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Insulation and efficiency upgrades pay off

March 27, 2013

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Some pioneering efforts to encourage solar energy and efficiency in the 1970s included a solar business district in Soldiers Grove, Wis., a community-wide energy efficiency program in Osage, Iowa, and a Bigelow solar energy subdivision in Aurora, Ill.

These projects demonstrated the value of high levels of insulation for reduced heating and cooling costs, while providing increased home comfort. With new construction, it is possible to construct buildings that produce all the energy needed to operate them over the course of a year.

Existing buildings can also be modified in cost-effective ways to cut their energy consumption by 30 percent or more. Before the upgrades are performed, a visual inspection of the building, along with an energy audit, blower door test and infrared image scan can identify air leaks and existing insulation levels.

The collected data are used to create a detailed report identifying the areas that can be repaired, sealed and insulated to boost the building’s efficiency. The owner knows in advance of doing the work the needed remedies, the expected results and the cost of the upgrades.

The process can be compared to having X-rays and body scans before medical procedures are undertaken. The personnel involved in the work must be properly trained to ensure a successful project.

About 80 homes in Rockford received energy efficiency upgrades thanks to a federal grant that offset some of the costs. The work was performed by appropriately trained personnel from two area firms, Saunders Insulation and Home Focus.

Energy efficiency programs can be implemented on a community-wide basis. Murray, a small town in rural Ohio, combined a variety of government and utility programs into one effort that enabled 74 percent of homeowners to benefit from energy efficiency upgrades. Given the abstract nature of energy efficiency, it is a challenge to secure citizen interest in such a program.

An effective strategy for convincing homeowners of the need for energy upgrades was used in Osage, Iowa. An infrared aerial survey of the town was done, and owners from each neighborhood were invited a block at a time to view the heat loss from their homes shown by the infrared photos. After the work was completed, Osage, with a population of slightly fewer than 4,000, realized benefits in energy savings exceeding millions annually.

A community-wide energy efficiency program properly designed and implemented could both pay for itself over time and improve the economic viability of the community. Equipment sales from local stores needed for the upgrades would increase, as would the number of workers needed to implement the improvements.

Current low natural gas prices weaken consumers’ commitment to energy efficiency. But with volatile energy prices, a longer-term perspective is sensible. After having energy audits on our 100-year-old farmhouse, we sealed drafts and insulated more than 35 years ago, cutting our heating fuel consumption, reducing our energy bills and providing improved comfort.

When energy prices were low, savings were less, but there were years when energy prices spiked to astronomical levels. Over the long-term perspective, the benefits are substantial.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the March 27-April 2, 2013, issue

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