This article was originally published in the November/December 1993 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online November/December 1993



Trends in Energy is a bulletin of residential energy conservation issues. It covers items ranging from the latest policy issues to the newest energy technologies. If you have items that would be of interest, please send them to: Trends Department, Home Energy, 2124 Kittredge St., No. 95, Berkeley, CA 94704.



Energy Efficiency and the Floods

Massive flooding in the Midwest devastated lives and property this summer, and in September with the winter heating season fast approaching there was much confusion about how the recovery might occur and what role energy-efficiency would play in reconstruction. Damage, expected to exceed a total of $10 billion in nine states, is still being assessed. One estimate put the number of homes damaged at nearly 85,000. The extent of the damage will force many homes to be demolished.

There could be more property relocations from the deluge than from any flood in the nation's history. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy indicated that the federal government might simply buy the most severely flood-damaged properties, turning the land into parks instead of repairing the levies. Vice President Al Gore made similar suggestions.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said it would enforce flood plain zoning, which forbids repairs to buildings that have sustained damage exceeding half their value, unless they're made flood-proof. Since flood-proofing is prohibitively expensive and may not offer enough protection in a major flood anyway, people may choose to move. However, federal flood insurance and disaster assistance does not generally support relocation even if it's the best economic option. Residents are caught in a bind. In the most devastated communities, rebuilding has been on hold while property owners decide whether to relocate or fix their properties. Federal funds can only be used to restore buildings to pre-disaster status, so energy-efficient improvements are not really an option.

Rebuilding will be a daunting task. Insulation was soaked, doors and windows lost, furnaces, water heaters and electric wiring submerged for weeks. Refrigerators were inoperative. There were unanswered questions about whether furnaces and water heaters--under water for weeks--could be repaired. There were questions about whether flooded homes could be reinsulated. Reinsulating some homes may not be feasible because of the potential for moisture problems.

Past experience has shown that once wet, insulation stays wet and rots studs. Probably the only solution is to remove and replace the wet stuff. Sheetrock walls may still be intact, but insulation acts like a sponge, sucking the water up into the walls. Drywall or plaster walls and ceilings need to be replaced. Many homes will be torn down to the frames. Siding will be replaced too. New techniques need to be developed.

A procedure used in Winnipeg where basements were flooded by sewer backups illustrates the complexity of the problem. First, a utility knife is used to cut 1/2 in. into the sheetrock, horizontally an inch or so above the water line. Next, the lower sheetrock is removed and the vapor barrier folded up out of the way. Insulation batts are cut, removed, and replaced. (Studs must be allowed to dry.) Finally, the vapor barrier is folded and new sheetrock cut to fit.

While most building materials and appliances are not designed to be immersed, one TV repairperson claimed to have saved flooded appliances by simply rinsing them with fresh water and drying thoroughly. Rinsing consists of two stages (city water to get out the crud, then deionized water to get out the city water). Drying could be facilitated by putting them in a well-heated space with high air movement rates. Permanently-installed appliances (for instance, furnaces, many dishwashers, and water heaters) may be trickier, especially to get dry, though portable drying equipment could possibly be used. Appliances insulated with fiberglass will be difficult, if not impossible, to fix without removing the insulation. (The labor may not be worth it, especially with old inefficient appliances.)

However, The Gas Appliances Manufacturer's Association (GAMA) advises that all plumbing, heating and cooling appliances and systems that have been immersed in water are potentially unsafe and must be replaced, whether the appliance's energy source is gas or electricity! Water corrodes critical parts. Silt, sediment and corrosion can destroy valves and controls, resulting in inefficient combustion leaks, improper venting and a buildup of deadly carbon monoxide. In the case of water heaters, moisture trapped in the insulation can corrode the tank and the shell. Floodwater sediment can work its way into the relief valve, causing it to freeze shut or leak continuously.

For now the emphasis is on the cleanup. Homes have buckled foundations, muddy landscapes smell like rotting garbage and trailer parks have been transformed into swamplands. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has allowed crews to use Weatherization Assistance Program funds to dispose of trash and debris, help with sandbagging, and so forth. In counties where crews are reweatherizing flood-damaged homes, there are new challenges. One weatherization crew was removing wet insulation from the walls of a home and found poisonous water snakes!

Representatives from state energy offices, weatherization agencies and federal agencies gathered at DOE's Kansas City office to discuss reconstruction and energy efficiency. There are a number of research issues that must be solved according to William S. Becker, of DOE's office of energy-efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is spearheading a DOE task force which is working to incorporate energy efficiency into the rebuilding effort. Separately, a group called Taskforce to Rebuild Using Energy Efficiency (TREE) has formed, also to look at incorporating energy efficiency into the flood-zone rebuilding effort.

One of many goals is to encourage agencies such as FEMA, which is responsible for short-term relief efforts, to coordinate better with agencies like the Small Business Administration, the long-term recovery agency. (SBA makes direct loans to people who have suffered uninsured property losses.) We're trying to capture whatever lessons we can from this flood, so that we can respond more intelligently and more quickly next time, said Becker. The immediate concern is that in 45 days or so, these families will face another heating season.

In some cases entire towns may have to relocate and there will be opportunities do it energy efficiently. One community that serves as an example is Soldier's Grove,Wisconsin, flooded in 1978. Soldier's Grove relocated its entire business district and a dozen homes to higher ground half a mile away from its original location--making itself a model of creative energy planning in the process. Soldier's Grove passed the nation's first ordinance requiring new commercial structures to use solar energy to meet at least half of their heating energy needs and passed building energy performance standards twice as stringent as required by state law at the time.


-- Cyril Penn


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