Home weatherization can pay off big

Reporter Sam Eaton.

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TESS VIGELAND: Green jobs have gotten an ongoing push from the Obama administration. And they came up again in this week's State of the Union address.

President Barack Obama: We should put more Americans to work building clean energy facilities. And give rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy efficient, which supports clean energy jobs.

Rebates like those would be music to the ears of Marketplace Sustainability reporter Sam Eaton. He recently did some simple improvements on his home to plug energy leaks. And here's what happened.


Sam Eaton: Turns out my 1921 Los Angeles bungalow could win awards. The problem is they're not the kind you want to brag about. Here's what Trey Muffet with home weatherization company Recurve told me last spring:

Trey Muffet: Your home is performing on the lower end of this home performance index. And your air leakage is off the charts right now.

That was the verdict after Recurve performed a home energy audit. They found out that my house not only lacked insulation, it also leaked energy like a sieve. So I decided to fix it, which in the words of Recurve's retrofit manager, Robert Mitchell, comes down to this:

Robert Mitchell: It's the simple stuff. We're plugging the holes. We're putting insulation in.

Starting with my attic, which accounted for about a third of my house's energy loss.

Eaton: So what's happening here?

Mitchell: All right. Let me get this mask off so I can talk. So what he's doing is is he's blowing the cellulose in through the three-inch tube right now.

Eaton: When we talk about the heat we feel on those hot summer days here in L.A., this is really going to make the biggest difference.

Mitchell: When the attic's 160 degrees on the hot summer days, it transfers through the wood framing and into the lath and plaster. And then it's cool in the afternoon, but your house is still crazy hot, it's 'cause it stored heat all day. This is going to stop that.

Add to that new insulation in the walls and floors along with sealing all the cracks and leaks, and winter heat loss will also become a thing of the past. All for just under $10,000, which is actually at the high end of what it costs to weatherize a home. And even at that price, my investment will gradually pay off in energy savings and cut my carbon emissions in half. Kind of makes it a no brainer -- if you've got the cash to do it. And that's a big if.

Matt Golden is Recurve's founder and president.

Matt Golden: The biggest impediment right now is consumer demand, because of the fact that the economy is really in a very difficult place and homeowners don't have a lot of spare capital lying around.

But Golden says that obstacle also represents an enormous political opportunity.

Golden: The most effective tool to increase demand is a direct consumer incentive. And the most recent example of this is Cash for Clunkers, where we saw how quickly a consumer incentive changed behavior, and you saw people turning in their old clunkers and buying much more efficient cars.

Which explains why Congress's home weatherization proposal has been dubbed "Cash for Caulkers." Its real name is "Home Star" and it would rebate up to 50 percent of the cost of weatherizing a house. Golden, who's played a central role in designing the program, says Home Star would put tens of thousands of unemployed construction workers back to work and cut U.S. carbon emissions. He says residential buildings generate nearly a quarter of the nation's carbon footprint.

Golden: Using just really simple measures that can be done quickly and using local resources, we find that we can abate an equivalent amount of carbon as taking half of all passenger cars off the road. So this is a huge opportunity.

And a relatively painless one. After just four days of work my house already feels different. The cold pockets are gone, and even with the heat off, it's a consistent 68 degrees. Recurve's chief building scientist Trey Muffet performed the final test. He fitted an orange tarp with a large fan in the middle of it onto the front door frame.

Muffet: So right now we're about ready to run the blower door, and what we're going to look at is the actual final test out number on the tightness of the home.

Sound of blower running

Muffet turns on the fan which sucks air into the house, pressurizing it. Then, he measures how fast the air leaks back out through the walls and windows.

Muffet: All right, so we have 1,994 cubic feet per minute at minus-50 pascals.

I ask Muffet for a translation. And it turns out, we're blowing right past the Joneses.

Muffet: Your house is probably one of the highest performing houses on the block and probably in the neighborhood.

By insulating and sealing leaks Recurve was able to boost the overall efficiency of my house by more than 70 percent. And that correlates directly with the amount of savings I'll see on my energy bill. But because I live in temperate L.A. that bill was pretty low to begin with and that means the payback time is a lot longer than a house in say, Fargo, N.D. -- about 15 years in my case.

The good news is that while I wait for those savings to turn into profits, my house is also 70 percent more comfortable. And that's a hard thing to put a price on.

In Los Angeles, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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