Chico Energy Pioneers program looks to a future of educating wider range of locals in green-home techniques
At long last, Linda Herman sees light at the end of a lengthy tunnel. Herman, Chico’s General Services administrative manager, has spent the better part of three years as the City Hall point person for the Chico Energy Pioneers, stemming from a $400,000 innovative pilot program from PG&E, aiming to make homes more energy-efficient.
The city collaborated with Chico State and Butte College to train inspectors and contractors on green techniques, then sent the sustainability-savvy professionals out into the field to inspect and repair homes. Herman and her colleagues evaluated the proceedings and put their findings in a report they’re sharing with PG&E and the City Council.
“It’s been a long process and a good learning experience for us,” Herman said in a phone interview Sept. 4, during a break in finalizing the report. “One of the things we all came to find is it’s a bigger project than our team was, but all in all I think we’re really pleased with the outcome and how it went.”
The program led to the training of 30 contractors and subcontractors in the whole-building-analysis curriculum of New York-based Building Performance Institute, which sets standards nationally for energy-efficient home-retrofit work. Ninety-one local homeowners received free inspections and an average of $1,350 to conduct repairs—though Herman and Jon Stallman of Energy X-Change, another point person on the Energy Pioneers team, said more than a third of the homeowners made additional upgrades, either out of their own pockets or with additional funds from PG&E’s Energy Upgrade California program.
All told, 88 percent reported they received the kind of information they expected from the program.
“We had roughly 85 people extremely happy with what they learned, the education they got from this, and the changes in their houses are amazing to them—they’re blown away,” Stallman said. “The amount of comfort change, the amount of energy reduction they’ve received from this, is incredible.”
Each of the 91 homes in the program had individual conditions, but Energy Pioneers inspectors found a handful of prevalent issues:
• Air coming into the house through the building shell;
• Lack of, or poor, insulation in the attic;
• Ducts leaking at seams or joints, and sheet metal leaking air outside the home;
• Oversized cooling systems with low air flow in the home;
• Combustion emitting excessive carbon monoxide within the home (such as that indicated by a rusted heat exchanger on a furnace).
Most significantly, the inspections revealed the interconnectivity of various components. Some homeowners had previously made specific modifications to their homes, only to have those changes not help the situation or even make the problem worse.
“Just putting in insulation isn’t going to help achieve energy savings if you have leaking ducts or air escaping through the attic,” Herman said. “And the construction sequence of how you do things makes a big difference.”
That’s why the holistic approach of a whole-house inspection proved so crucial.
“What we came to find out,” Stallman said, “is that we’re not just aiming at energy reduction. The energy use is often a result of comfort issues within the house. We can throw technology at it, we can resolve different problems, but unless you address the house as a whole system, the comfort issue is still going to exist.”
In other words, a homeowner can install a higher-efficiency air conditioner, but if the cool air leaks out of ductwork into a poorly insulated attic, the family may still need to crank the cooler up to the “high” setting.
Interestingly, the Energy Pioneers team determined that modifying the home, rather than modifying behavior, will produce the quickest, deepest energy savings. The whole-home assessments help homeowners set priorities for those repairs without sales pressures from specialized subcontractors pushing a certain type of product or service.
“Unbiased information is truly important to keep the confidence of the homeowners,” Stallman said. “Data-based [auditing] also means they’re getting information directly about their home from instruments saying, ‘Your leakage is this much, relative to the calculation of where it’s supposed to be, which is this.’ It’s really hard to refute numbers.”
With the pilot program complete, what’s next? Two possibilities: further education of construction-industry professionals, and potential changes to city regulations.
On the first front, Herman hopes to work with the Valley Contractors Exchange and/or Butte College to provide training in whole-house assessments and green-building techniques. “We definitely want to take the lessons we’ve learned and share them,” she said.
The second front involves Chico’s Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance, or RECO. Adopted in 1991, RECO established energy- and water-savings measures to be implemented upon the resale of residences built before 1983.
Real-world experiences during the Energy Pioneers process suggest possible revisions to specific aspects of the code.
“We were really adamant [in the program] about doing things in the proper construction sequence,” Stallman said, “like not putting insulation in before the ductwork was sealed. What we really learned from that is [that] the RECO ordinance is not correct; the sequence of priorities that you’re currently required to do when you sell your house is not in the right order.”
Rather than push for immediate changes, though, Herman would like to collect some numbers about energy savings in the 91 Energy Pioneers homes. She also plans to go over the program findings with Chico Building Official Nelson George.
“We just want to re-evaluate the RECO from the experiences we got from the project, but to do that we need more data,” she said.
What’s definitely come out of the Energy Pioneers program is a framework for whole-house assessments that are readily available to local homeowners, who no longer need to look to bigger cities such as Sacramento or San Francisco for that sort of expertise.
“It’s been a long process,” Herman said, “but in the end, I think people seem to be happy with what the program has done.”