Help Us Over the Hump

October 31, 2014
November/December 2014
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2014 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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This may blow up A carefully constructed image I’ve created of myself as a committed energy geek, but the truth is that when my wife, Michele, and I signed on to the Energy Upgrade California program last spring, I was hoping to come out of it with an air conditioner. I wasn’t looking forward to another summer of 103°F days in a home without cooling at the touch of a button.

Jim Gunshinan
is the editor of Home Energy and the proud owner of a home with no air conditioning. (Michele Nikolff)

It’s now after Labor Day, and we don’t have A/C. But because we had insulation added to our walls and had our ducts repaired, did some air sealing, and made some simple behavior changes, we got through the summer without too much suffering. In fact, on the hottest day, when it was 103°F outside, the hottest it got inside was 83°F. Comparing our situation to that of the majority of people living on our warming planet, I’m not complaining.


Energuy’s Brian Stevens performs some CO safety checks inside and outside my house. (Kate Henke, Kate Henke Design)

Energuy’s Brian Stevens checks a blower door reading. (Kate Henke, Kate Henke Design)

The folks at Stewart Heating and Air, the auditors from Energuy, and our advisor, Scott Mellberg of Populus, LLC, did a great job of leading us through the audits and installations to a quieter, cooler, and more efficient home. We’re waiting to see how our home performs this winter. Rebates through Energy Upgrade California and PG&E covered 40% of our costs.

And we got bragging rights! Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal has an article about the retrofit of an RMI employee’s home. Victor Olgyay “turned his family’s 1950s ranch into a comfortable, efficient home,” says the Journal, “infused with solar-smart design.” “It’s 95°F outside in Boulder as I write these words in midsummer,” Olgyay says, “and inside the house it is 76° . . . and we have no A/C.” Ha, RMI! I say. Can you beat 103° over 83°? (Inside peak occurred two hours after outside peak.)

I’ve read hundreds of articles about, and heard hundreds of speakers talk about, home energy efficiency, but going through a retrofit experience helped me understand on a gut level what a retrofit was all about. For example, before the retrofit, I thought wall insulation was a low priority for Northern California homes. Now I know it can make a huge difference to our comfort and on our energy bills. I think I understand better the challenges faced by HVAC contractors, home performance companies, and auditors getting homeowners to take on the expense and inconvenience that goes with a retrofit. It took time out of Michele’s and my schedules to be home for the visits, audits, and installations. It was noisy. We had holes on the outside walls to paint and nail pops on the inside to repair. And we may or may not pay for our 60% of the costs of the retrofit from energy savings over the next 20 years.

Getting clients to retrofit their homes when there are no obvious problems to solve, such as very high energy bills, cold and hot rooms, or frequent asthma attacks, is like asking someone to undergo surgery that may add years of quality living to their life, but that does not dramatically change their life right now. Some contractors are having great success drumming up business by explaining in detail the health improvements that come with an energy retrofit. Others focus on comfort. Some sell energy savings. Getting bragging rights helped me to write the check. Maybe the answer to why retrofit? is either all of the above, or it depends. We’re a growing industry. I want us to keep the conversation going. How do we help people over the hump of expense and inconvenience, to healthier, more comfortable, and more energy-efficient homes?

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