receive the site. Would they think I was crazy to take this chance in the worst economy since the Depression? What ideas would they have to improve the site? Would they support Eco-Logic with content and contacts? The butterflies were fluttering in my stomach! But the moment I stepped onto the show floor, I felt at home. I was greeted with more hugs than handshakes. Kind words and encouragement were offered by those I knew well and those I didn’t. I even was cheered on by some of my former competitors in the publishing industry. And I didn’t expect the strangers who would overhear what I was talking about and wait to ask more about Eco-Logic and how they could sign up for the newsletter or find the site. That was extremely rewarding!

    Every year, the Greenbuild show has been extremely motivational for me. It allows me to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. It provides hundreds of story ideas, impressive products and invaluable lessons. (Take a look at some of the innovative products I saw at the show, which were highlighted in the latest newsletter.) But I think this year provided the extra encouragement I needed to keep Eco-Logic focused and growing.

    For a moment while in Phoenix, I wished I could bottle the energy I was feeling. But then I quickly realized that energy comes from the people who attend Greenbuild and, like me, believe in making the world a better place through buildings. That spirit and drive is represented every day in what each of us does for a living, and—if an extra spark is needed—everyone who attended Greenbuild is only a phone call away!

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