September 2011: Helping Hands

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The vanguard of the local building industry may be slashing energy loads by up to 90 percent—creating the Picassos of energy-efficient architecture. But thousands of locals still live in the housing equivalent of a velvet Elvis: older homes built with little or no weatherization.

“In the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle, in the 1950s and 1960s, over 20,000 homes were built before any insulation standards were in [the building] code,” says Cynthia Adams, director of the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP). 

One family at a time, LEAP wants to make those houses work better.  

The poncy family has enjoyed a much more comfortable summer since using a LEAP grant for weatherization last fall.

What you need to know about LEAP

—They can help you arrange an energy audit to figure out the best ways to improve your house’s energy-efficiency. Plus, you may get a $250 rebate toward the cost.

—It might not be your windows. Adams says there’s a “fundamental misunderstanding about what’s most important with energy-efficiency.” Air-sealing is likely to be a much more cost-effective way to tighten up the house than replacing windows. 

—“We have two different paths a homeowner can take,” says Adams. First is the Better Basics program, offering rebates up to $700 on basic HVAC and insulation upgrades.

—If you want to go further toward weatherizing your home, LEAP’s Home Performance with Energy Star program might be for you. As a participant, you’ll get a rebate on your energy audit, up to $2,000 in rebates on the improvements, and third-party verification of the work’s effectiveness.

—The UVA Community Credit Union will give LEAP customers better rates on loans for making energy retrofits. As of September 2, the Power Saver loan program offers low rates (for example, 3.99 percent on a three-year, $2,500 loan) and, for some city residents, zero-interest loans. “What we can say to a homeowner is no money down, zero percent interest, and…you could be cash flowing neutral month to month,” says Adams. “The offset from your utility bills is what you can use to pay the loan.” Sounds like free money to us.

—Speaking of free, LEAP also offers out-and-out grants to qualifying city residents through the Assisted Home Performance with Energy Star program. Folks can access up to $5,000 based on their income level. See below for the story of one family who got a grant.

—LEAP has a list of approved local contractors who can do the retrofit work, and during the bidding and construction processes, LEAP acts as an advocate for homeowners in case of questions or disputes.

—LEAP is for everybody. “There’s a misperception—people think we only work with low income people,” Adams says. In fact, those of all income levels are welcome.

—Energy retrofits benefit more than your budget. “[After retrofits, homeowners are] more comfortable in their homes, and their homes are healthier,” Adams says. “We have customers who complain of respiratory ailments, headaches, and asthma, and a retrofit can help fix those problems.”

—Act fast! Between various grants, stimulus money, and partnerships, Adams says, “[LEAP can bring] millions of dollars of resources directly to homeowners in this community, and it won’t be there forever. If you want to save thousands of dollars, the time is now.” 

—LEAP’s website is www.leap-va.org.

Cool solution

When Amanda and Mike Poncy considered having a second child, part of the discussion was about A/C.

“[Mike said], ‘Do you want to be pregnant without having A/C?’” Amanda remembers. Plus, they’d already noticed that their first child was having trouble sleeping in a stuffy upstairs bedroom. Seeking relief, the couple looked into installing central air, but the $20,000 price tag scared them off. Their 1930s Belmont bungalow is small, after all—only around 1,000 square feet. Meanwhile, wintertime heating was barely adequate, and the Poncys were cold even while running space heaters.

Researching alternatives, says Amanda, “It became more apparent that we needed to have a very tight house.” 

She contacted LEAP and realized that they’d qualify for the Assisted Home Performance with Energy Star program, which offers homeowners up to $5,000 grants. When the day arrived for the Poncys’ energy audit—which included a blower door test—the experience was “eye-opening.”

“[There was] air coming out of small holes in the house,” says Amanda, “places I would never expect. There were some holes in the floor in the door jamb of the closet that were blowing air like mad.”

After the audit, LEAP’s Guy Caroselli helped the Poncys prioritize improvements and get in touch with contractors. They decided to put almost all their grant money toward insulation, with a little left over for improving ventilation. In October 2010, the house got both cellulose and spray-foam insulation, plus a new energy-efficient water heater. 

“The comfort of our home is dramatically improved,” says Amanda. “We don’t have the hot and cold patches like we did before….Everything is much more even.” The house is quieter, too, and their utility bills reflect the change: Their January electricity cost, for example, went from $196 to $63. 

Mike is thrilled that his family can be so much more comfortable without spending $20,000 on A/C. “[It was great] to have someone walk through house and say with $5,000 worth of work, you’ll see the same effect,” he says. “LEAP was definitely the champion of alternative ways to improve things.”

With the same two window-unit air-conditioners they were using before, the Poncys have spent a comfortable summer. That includes the newest member of the family, born in May.

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