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Cleveland goes deep in 'Passive' for existing house pilots

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/19/11 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Home efficiency

This morning's WCPN Sound of Ideas program focused on why poverty in Northeast Ohio is skyrocketing. The guests all pointed to the cost of owning a house for the rise in emergency assistance calls (more than 50,000 people so far this year have asked for help paying their utilities).

Meanwhile, reigning in costs and boosting the domestic workforce have been the promise of 'green jobs' projects. Locally, nonprofit group Environmental Health Watch hopes its 'deep energy retrofits' pilot projects will spur some innovation and produce jobs on the premise of reducing the cost of homeownership.

They received a grant from HUD's Technical Studies Indoor Air Quality and Energy program to test the impact of some pretty serious home energy improvements: One-foot-thick replacement walls, double-paned windows, super-insulated roofs and green technologies such as heating recovery units that capture and reuse the heat from air being vented out. EHW is bringing its experience working on Cleveland homes' lead and asthma issues to their Affordable Green Housing Center. They are currently tearing out walls, roofs and windows on six Cleveland Housing Network lease-to-purchase homes with the target of 70-90% heating and cooling energy use reductions. Like the PNC SmartHome built as an exhibit and for sale by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, these 'passive homes' will be comfortable in a Cleveland winter without a conventional furnace.

'Passive' for existing homes

"It's basically a Passive House for an existing home," says Project Director Mandy Metcalf. EHW is working with Case to capture data collected from monitoring devices hooked up to the homes' electrical circuit box and CO2 wall monitors. They will produce a report on their energy and air quality performance.

In the long run, the challenge is building a market so that the technology and labor become more affordable and deep energy retrofits can scale up to more than a handful of homes. For example, the Heat Recovery Ventilation systems were purchased from Germany where HRVs and passive homes number in the thousands.

"We were quoted costs of $20,000 for HRVs by U.S. firms," says Matt Burgess a general contractor who's serving as Green Housing Manager for the center. "They will tell you it's 'off the shelf', but, really, they have to assemble the parts or order them. Meanwhile, a furnace may cost $5,000. I wouldn't put that in the affordable category. But, we're leading the way and showing what's possible."

Part of the Cleveland project involves training a group of local HVAC contractors in how to install the duct work and 'mini splits' (the air recovery units) for the HRVs. Initial resistance has melted away, Burgess said, and now some of the contractors are starting to market their green building services.

A barrier to moving this beyond a pilot is reaching homeowners before they're in emergency mode when a furnace breaks or a roof leaks. An education campaign could address concerns about the cost of doing replacements and energy retrofit work at the same time showing people it's the best time to lower their energy bills.

"Why don't siding companies ask homeowners if they want to install two-inch thick insulating rigid foam when they replace siding or a roof?"

Siding and roofing companies move fast, Burgess says, they're in 'production mode'. His answer is to hire a carpenter who can install the rigid foam before the siding and roofing companies finish the job. The impact on home energy costs will pay for the materials and labor in months.

Other resources to be aware of: Ohio's Advanced Energy mandate is subsidizing Dominion to offer all homeowners a $50 energy audits (they usually cost hundreds) and up to 30% rebates on energy efficiency work. Groups like EHW and the Home Repair Resources Center in Cleveland Heights are reaching out to homeowners with tips and resources on how to plan for and manage your own home energy retrofit project.

How can cities help develop a culture of energy efficiency? Burgess mentioned the city of Austin, Texas adopted a green building standard as part of its Point of Sale inspection process that required sellers to declare the home's energy performance. Imagine the next time you were ready to buy a house knowing it was certified and tested and it was required that the HERS rating was reported to you. Like miles per gallon in a car, you would have a great tool for comparing the cost of owning a house and could decide, armed with actual data, can I really afford to live here versus there?

Advanced Energy in Ohio under threat

Speaking of the Advanced Energy mandate, a bill has been introduced in the Ohio General Assembly to re-open or repeal the state's Advanced Energy Portfolio Standard that was created with Senate Bill 221. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson wrote a letter that strongly opposes this move. He writes:

"The City of Cleveland is investing time and resources in growing economic sectors, like advanced energy, through Sustainable Cleveland 2019.

"The movement to undermine, erode or dissolve the policies that are supporting advanced energy and energy efficiency are being done not for the best interest of our business future, workforce, children or communities, but for the interest of a few individuals and individual companies.

"These decisions will eliminate the opportunities for our region to benefit from the growth of the advanced energy and renewable energy sectors. Focusing on renewable and advanced energy does not take away from other sectors but adds to the diversity of our economic base and expands business opportunities for existing industries."

To underscore his point, Jackson points to his decision to purchase 20% of the power produced by the Lake Erie Wind Farm under development.

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