Appalachian Voices’ Home Energy Makeover Contest Shines Light on Weatherization Grants and Energy Co-ops

Published Thursday, June 21, 2018 at 9:17 am

By Joe Wiswell

            With the High Country’s cold winters a poorly insulated house can leave precious heat seeping outside and utility bills skyrocketing. While there are federal weatherization grants for low-income families and loans for more wealthy families, many middle-income families fall between the cracks of weatherization funding. That’s why Appalachian Voices created their Home Energy Makeover Contest–to raise awareness about the issue of home energy efficiency, and for one lucky winner to deviler $4,000 worth of home-energy improvements.

            This year, out of 34 applicants from Ashe, Allegany and Watauga counties, 5 finalists received a free, comprehensive home energy audit by John Kidda of reNew Home Inc. (http://www.renewhomeinc.com/about.html) to find out what was happening to the energy in their houses. This year, Amy was declared the big winner. She lives in a house that was originally intended for summer-use only and is set to get a heat pump.
            The contest is not just about declaring one winner, though. It is also about raising awareness about the issue of home energy efficiency in general, and drawing attention to a bunch of programs that can help families weatherize their homes.

During their selection process Appalachian Voices tried to direct as many applicants as possible to a number of free federal grants for weatherization. These grants come from the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (W.A.P.) and are administered in the High Country by the W.A.M.Y. Community Action Network (http://wamycommunityaction.org/) and the Blue Ridge Opportunities Commission (B.R.O.C.) (http://brocinc.com/index.html).

            These free federal weatherization grants go to people who earn less than 200% of the poverty level. If you are interested in either of these programs visit W.A.M.Y. or B.R.O.C.’s websites.

            The Home Energy Makeover Contest tried to target families who were ineligible for W.A.P. grants, whether because they were above the 200% threshold or because their houses had already received W.A.P. assistance. It also tried to target families who could not partake in Blue Ridge Energy’s Energy SAVER Loan Program (http://go.blueridgeenergy.com/loans).

            The Energy SAVER Loan Program is a loan for up to $35,000 that can be used to weatherize your house. For more information, visit Blue Ridge Energy’s website. However, the Home Energy Makeover Contest wants to draw attention to those families being left out of this loan program: the families in between W.A.P. grants and Blue Ridge Energy’s loans.

            Appalachian Voices wants to advocate for the many families who fall into that income gap, and support more debt-free weatherization programs by Blue Ridge Energy. Blue Ridge Energy is a co-op, which means that it is supposed operate in ways that benefit all of its customers. It also means power in the company comes from its consumers. If you use Blue Ridge Energy then you are a member-owner of the company and have a voice in its policies. As a member-owner you can demand more debt-free weatherization programs. To see what Appalachian Voices is doing with electricity co-ops, visit their website at http://appvoices.org/energysavings/nc/.

            Energy coops began in the 1940s as part of the New Deal. They were set-up by community member and farmers seeking to bring electricity to rural parts of the country where big energy companies (like Duke Energy) did not want to go. Because of this history, many electricity companies in rural North Carolina are member-owned. Part of the Home Energy Makeover Contest is to remind community members that member-owners ultimately have control over Blue Ridge Energy.

 

Here are the five finalists for the Home Energy Makeover Contest

 

DANA

Appalachian Voices’ Lauren Essick (l) speaks with Dana.

Dana bought her home in Sparta for herself and her two children when she accepted a teaching job at the local middle school. She made it a priority to install a new HVAC system to heat her home more efficiently. She also had her ductwork insulated, but the energy audit showed there were still leaks that need to be sealed.

The most challenging problem in Dana’s home is her largely uninsulated roof. While the cathedral ceiling in her kitchen and living room areas is beautiful, it would be difficult and expensive to retrofit, since there is no space to add insulation. Many houses in the High Country are far from meeting today’s code standards for insulation, and lose heat in the winter and cool air in the summer very quickly, making electric bills soar in both seasons.

MAUREEN

John Kidda of reNew Home Inc., (l) with Maureen.

After leaving Charleston, S.C., to move to Creston., Maureen was excited to settle down in a milder climate. However, with unusually low temperatures, she struggled with keeping her home comfortable while keeping her bills affordable this past winter.

Her house was built in the 1800s and is heated with an electric HVAC system. Maureen also has a back-up gas fireplace for extra chilly mornings and evenings. These fireplaces are a pleasant source of warmth in the winter, but they can become a carbon monoxide hazard if they are not vented or properly monitored. John was able to conduct tests to make sure they were safe and functioning properly..

We also found that Maureen’s home is poorly insulated, with nothing at all in the walls, which is unsurprising considering its age. John was surprised that her energy bills weren’t higher after seeing how leaky her home was during a “blower door” test, which is done during a home energy audit to find air leaks around the house. The test pulls air out of the house through the doorway, measuring the rate that air flows through the home’s leaks and gaps. The auditor uses a thermal imaging camera to determine exactly where the leaks are. After doing this to Maureen’s home, John determined that her home would benefit the most from insulating her walls and floor, as well as reducing her attic air leakage.

NANCY

John Kidda (l) at the home of the Wilsons.

Nancy and her family live in Creston, in an old farmhouse built around 1895. Nancy has a Ph.D. in chemistry and works at Appalachian State University. Although the house is beautiful architecturally, we found many issues that are contributing to her high energy bills. Nancy is heating her home with portable heaters, which are extremely inefficient. Portable heaters are good for supplemental heat during cold mornings, but can become very expensive very quickly when used as a main heat source. Since the home is old, it has virtually no insulation. As with Dana’s home, this poses a huge challenge to keeping heat in the home.

Even with a decent salary, after all of her family’s other expenses, Nancy cannot easily afford to upgrade her home. Many people in our area find themselves in a situation like Nancy’s — they have a good job but do not have the extra money to upgrade their homes. Making your home more energy efficient will really pay off in the long run, but getting the money to pay for it up-front can be very difficult. Nancy’s home would most benefit from insulation and installing a more efficient heating source.

KATHY

Lauren Essick (l) and John Kidda share a conversation with Kathy.

Kathy and her son live in Sparta, in a home that has relatively decent insulation compared to many in the High Country. Despite the insulation, it could benefit from weatherstripping and caulking to seal air leaks.

Her home is heated by an eclectic mix of heat sources including a gas fireplace, electric baseboard heaters and a wood stove. This house has a lot of additions, and often with additions we see inconsistent mixtures of insulation and heating methods. We had the same concerns about Kathy’s home and the fireplace as we did with Maureen. John conducted the same tests, but still didn’t recommend using the fireplace because she had various other heat sources. We also found that Kathy relies on inefficient and costly baseboard heaters. And while wood stoves are popular, wood can get expensive if you cannot supply it yourself.

Due to Kathy’s various heat sources, she was having trouble paying so many separate bills from this past winter. She does her best to keep up with them all but she still had to get assistance from her local service agency, Alleghany Cares. Kathy’s home would benefit the most from sealing up leaky areas and replacing her gas fireplace with a ductless heat pump.

AMY 

John Kidda (l) doing a “blow test” for energy efficiency at Amy’s home.

Amy bought her home in Boone last summer, intending to live in it year round, even though it was originally built as a summer home. She lives alone and her energy bills are extremely high, as much $308 in February this past year. As a single woman in a 624-square-foot home, this is a very unaffordable bill. Amy’s annual energy cost per square foot is about $2.25 which is almost a dollar higher than the U.S. average of $1.21. Everything in her home, from appliances to heating, runs on electricity and her main heating source is electric baseboard heaters — one of the most inefficient ways to heat a home.

Amy says the energy audit helped her to see what her home really needed. “Even with wearing lots of layers and trying to conserve as much energy as I could, I still had high electric bills. Being picked as one of the five finalists, and having the energy audit done, was really great! I learned so much from John Kidda’s thorough report, and now I know what needs to be done to have warmer winters in the future.”

During Amy’s audit we also found that her home was most likely weatherized by the WAP program a few years ago before she moved in, making her ineligible for further free federal weatherization. Amy could benefit the most from replacing her heating source.

 

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