Making an old rowhouse more energy-efficient

City resident welcomes money-saving upgrades

February 07, 2010|By Rob Kasper

Ann Roberts' East Baltimore rowhouse is older than she is, but not by much. Her narrow brick home on East Preston Street has been around, she said, "for a hundred years-plus." Roberts is 90 years old. She is still able to negotiate the stairs in her four-story home and takes pride in keeping her residence in shape.

"This is a tough house," she said as she launched into a story of how some years ago it had withstood being hit by a tractor-trailer. "These boys, 16 and 14, stole the truck, were chased by the police, then lost control and came right in the living room." Roberts had the damage repaired, and over the years has continued to make improvements to her home.

She recently welcomed a team from Civic Works, a local branch of the national nonprofit AmeriCorps, who installed energy-saving devices in her dwelling.

Working under the auspices of Project Lightbulb, Shalkima Jenkins, Emanuel Figueroa and their colleagues at Civic Works have installed energy-saving devices in 1,700 homes in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in Baltimore during the past two years. The upgrades come free of charge, thanks to grants from the Abell Foundation, Maryland Energy Administration, Baltimore Community Foundation and the Stullman Foundation.

Roberts followed the energy conservation team around her house, appraising their work."That is a nice bright light," she said of the compact fluorescent bulbs that Jenkins and Figueroa put in her living-room fixture, replacing some incandescent bulbs.

Opening the door to her basement, Roberts gave the go-ahead for the volunteers to turn her water heater down 5 degrees to a more efficient setting of 120 degrees. She also consented to letting them wrap insulation around the water heater.

When Jenkins and Figueroa installed devices on a sink faucet and a shower head that cut the water flow in half, Roberts said she would appreciate the savings. "That's good. My water bill is the highest bill I got," she said.

On average, these measures save residents $98 a year in utility bills, according to data collected by Civic Works, based on the energy rates charged in 2008. While such savings are a boon, especially to folks of moderate means, there are other benefits, officials said.

"When we visit one home in an area, we encourage people to tell their neighbors about us, so it builds neighborhood networks," said Kate Beele, supervisor for Project Lightbulb, one of the 12 urban service corps programs that Civic Works runs from its headquarters in the Clifton Mansion in Clifton Park.

Earl Millett, community development director for Civic Works, said home improvements can also make residents feel proud of their homes or, in the case of homeowners like Roberts, reinforce an already strong sense of pride.

As the Civic Works team worked on her light fixtures and appliances, Roberts talked about her house, her life and her fondness for Baltimore.

She has lived in Baltimore almost three decades after moving here from New York City. There, she had worked as a nurse and cook, caring for wealthy, elderly couples and traveling with them. "I did a lot of getting around. I went to Paris and to Europe. I did love Miami Beach. But Baltimore is a good place to be," she said.

She bought he home in 1983 from a cousin who owned properties in the city. Her husband, a former merchant mariner, had died, and her four children were grown and gone. She found work caring for an elderly woman in Owings Mills, sometimes spending the night there, and then returning to her East Baltimore home days later. "This was a nice neighborhood," she said.

Now the house next door is vacant, its windows boarded. "The owners are in New York, the renters that were in there are long gone. They tore it up and left," she said.

Her sons, who live in Raleigh, N.C., have tried to coax her into moving in with them. She said she tells them no, that she is happy where she is.

"It is a sturdy structure," she said. "And I take good care of this house, by myself."

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