Reduce, reuse, recycle: It doesn’t take much to be energy-efficient

A few years back, Jack and Melissa McBride moved their family into an old converted barn on Spencer Brook Road after outgrowing the Cape on Bow Street where they were living.

Before long, the McBrides found that their new home was showing its old age. Built in the early 1800s and converted to a house in the 1940s, the McBride’s abode, like many older homes in Concord, was leaking air and lacking insulation.

“There were a couple of rooms where you could really feel the drafts,” Jack McBride said. “We’ve always kind of known, with a drafty house and high heating bills, that we needed to do something. But we didn’t know what to do.”

It took a while to figure it out — meaning a few years of replacing old windows, appliances and heating systems with more energy efficient models — but the McBrides eventually found a solution that would make their home more comfortable, economical and energy efficient: Weatherization.

A year ago, the McBrides got an energy audit from Cape Energy Solutions, a Gloucester-based business owned by Melissa’s brother Mike Salmon. Last month, a four-main crew sealed up leaky knee walls in the attic, moved the thermal shell out to the roofline, pumped in cellulose insulation and treated with foam insulation the crawlspace by the house’s stone foundation.

It cost the McBrides slightly less than $4,000, and they expect the payback on their investment will take about three years.

“We were very happy,” said McBride, who is in the business of building energy efficient homes and serves on the Concord Housing Development Corporation. “We thought it was definitely worth it. You can do more, but this was the quick payback, what we did. … You can feel up in the attic a dramatic difference. It definitely feels a little less drafty, a little bit warmer. Our expectation, based on the tests they did, is that we will save 25 percent on our heating.”

Such savings are not uncommon, especially when it comes to old homes, which are often drafty and insulated sparingly. Many homeowners could reduce energy consumption by 15 to 25 percent by taking relatively easy steps, according to Andy Proulx, a co-founder of Concord-based EnergySavvy Inc.

“Usually the first opportunity I see is in the attics, particularly in older homes,” Proulx said, adding that the balloon framing, chimneys, wiring and ductwork can all allow air to enter and escape. “What happens is that you have a lot of air flow in the wall cavities and it travels up into the attic. Once the air sealing is done, you would add insulation to it. That produces a very large change.”

Proulx said there are four main areas where energy efficiency can be improved: Sealing the building shell, making sure ductwork to the furnace is not leaking, and saving electricity through minimal investments and behavioral change, and replacing old heating systems with Energy Star systems.

The first three, he said, are “relatively inexpensive to address but have huge returns,” while the fourth is a more sizeable investment. To offset the weatherization costs, Proulx said his company helps clients seek out reimbursements and incentives available to them, which can provide money up front and as long-term savings.

“There are a lot of rebates packages out there, and some very significant ones,” he said. “There are utilities incentives, tax credits for solar technologies and then there will be the stimulus packages.”

Although it has been around for decades, weatherization has only recently received attention from the mainstream as an option that is as responsible economically as it is environmentally.

Salmon said a large portion of his business lately has been contracted work doing low-income weatherization, which can knock up to 40 percent off the heating load. Locally, Concord Cares and the Council on Aging this winter offered free weatherization services using materials donated by the Concord Municipal Light Plant, which offers an assortment of reimbursements to energy efficient appliances.

Weatherizing existing buildings is the most effective way to improve energy efficiency, according to McBride, who is an appointee to the Governor’s Zero Net Energy Task Force. He considers weatherization the clear first step for anyone looking for a more energy-efficient home, even though it would not make as much of a splash with the neighbors as, say, installing solar panels.

“You have to weatherize first,” McBride said. “It’s the easiest to do. It’s the least expensive. It’s not the most glamorous, not like solar panels on a roof. But it’s the most bang for the buck.

“Nothing we did was complicated. That’s the beauty of it. This is basic stuff, absolutely, for anyone who wants to save money. If you want to save the planet, that’s a bonus. But this is not putting a wind turbine in your front yard.”

Three steps to energy efficiency

EnergySavvy Inc. co-Founder Andy Proulx lists three points of the energy efficiency equation.

“What I find is that this three-step process is something you can overlay on almost any energy-using process, be it residential, commercial or auto travel,” he said.

1. Behavior: Use energy only when needed and only in the amount that is needed. For example, set the thermostat to 70 degrees instead of 72, or partially light a room whenever possible.

2. Energy conservation: Make sure your energy system is as efficient as possible. That old fridge in the basement or garage consumes twice the energy as the newer model in the kitchen. Compact fluorescent lighting is better than incandescent, but LEDs are best.

3. Energy delivery: Energy Star heating systems are only as good as their delivery mechanisms. Leaky ductwork and porous building shells compromise the effectiveness of a heating system by leaking conditioned air. Insulating the shell and ductwork helps ensure what’s produced is used efficiently.

Online resources, a Concord-based Web site with information that ranges from books to finding local food sources.

Information on the Low Carbon Diet Initative

Tips from the state Department of Environmental Protection on conserving energy

The Energy Star program

Concord Municipal Light Plant

The Consortium for Energy Efficiency has information on recycling, reducing and reusing from automotive to electronics.

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