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TCSaves homeowners cheer cozier homes, lower heating bills

Could it spark a community efficiency program?

Efficiency First, TCSaves | February 28, 2013 | By Jim Dulzo

About the Author


Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.
 

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Some Traverse City leaders want to extend TCSaves' efficiency teamwork, which helped Victoria and Jonathan Pack save energy dollars and feel cozier in their home, to the entire community.
Some Traverse City leaders want to extend TCSaves' efficiency teamwork, which helped Victoria and Jonathan Pack save energy dollars and feel cozier in their home, to the entire community.

When Jonathan and Victoria Pack bought their first home in a quiet Traverse City neighborhood in 2009, they knew they were buying some problems, too. The young couple’s 120-year-old place was under-insulated and had leaky windows, drafts, an overheated upstairs, ice dams—and big heating bills.

Their natural gas heating bill that January was $295—very high for a 1,200 square-foot home. They wanted to do something, but were unsure where to start.

A few blocks away, Paul and Jennise Phillips faced a similar situation. Their home, purchased in 2008, was drafty. Its ancient furnace “sounded like a jet engine,” overheated the first floor, but left the upstairs an icebox.

But this winter, both families felt much cozier—and a bit more prosperous: Their heating bills fell dramatically.

Many Traverse City families have similar stories, thanks to an innovative, successful program called TCSaves.

The two-year program was—and is—good news for Traverse City: It kept local contractors and building supply wholesalers busy. Now it’s saving energy dollars for homeowners and keeping some of those dollars in town, rather than sending them to distant coalfields. The lowered energy demand is also lowering utilities’ costs—and, ultimately, holding down rate increases—as well as reducing climate-changing greenhouse gases, raising property values, and polishing the town’s image.

That’s why some of Traverse City’s elected, business, civic, nonprofit, and institutional leaders want to grow TCSaves into a permanent program that prompts most city residents and businesses to invest in energy efficiency—and provides a model for other Michigan communities as electricity and heating costs rise.

Soon they’ll have some help: State and U.S. Department of Energy personnel are analyzing data from Traverse City, 26 other Michigan communities, and hundreds of others around the country that conducted similar pilots using funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. They will figure out what approaches worked best to increase home and business efficiency.

But the locals are moving ahead, too, led by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, at least one Traverse City commissioner, Traverse Area Realtors, SEEDS, the Michigan Land Use Institute, and a spate of local businesses and institutions.

Last June, 200 leaders attended a “Leadership Summit on Energy Efficiency.” The summit presented MLUI’s report, Energy Efficiency and Economic Opportunity in Grand Traverse County, and a keynote speech by efficiency expert Peter Garforth, who helped Holland, Mich., adopt a 40-year Community Energy Plan to sharply cut energy use for every building in town.

In December, a smaller group attended a half-day workshop with Garforth to discuss strategies for launching a long-term efficiency project for Traverse City. The group must fashion firm answers to two basic questions: Who should manage such a project, and how should it be financed?

Lessons learned from TCSaves will help find answers.

Lessons in Teamwork

TC Saves offered quite a bargain: For only $100, homeowners received a customized home energy assessment showing how to make the house comfortable and efficient, plus installation of weather stripping, compact fluorescent lights, programmable thermostats and more.

Crucially, it offered access to 10-year, no- or low-interest loans for the recommended fixes—from tighter windows to better-insulated walls, to more-efficient furnaces.

The Packs’ and the Phillips’ experiences indicate that TCSaves’ quality control—requirements for a home analysis and special contractor certification—consistently produced satisfied customers.

The project also demonstrated that low loan rates produce lots of those customers, a goal that research says is very challenging.

Ultimately, what really made TC Saves click were strong teamwork and careful coordination among private, public, and civic entities.

► Traverse City Light & Power, the local electric utility, sponsored the two-year project, which used local, state, and national resources to reach close to 550 families.

► Thanks to state utility efficiency mandates, TCL&P and DTE Energy, the local natural gas utility, kicked in rebates.

► Two local nonprofits—SEEDS and the Michigan Land Use Institute—marketed and managed the project.

► Specially certified local contractors did the work.

► A Bay City credit union provided the loans.

► The federal government bought down interest rates using ARRA funds.

But on a more personal level, the Packs’ and the Phillips’ stories also illustrate how a well-done, properly financed program can quickly and easily help people save energy and money and enjoy their homes more.

‘I Had a List in My Head’

The Packs fixed their ice-damming problem in their first year by replacing and insulating their roof. When their furnace broke down, they bought a high-efficiency unit.

Those fixes brought their January heating bills down from $295 to $145—a big improvement. They were still losing heat, but hesitated on further upgrades.

“We wanted to get the feel of the place before we made more decisions,” explained Jonathan, who manages Cherry Tree Inn & Suites. “Anna, our daughter, was not in the picture yet, and we wanted to see how our jobs went. 

“I had this list in my head, though,” he continued. “New windows, insulation, sealing off the crawl space from the basement.”

In late 2011 they received a letter from TCL&P announcing TCSaves. The chance to access a 10-year, no-interest loan of up to $20,000 excited them.

“Zero percent interest for home improvement?” said Victoria, who teaches K-4 at Kingsley schools. “You can’t go wrong with that. With how cold it felt, we knew it would be helpful to do something, and save money.”

The assessment found that the house was leaky, and prescribed a $21,000 project that would make them more comfortable while further cutting their heating bill. After a $1,700 rebate from the gas company for new windows and insulation, their loan would cost $166 a month.

“So we signed and were on our way,” Victoria said.

James Anderson Builders of Traverse City blew insulation into the exterior walls, dug out and sealed the crawl space, sealed rim joists, insulated the attic and basement, and replaced every window—something Jonathan appreciated.

“I’d been spending a lot of time re-glazing windows,” he said. “Now, with less maintenance, I have more time with my family.”

Both would recommend the project to anyone, and favor expanding it.

“It makes sense to save money and energy,” Jonathan observed. “It should not be a political issue. Even a 2-percent, instead of a zero-percent loan, would still be appealing.”

He had reservations about the fact that their zero-percent interest deal was due to a federal interest-rate buy-down. That, to him, means more government debt, something he adamantly opposes.

But he said the program worked smoothly, that the family is more comfortable, and that their savings are significant: Between his own initial investments and subsequent TCSaves work, their heating bills are one-third of what they used to be.

“I felt this was well-coordinated,” Jonathan said of the public-private TCSaves program. “It makes sense for the utilities to do it, because if they can lower their costs, that’s good for everyone. But the government participation is kind of funny to me because they usually waste so much money.”

‘Find the Money for Everyone’

The Phillipses were already hoping to save money by downsizing when they moved into Traverse City with their three children.

“This house was appealing because of its size,” said Paul, who manages outside sales for Grand Traverse Container Co. “It felt like we could keep it warm.”

But it was an expensive place to heat. They caulked windows, hung heavy drapes in front of the largest ones, and replaced a few, too. But even with the thermostat set at 65, their heat bills remained stubbornly high—between $162 and $191 each January—for a 1,200 square-foot home with an unheated basement.

Then, as Paul put it, “all of those TCSaves signs started popping up,” on their neighbors’ lawns: “It spread like wildfire to what looked like every other house. It was easy to get introduced to the program and added in, so we applied.”

The resulting six-page home energy assessment surprised them: There was adequate insulation in their first-floor walls, but there were leaks throughout the building.

Their assessor produced a $20,000 plan that included a new (and, mercifully, quiet) high-efficiency furnace, a high-tech water heater, attic insulation, four new windows and an entry door in the basement, basement wall insulation, foam sealing around foundation and attic rim joists, and a new sliding door-window unit.

“It seemed like a great thing, with the expertise and the zero-percent financing,” Jennise said. “It seemed almost too good to be true.”

Last spring’s work cut this January’s heating bill from a previous high of  $191, in 2009, to just $68. Their electric bill hasn’t changed, likely because their new water heater is electric, not gas, and their children now play in their newly comfortable basement, and, Jennise observed, “They turn on a lot of lights down there.”

The Phillipses say that, even with a 2.9-percent loan, the rate for the second phase of TCSaves, they would “not have batted an eyelash” at doing the project, even though it would take years to earn back their investment.

“I like to think we are helping the environment, but it does also come down to what’s the return on the investment,” Jennise said. “But we knew we were wasting energy, and we are now much more comfortable. So it doesn’t matter to us that it won’t be an immediate payback.”

A recent property assessment, however, showed that their payback has already arrived, whether they stay or sell.

“The upgrades raised the value of the house by at least as much as we put into it,” Paul said. “Other properties around here were going down, but ours went up.”

The couple say they felt “really fortunate” to have access to a no-interest loan but wonder, in an age where government austerity is such a strong trend, how the program can continue if it must rely on typical home-improvement lending rates in the future.

“I would like us to figure out how to find the money for everyone, because it is such a great idea,” Paul said.

4 Comments

1306 days ago, 1:15pm | by Greg | Report Comment

Remember the good ole days when people took care of their own problems and property instead of relying on tax dollars. And we wonder why the country is in debt.

1306 days ago, 4:04pm | by Stephen Wentworth | Report Comment

Energy savings are great. I hope you are off the Wind bandwagon. Please read the Wall Street Journal dated February 27, 2013-A3 "California Girds for Electricity Woes.It is well worth reading.

1305 days ago, 5:53pm | by Jim Dulzo | Report Comment

Greg: So, which good ol' days are those? Back when there was no FDIC to protect folks' savings? No social security to protect seniors from penury? No unemployment benefits in a crashed economy? No GI Bill for vets? No community health programs or federal research to stop polio, or invent transistors? As President Hoover still says, "Ah...those were the good ol' days!"

Debt? Two tax-free wars, a TARP bailout, and Wall Street's economic collapse exploded the debt, not well-managed programs that help people build a stronger community and country together.

Stephen: The WSJ article doesn't say the problems are un-solveable. It says they are working on the problems, which were anticipated. Dollars to donuts they got a lotta smart people out there who'll figure it out. BTW, would you rather live downwind from a wind turbine, a coal plant, a nuke, or a gas-fracking site?

1086 days ago, 11:15am | by Brett Little | Report Comment

Simply Amazing!

Now that we are getting good at energy improvements we must also look at indoor air quality while we seal up these homes tight. Might as well look at water conservation too.

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