Some Philadelphians have the energy equation completely backwards.
It’s not whether you can afford to make your home more energy efficient.
It’s whether you can afford not to.
According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, more than a quarter of Philadelphia households have an energy burden that is twice the median of 3.2 percent, and over half of those are categorized as having a severe energy burden (above 10 percent). The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that up to 30 percent of energy in the city’s buildings is wasted.
It all adds up to wasted resources, and most importantly, wasted money. Waste that can be easily avoided, says Mario Tropeau, a real estate agent for Keller Williams Philadelphia. “Energy efficiency is so important in today’s market,’’ says Tropeau, a housing rehab specialist also involved in new construction around the city.
Re-sealing older windows, installing low-cost programmable or smart “Nest” thermostats and replacing old light bulbs with high-efficiency LED ones can shave thousands annually from your energy bills.
“The cost of a tube of caulk is a few bucks,’’ says Alon Abramson, Director of Residential programs for The Philadelphia Energy Authority. “ There are plenty of tips out there on YouTube and other places on how to find air leaks and how to stop them. And it’s not a lot of effort. You will see some real energy savings for a very low cost.’’
According to Tropeau, doing this and updating your heating and air conditioning with high efficiency models, reduces energy costs by as much as 40 percent. Any upgrades also add value for any future resale. And, according to city officials, developers who use updated energy codes to prioritize energy efficiency, benefit from a streamlined permitting process, higher building density than normal and tax incentives.
“If your system is over 15 years old, chances are it is incredibly inefficient and there are many options that are going to perform better and you will see a return on that investment in a number of years,’’ says Abramson. “There are plenty of homes with oil and it is an especially good idea to replace those systems. Oil is quite expensive and it’s also unpredictable as far as prices.’’
Gas energy is better, but Abramson recommends bypassing that in favor of a heat pump system — “Especially if you don’t have a central air conditioning system, which a lot of these older homes do not,’’ he says. Adding central air can be expensive and they now make cold climate heat pump systems that heat and cool your home which can utilize or bypass existing ducts. “They were kind of crappy in the past. The technology is much better now. Performance is better. The systems are really smart so they ramp up and ramp down based on the actual need for heating and cooling in the home. It’s just a much more comfortable heating and cooling experience than what people had in the past.’’
There are approximately 331,000 row homes in Philadelphia, says Steve Luxton, the CEO of the non-profit Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA). Founded in 1984, to aid economically disadvantaged residents in improving their efficiency, it sometimes installs as many as 1,000 new units in a year. But its biggest contribution, says Luxton, is “air sealing’’ those homes.
Luxton spent many years as an Energy Auditor, or a Building Scientist before heading up ECA. “We get pretty aggressive,’’ he says. “We use caulk. We use a lot of expandable foam. We will sometimes spend half a day with two men, working from basement to the attic cavity, filling all sorts of gaps, cracks, joints, holes that communicate unwanted air into or out of that space.’’
Abramson heads up PEA’s “Solarize Philly’’ Program. In its fifth year, over 750 households have been converted to solar. With its cost-cutting incentives, it also provides a small piece of equity for those in lower income homes. The program has led to millions of dollars in investment and created almost 100 jobs.
And with consumer-friendly loans and leases, the savings are immediate. Monthly loan payments are less than payments to PECO or a heating oil supplier. For those who buy a solar system, a typical loan takes about 10 years to pay off. After that, the only cost is maintenance. “It’s not risky in reclaiming the value, should you sell,’’ says Abramson. “And on the payback front, you now own something generating energy for you. In lieu of paying PECO for whatever kilowatt hours you are generating through this energy, you are paying off your system. If you didn’t have this system, you would just pay PECO forever.’’