Spending a lot of money doesn’t demonstrate energy efficiency

Posted Jan. 02, 2009, at 8:38 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:46 a.m.

Last week, I came across a blurb online about a fellow in Massachusetts who is retrofitting a duplex in Arlington with 3 inches of foam on the exterior of his home.

Neat project. We have done several of these over the years, wrapping the thermal envelope of the building with a cocoon of 1 to 10 inches of foam, depending on the rest of the building and when we did the project.

The interesting part of the Massachusetts project was the cost: $100,000. That’s a lot of money, even for Massachusetts. I had to post some comments on that one.

The homeowner responded, explaining that half the cost was for removing the old siding and roofing before installing the new foam covering. Still, $50,000 is a lot of money, especially for just removing old siding and roofing.

That story makes me happy to live in Maine. The $100,000 was underwritten as a demonstration project by state agencies in Massachusetts. This is not a complex project. There are many projects like it in Maine, but with no subsidies, no bureaucrats, just Maine people trying and learning to cope with high energy costs and making it work.

We have been doing this in Maine for more than 30 years.

So for the sake of curiosity, let’s look at some numbers. Let’s look at a hypothetical superinsulation retrofit project. First off, figure on a 1,500-square-foot house. It is already insulated with blown-in insulation but is drafty and needs some updating.

The big part of such a project is the walls. We will remove the siding and install 4 inches of foam over the walls. If we use three workers at $30 an hour, they will cost $720 a day. If we allow two days for them to remove the siding and trim, this costs $1,440 in labor. Disposal might cost another $800 if the old siding is not recyclable.

The foam insulation will cost $1.60 per square foot and 1,500 square feet of walls will cost $2,400 to insulate with the additional 4 inches of foam.

Strapping and fasteners are another $350. Installation labor is another three days, or $2,160, probably quicker with any experience.

If we throw in new siding, windows and doors and cap the attic with R-60, the total comes to about $16,000. We can spend more or less on this depending on who does the work and what materials are used, but the point is that this is a cheap date compared with our southern neighbor’s project. And your house is looking good since you have all new siding, windows and doors.

Now, before all the snarky comments start, remember you can spend a lot more on this depending on who does the work and what materials you choose, but the energy portion of this project will not be any more expensive. The solid wrap of foam on the outside of the building will cut infiltration losses though the walls to nothing and mitigates all the thermal bridging.

We talked to a number of people who have done these types of projects. They cut their heating costs to a half or third of what they started with and are a lot more comfortable.

If you cut a 1,500-gallon heating bill to 500 gallons and that oil is $3 a gallon, this investment pays back in five years or 20 percent annually. More important, these changes, when done properly, are forever and make a bigger impact than most tax-subsidized projects such as solar heating and photovoltaics.

Solar heating and photovolatics are important projects, but these are projects that should be done after a structure is retrofitted with good insulation. We need to get the low-hanging fruit first. The projects that give us the best bang for the dollar are the first ones we should be doing.

Insulation retrofits are not as complicated as one might think. There are no specialized skills required. There are no special licenses needed. It is all carpentry.

Unfortunately, well-meaning politicians start spending a lot of tax dollars on high-tech, gee-whiz projects that are dazzling to them.

Please forgive me if I am wrong, but politicians are usually the last people we need making our energy decisions.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.

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