HERS Rater Helps Rebuild Greensburg, Kansas

March 01, 2010
March/April 2010
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about HERS

Brian Wendland
is a HERS rater and his sonAaron Wendland is a student at Pratt University, working towards a degree in biology with an emphasis on environmental biology.

You’ve all heard news and stories about Greensburg, Kansas; we don’t intend to repeat them here. Brian is a home energy rater and has had the opportunity to be inside most of the new houses in town, in addition to meeting most of the homeowners and builders. He is assisted by his wife Kathleen, who helps with energy inspections and paperwork. Aaron, along with Destiny, Daniele, and Andrew are Brian and Kathleen's children.  

So that everyone can understand what we are talking about later in the article, we’ll explain a few of the basics. Brian calculates the energy use of a home by entering its components, features, and measurements into a computer program. He uses a blower door to depressurize the house to a set negative pressure. He uses a computer to calculate the CFM going out the door compared to the volume of the house to calculate an infiltration value. The total efficiency of the house is compared to the total efficiency of the same house built to a certain code. A house built to code will have a rating of 100; a house that is 30% more efficient would have a Home Energy Rating System score (HERS) of 70.

An Enhanced Fujita Scale 5 (EF5) tornado struck on the night of May 4, 2007. We were home with the family on our little farm south of St. John when we heard from our neighbors that there was a bad storm in Greensburg, about 60 miles away. We watch out for each other out here, and if we hear that there is a storm near one of the little ghost towns, we know how far it is from where we are.

The first night of the tornadoes, our only damage was a 10 foot x 20 foot shed rolled upside down. The second night, a twister of the same magnitude as the one that hit Greensburg was heading toward Macksville, about 15 miles from St. John. Fortunately, it receded 5 miles south of town. Several farmsteads were destroyed and lives were lost in the surrounding country.

It had been several years since Brian had been to Greensburg, so he didn’t know anyone there directly. Our family did, however, help a neighbor 10 miles west move all her belongings out of her house and into storage after the second night of storms took the roof off.

From Sales to Home Energy Rater

In the spring of 2007, Brian applied for 12 jobs because the farm publication sales job he had wasn’t producing income anymore. He was doing some remodeling work for our neighbor, Daniel Wallach, who took an interest in rebuilding Greensburg and founded Greensburg GreenTown, a grassroots organization that came together shortly after the devastating tornado with the purpose of ensuring sustainable building practices during the town’s rebuilding. Rus Rudy, who was working for the Kansas Energy Office at the time, came to town; and, knowing whom to talk to, he was able to get a grant from DOE to get a home energy rater in town for the purpose of helping people rebuild energy efficient.
Daniel recommended Brian as someone who might be willing to become an energy rater. He mentioned it to Brian, and Brian’s first question was “What’s an energy rater?” Brian was on his dad’s barn Friday afternoon repairing the roof when he got the call from Rus. The HERS class started Monday in Manhattan at the Kansas Building Science Institute (KBSI). Since Brian’s dad lives only 35 miles north of Manhattan, he called Doug Walter, KBSI President, and drove down to get the books. Brian spent the next week learning how to run the computer programs and calculate the math required to be a home energy rater. He was able to pass the certification test the first time he took it.

Witnessing the Devastation

It was after being certified as a HERS Rater that Brian made his first post-tornado visit to Greensburg. From the east it didn’t look too bad. But as he came around the curve in Highway 54, Brian passed the few blocks of remaining trees and saw that almost all the town he knew from several years ago was gone.

It took Brian a while to figure out how he could help with the rebuilding. He attended meetings and met lots of people with lots of education from lots of government departments, and their subcontractors. In the end, he called Rus Rudy, who told him to “just rate houses.” So Brian started knocking on doors. All it took was a simple explanation, telling homeowners who he was and what an energy rating could do, and most of the time the answer was “yes.”

Now an Experienced Rater

As of fall 2009, with almost 200 houses rated, Brian has learned a lot. The homes in Greensburg provide a good cross-section of designs, building methods, materials, sizes, and costs. But Brian says there’s one common factor that most influences the energy efficiency of a home. That factor is a homeowner who takes the time to do some homework and understands some basics of how a house works as a system. Another group of efficient homes are those owned by people who hired a contractor who knew how to build efficiently.

Homeowners have had many opportunities to get help. About every government agency imaginable has been to town for people to take advantage of. There have been classes and seminars sponsored by DOE and others, and these classes have been well attended. Brian took several of them himself. Not having a background in home construction, he says those classes were an eye-opener. Attending the classes and seminars gave Brian a better understanding of some of the obstacles builders and homeowners had to overcome.

Obstacles and Opportunities

Builders in southwest Kansas have to contend with some of the most difficult weather in North America. It gets hot, cold, dry, and sometimes soaking wet. The area is documented as the windiest in the country. It is mostly a cold, dry climate as far as energy use is concerned. Contractors and builders here want to build energy efficient and green. It’s a learning process. There are many ways to end up with the desired result, but there are many things to consider. What may be a good building method from an energy-saving standpoint may compromise the building’s structural strength, or may be a disaster if there are termites lurking in the neighborhood.

One obstacle is the way some builders insulate the rim joists. A common practice is to stuff R-19 batts between the floor joists. Insulation has to be installed, not stuffed. It’s our understanding that when fiberglass is tested for R-value it is placed in a sealed box with contact to all six sides. If you’ll take the time to read the instructions, you’ll see that batts are to be installed with no voids. We think you’re wasting your time and money if you’re only going through the motions. This applies to all the components of a house. Do some research; there are new products coming out all the time. In Greensburg we’ve seen most of them.

We’re impressed with the way the town and everyone involved have cooperated in the rebuilding process. Brian has a small part of all that’s going on in town. The two areas that he is most concerned about are the air barrier and the thermal barrier. You can construct a building as tight as a tin can, but if that building has no insulation, you will never be comfortable. You can construct a building with a complete thermal barrier of R-50 or -60, but if you have an infiltration rate equivalent to an open window on two sides, you will always be sitting in a draft. You have to have both a tight house and effective insulation.

A term Brian heard a lot when he started rating houses is “R-value equal to.” This term was usually used when someone was referring to a foam product. Foam insulation has an R-value equal to, or greater than, that of other insulating material, but it is less impervious to air. You need to meet the R-requirements of each component of the house. For instance, DOE recommends that a ceiling in our climate zone be insulated to R-38. Polyicynene, with an R-value of 3.5 per inch times 5.5 inches, equals an R-value of 19.25. But Polyicynene is a better air barrier than most insulation products, and ASHRAE recommends that homes receive at least 0.35 ACH of controlled ventilation, not the uncontrolled ventilation that comes through unintentional holes in the air barrier (see “Weatherization and Ventilation,” p. 44).
There are very few houses that have a complete thermal barrier. The lack of a thermal barrier is most noticeable is the basement. It is a basic law of physics that heat moves to cold. Concrete has an R-value of 0.5 per inch. The ground temperature is about 56ºF. If you want a conditioned basement of 72ºF, you will have to overcome a constant difference of 16ºF. The most common comment Brian hears is “It [lack of basement insulation] helps keep the basement cool,” and it does. All year. For every dollar saved cooling, $3–$5 are lost to heating.

As we wrote above, when it comes to rebuilding Greensburg, there are many ways to end up with the desired result, but there are many things to consider. 
For more information:
For more on the rebuilding of Greensburg, go to the Web site of Greensburg GreenTown, www.greensburggreentown.org.

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