Living in a poorly insulated home is a lose-lose situation: you pay extra to be uncomfortable. For many, the cost of fixing the problem may be beyond reach, but a new Garfield Clean Energy program is filling the affordability gap.
Diane Alexandersson and her husband Pete had endured discomfort in their Rifle home for decades. The small 1960s-era house was costing up to $300 a month to heat in the winter, yet they were still having to wear sweaters to stay warm inside. Summers were worse – the swamp cooler just couldn’t keep up, and afternoons and evenings were unbearably stuffy.
“We thought it was the windows,” says Pete. Whatever it was, they knew they needed to do something about it, but weren’t sure where to start or how they would afford it.
Enter ReEnergize Garfield County. Launched in February with an extra $150,000 from the county, the program is designed to help people like Diane and Pete who want to improve their home’s energy efficiency but don’t qualify for existing financial aid for low-income households.
Diane read about ReEnergize and applied early. Based on their household income, she and Pete fell into the sweet spot for ReEnergize – between 80% and 100% of the area median income – and qualified for up to $5,000 of free home energy improvements. (Households earning 100-120% of median income can still qualify, but they’re capped at $3,000.)
As a first step, ReEnergize arranged to have a home energy audit done by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which provides energy-efficiency services across 13 counties. It’s always a good idea to start with an energy audit, because it will reveal exactly what’s wrong and what it will take to fix it.
“Most homes we’re seeing are in need of insulation or air sealing, and in fact that’s really the main purpose of ReEnergize. The best use of funding is to first get the building shell tight. Then if other upgrades are needed, like say a new furnace, they’ll be sized for a more efficient house.”
When a home is cold in winter and hot in summer, it’s natural to think that the windows are to blame. But a set of tests performed as part of an energy audit often reveals a different culprit. Sure enough, in the case of Pete and Diane’s house, the problem wasn’t the windows – it was poor insulation.
According to Nick Miller of NWCCOG, the attic insulation was old, unevenly spread and at most 2 inches deep. He gave it a rating of about R-4 – by comparison, modern code requires R-49 in the attic, or 12 times as much! In addition, there was no insulation at all in the basement between the top of the concrete foundation and the ground floor.
“You could almost say they had no insulation to begin with,” said Miller.
No wonder the house was so uncomfortable. In winter, heated indoor air was rising up through the attic and out the roof, while cold outside air was being drawn in from the basement. In summer, most of the cool air from the swamp cooler was leaking out through the basement and the attic.
It’s an all-too-common situation, said Zuleika Pevec, clean energy program manager for CLEER, which manages Garfield Clean Energy’s programs.
“Most homes we’re seeing are in need of insulation or air sealing, and in fact that’s really the main purpose of ReEnergize,” she explained. “The best use of funding is to first get the building shell tight. Then if other upgrades are needed, like say a new furnace, they’ll be sized for a more efficient house.”
The NWCCOG team returned to Pete and Diane’s house on a sweltering day in June to blow 18 inches of new insulation into the attic floor – enough to bring it up to the current R-49 standard – and to seal the gaps in the basement with 2-inch-thick foam board.
Reached by phone a few weeks later, Diane was beyond pleased with the result.
“We notice a big difference,” she said. “It’s not sweltering hot in here, it’s nice. At night we can go to sleep and it doesn’t feel like a sauna!”
There was one other big-ticket item identified in the home energy audit: a new furnace. Pete and Diane had known for a while that the existing furnace was “as old as the hills” and would need replacement soon.
The cost of the home energy audit, insulation and a few other small items added up to about $3,500, which means there’s another $1,500 available to help pay for a furnace, but Pete and Diane are still undecided. They’re waiting to get estimates on two alternatives, a conventional natural gas unit and an all-electric heat pump system. The heat pump would cost more, but it would also provide air conditioning.
Another consideration: ReEnergize Garfield County might contribute more to the cost of the heat pump. According to CLEER deputy director Maisa Metcalf, “$5,000 is the limit for ReEnergize, but in one or two cases where a home is a great fit for electrification and we can achieve major energy savings, we’ll consider putting in more money.”
ReEnergize Garfield County has now awarded all of its funding for 2022. However, homeowners and renters are still encouraged to enroll in the program to find out if they qualify for other available financial aid and to get on the waiting list for the next round of ReEnergize funding. For more information, see our website or call the CLEER office at (970) 704-9200.