BRUNSWICK, Maine — When your eyes deceive you, trust your hands. That was the advice building contractor Tom Wojcik had for a roomful of middle school students Tuesday.
“Put your hands down by this window and see if you can’t feel some of that cold air coming right in,” said Wojcik, standing in a bedroom of a single-story home in Brunswick. The students did as they were asked and nodded in agreement. The seams around the windows looked tight enough, but they obviously weren’t.
“That cold air blowing in here, that’s what we’re after,” said Wojcik, a building contractor with Upright Frameworks, which focuses on energy efficiency. “We’re going to seal that right up.”
The students, who were part of a project at Brunswick Junior High School in which they’re helping tighten up a home’s insulation, took turns with Wojcik’s caulking gun, closing the cracks in an attempt to reduce the home’s heating costs by as much as 30 or 40 percent.
Cracks around windows, void spots behind light switches and hollow electrical boxes used to mount lighting can all suck the heat out of a home, and faster than most people think. Even if each of those areas totaled a path to the outside that even your pinkie finger couldn’t fit in, they add up. Before long, the effect on your home’s heating system is similar to leaving a window open in the middle of winter.
In the basement, the students climbed ladders and sprayed expanding foam in cracks above the cinderblock foundation. The orange, sticky stuff morphed from liquid into uneven and bulbous solids.
“This stuff will expand for up to an hour,” said Joshua Wojcik, owner of Upright Frameworks.
“Ahh, it’s doing stuff!” said the seventh-grader on the ladder.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty,” said Wojcik. “We just want to make sure it gets in there.”
For the Wojciks and their crew, the job site Tuesday was like none they had ever experienced. They’ve done numerous home energy efficiency projects, but never with 90 middle school students filing through. The idea hatched last summer, when Brunswick Junior High School social studies teacher Felicity Beede approached Joshua Wojcik about involving some students in an energy efficiency project.
“I have many, many big ideas for teaching my students, but most of them go right into the trash bin,” said Beede. “On this project, everywhere I went there were people saying this is great. Every obstacle just fell out of the way.”
First, they needed a home in the Brunswick area to work on. They reached out to local nonprofit organizations and found the Independence Association, which runs several group homes for adults with disabilities. According to Joshua Wojcik, the organization’s home on Church Road was perfect because it was uncluttered, accessible and, even better, was leaking heat like a sieve.
Then, local building supplies retailer Hammond Lumber Co., which has a store near the job site, stepped in with a donation of more than $4,000 in building materials.
“Hammond Lumber deserves huge credit for making this possible,” said Wojcik.
The project started with a home energy audit by Dewitt Kimball of Complete Home Evaluation Services of Brunswick, who found that the home at 85 Church Road was leaking heat on a scale he’s more accustomed to seeing in much larger, older homes: 3,752 cubic feet per minute, to be exact.
“That’s an absolutely huge number for a house like this,” said Kimball. Though the results won’t be known until the project is complete, he estimates the work could cut heating costs in the building by 35 or 40 percent.
Ray Nagel, executive director of the Independence Association, said heating the home with natural gas cost the organization $1,530 in 2012. If Kimball’s estimates are correct, that number could plunge to well below $1,000 a year.
Joshua Wojcik said the work his crew and the students are doing on the home this week would cost a homeowner several thousand dollars. That seems like a large sum, but it can be recouped through energy cost savings in as little as five years. The students, who are using the project to learn in multiple academic subjects, were enthusiastic.
“It’s awesome that we’re helping the community and keeping these people warm,” said Robyn Dumont, a seventh-grader from Brunswick. “I never really knew how many cracks there are where warm air can come in.”
Beede said watching learning moments like those make her hopeful that this is one lesson the students will never forget. When she was a student at Brunswick Junior High School, Beede wrote a letter to the local newspaper pleading with the community to save the former home of Maine Governor and Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain. Today, that home is a museum.
“To this day, when I think of junior high school and what I learned, that’s what I think of,” she said. “I hope this is that kind of experience for these students.”