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Of all the reasons to green a home, the rebate may be the worst

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/23/12 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Home efficiency

What lessons did our family take from the energy audit and insulation of our drafty 1920s house? I recorded the saga in this blog series, so it felt right to include this postscript.

We went into 'greening our home' with the best intentions. Our goals included doing something positive for the environment (on a limited budget) and being more comfortable in the winter. We're no Rockefellers here, so the promise of a rebate from Dominion and its GoodCents program was a motivator (I still ran into skepticism about whether spending money on insulation was a good idea in our income bracket, in this economy, etc). On paper, the rebate is attractive. We were going to have a lot of air sealing and insulation work, so the thought of $1,200 coming back in cash helped.

What did we discover? If the rebate is your only carrot, you may have to work hard for those calories. We did figure out how long it will take to pay the bill for the work with the energy saved (I even cleared away some math cobwebs to work out that whole house insulation should pay itself off in three years – based on December 2011 natural gas prices). It made the case to borrow a few thousand dollars seem less risky.

Making our home more comfortable was another tangible goal. In that regard, we have not been disappointed. But getting our hands around a rebate check has proved illusive – and costly.

We started with the blower door test and infrared camera – the $50 (rebate-able) energy audit showed where to get the most bang for the buck. We decided to break the project into phases, starting in the attic and basement; we would do the walls later. The good news: a recent inspection recorded a 30% gain in efficiency. So, we seemed to be on the way to that 3-year payback.

That's where things have gone off the rails. GoodCents is tied to the gas company, which means their inspection-and your rebate check-is based in part on your furnace's performance. This is a double-edged sword. In our case, we had the furnace inspected and serviced twice, and still it doesn't reach the performance target set by Dominion.

Here's where the sword cuts but also protects. Our cast-iron hot water boiler is not very old but it appears the iron parts are so rusted that we're being told repairs would be costly and may not get to Dominion's target for carbon monoxide. Because of the potential danger of CO, we're being advised to replace the boiler. At the same time, our hot water tank has sprung a leak.

Would our approach (and our capacity) to handle this bad news be different if we hadn't just plunked down $2,100 for insulation and sealing? Now, instead of plowing a $770 rebate into paying off the bill, we're staring at a $3,000 whopper for a new heating and water system.

If money were not a concern, the news that we can "take advantage" of both failing at the same time by installing an all in one tankless hot water/home heat boiler that will boost our efficiency from less than 80 to 90% (plus save on the use of gas for the tankless) would be more welcome (here's the kicker-there's another promise of a rebate for $450).

I want to get excited about greening my home, but there's little joy in Mudville today. I no longer have to wonder if this is the situation holding back large-scale adoption of residential green building. Most of us don't have the means to follow through our convictions let alone handle multiple projects. How and when will this change?

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Marc
4 years ago

Interesting follow up to this story: We persisted and convinced Sean, the original inspector, to come back out in April, 2013. He conducted another test of the furnace to see how much carbon monoxide it was emitting. It was again off the charts. Mind you, we had two HVAC companies out to service our heater, a hot-water boiler, since Sean's GoodCents inspection. This time, Sean, sensing our frustration, went the extra mile. He helped us clean the burners with a long brush and by blowing air in with a Shop Vac. It was like a giant dust storm. There was no way the service work did this simple cleaning. The result? We passed the test with flying colors (the CO level went from 1,200 to 65 ppm). Not only did we pass, and we'll certainly now get our rebate (thanks, Sean), we have peace of mind.

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