Turning an old home into a snug showcase

Energy: An Arnold couple's home is redone without charge to show Marylanders that efficiency pays.

November 02, 2003|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ernest Butler's single-story, wood-frame house was in a state of disrepair - and he could do nothing about it.

The shingle roof was falling apart. Doors were warped and clinging loosely to their hinges. Poorly fitted windows invited winter drafts into cold rooms.

Butler, who is disabled, was physically unable to repair his 63-year-old home and could not afford to hire help. So, for years, he and his wife, Cathaleen, did what many Americans do: They taped over the gaps in the windows and doors, and then turned up the thermostat.

Now, the Butlers' home in Arnold is Maryland's model house for energy efficiency. The Department of Energy helped retrofit the home as part of its effort to educate consumers on energy efficiency.

Having an energy-efficient home should be a goal for all Americans, regardless of their income level, said Patricia Riley Johnson, president and chief executive officer for Rebuilding Together, the largest volunteer home rehabilitation organization in America. It has a community-based, energy-efficiency program that rehabilitates about 8,000 houses a year for low-income homeowners.

The group teamed with the National Association of Home Builders Research Center in Bowie and several private businesses to do the work on the Butlers' home for free.

"Every homeowner in America can use a little bit of increased awareness of the things they can do to bring their energy bills down," Johnson said.

"We can make a significant difference if we just pay attention to assuring that windows are appropriately caulked and doors are replaced if they're hanging off the hinges."

That is especially true for those with homes built before 1980, which, according to Johnson, use up to 25 percent more energy per square foot than homes built in the past five years.

Simple modifications, such as wrapping a hot water heater with insulation, can reduce the cost of utility bills by about 20 percent, she said. Items such as plastic wrap and caulk can cost a few dollars; new furnaces or windows can cost several thousand dollars.

The average homeowner in the United States spends about $1,300 a year on utility bills, according to the DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse.

The less energy-efficient the home, the more it costs to heat in the winter and cool in the summer.

Energy-saving efforts have become increasingly popular.

Homebuyers are requesting that builders include appliances and windows that are more energy efficient. Some banks provide lower-rate mortgages for homes that are more energy-efficient than houses built to standard code.

In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency began the Energy Star program to help consumers and business owners identify products that protect the environment and help cut power costs. Homes that earn the Energy Star label typically cost $1,000 to $3,000 more, but experts say they can help save up to 30 percent on energy bills.

Rebuilding Together and the National Association of Home Builders Research Center are rehabilitating homes like the Butlers' to serve as models of energy efficiency.

In September, volunteer crews began their work on the Butler home. Two months later, the project is nearly complete.

House transformed

The once poorly insulated house now has blown-fiberglass wall insulation, high-efficiency replacement windows, new siding, a new roof and a fully insulated floor, attic and water heater. Soon, it will have a new air-conditioning system.

The couple are expected to save about $100 a month on their utility bill.

"Houses are like people - they breathe," said Michael Hudson, president of Saranac Associates, a home remodeling company in Baltimore. "And if you can control the amount of outside air that comes into a house, you can save a lot of money."

Hudson recommends first determining where the house leaks air.

The federal Department of Energy says the most common places are sills, walls and ceilings, followed by air ducts, fireplaces, plumbing, windows and doors.

Once the leaks are found, the next step is to seal them. That can mean caulking cracks, weather-sealing or replacing old windows and doors.

It all depends on what the homeowner can afford, Hudson said. The initial expense is often justified by savings down the road, he said.

Sealing air leaks, for example, can reduce utility costs by as much as 50 percent, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory report.

The problem is worse for lower-income and older homeowners.

19% of income

A 2001 study by the National Low-Income Energy Coalition found that the average family spends less than 5 percent of its annual income on energy, while low-income households spend over 19 percent.

Elderly homeowners living on fixed incomes can spend up to 35 percent of their income paying for energy.

"We currently have about 24 million low-income homeowners," Johnson said. "We know that number is going to grow close to 30 million by the end of this decade. Combine that with the aging of America, and we're going to more than double the number of people 65 and older by the year 2025.

"Increasingly, the population in this country has to choose between food, medicine and shelter," she said. "And home repairs are the most often deferred items on the list."

The Butlers are amazed by the difference in their home. The days of taping around windows and doors are over, said Ernest Butler, 58.

"We just wanted them to help fix the roof. And they chose to use it as the model to make it energy efficient," he said. "We just can't thank these people enough."

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