Sea Change provides commentary on contemporary environmental challenges. It tackles an array of topics from a local vantage point – from energy challenges and pollution concerns to health and sustainability practices.

A volunteer from the Maine-based nonprofit Window Dressers constructs an inexpensive window insert that will help trap more heat inside during the upcoming winter. Photo by Charles Stuart.

Holding in the heat

Tackling the challenge of expanding weatherization at a time when so many Maine homes are leaking oil

by | November 25, 2019

Winter’s descent returns us to a primordial quest, trying to hold heat – that eternal escape artist – within our homes. 

In Maine, nearly two-thirds of households depend on heating oil, more than in any other state. Energy expenditures represent 9 percent of the state’s GDP and take on average $4,000 annually from each Maine household. 

Beyond the fiscal drain are the untabulated costs of carbon pollution, and the noxious emissions that heating oil generates both indoors and out.

Weatherizing houses through air sealing and insulation cuts these costs. Quite simply, it helps people be “richer and warmer and healthier,” says Jesse Thompson, a principal at Kaplan Thompson Architects and a member of the Maine Climate Council’s working group on buildings, infrastructure and housing. 

A study in Vermont of combined energy cost savings and quantifiable health benefits in weatherized homes found the 10-year value per household was roughly three times the initial cost. 

“Buildings offer the biggest potential return on efficiency,” says Suzanne Watson, a Maine-based program leader with the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, making weatherization a sound economic and ecological investment. It is also “one of the cheaper ways to reduce carbon [emissions],” notes Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. 

Breaking through Inertia

So why isn’t rapid weatherization underway in Maine? 

Alongside practical pitfalls — like an insufficient number of contractors and a rundown housing stock that often needs repairs alongside weatherization, homeowners often just don’t know where to begin. Efficiency upgrades are “the sort of thing people will hem and haw on for years,” says Sarah Brock, energy program manager for the nonprofit Vital Communities, which works in the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire. 

To overcome that resistance, Vital Communities relies on “norming,” Brock says, helping people meet certified contractors at a social community event and hear directly from neighbors and friends who have had weatherization work done. Voorhees acknowledges there is convincing social science research behind this “positive peer pressure” approach.

When planning its first weatherization campaigns in 2016, Vital Communities deliberately chose to let regional weatherization contractors “be the experts in the room,” Brock notes, unleashing their creativity to design an approach that would meet local needs. 

The weatherization drives open with an event widely promoted by community volunteers such as members of a service club or town energy committee. Residents turn out to enjoy free food, a potential door prize and the chance to meet with certified contractors and learn what’s involved in weatherization. Interested residents can sign up at the event to get a free or low-cost home energy assessment. 

For weatherization marketing to work effectively, Brock has learned that “you have to take a top-down and bottom-up approach.” Efficiency Vermont formerly did a lot of its marketing “from a desk in Burlington,” she notes; now it hosts a fall “Button up” campaign – helping communities organize local weatherization workshops that offer participants free home-energy assessments and $200 in appliance coupons.

Some Maine communities have organized similar collective purchasing campaigns to make weatherization more efficient and economical for homeowners and contractors alike. The nonprofit Window Dressers (see video) also engages community volunteers in promoting weatherization, constructing inexpensive window inserts that have helped Maine residents save an estimated 880,000 gallons of heating oil over the last decade.

MEET THE WINDOW DRESSERS: The nonprofit Window Dressers, featured in this video by Charlie Stuart, engaged roughly 1,000 volunteers last year in constructing more than 7,500 window inserts, a third of which were donated to low-income households.

Getting More Creative

Creative thinking and collaboration are especially important to address the rural efficiency gap that makes energy more expensive and weatherization more difficult in remote communities, says Suzanne MacDonald, community development officer at the nonprofit Island Institute in Rockland. Its Bridging the Rural Efficiency Gap project drew together energy efficiency organizers from four rural states, enabling them to share experiences and strategies.

A similar exchange could occur on the Maine Climate Council’s buildings working group, which met for the second time on November 19. Next June, it will report back to the Council with recommendations for expanding Maine’s weatherization workforce and for increasing the efficiency of existing buildings and new construction (such as updating the state’s decade-old building code). 

Steven Konstantino, a building science specialist in Portland, hopes that Maine can move toward a rating system to help prospective homebuyers assess efficiency — like the federal Energy Star appliance labels or the US EPA’s fuel economy stickers on vehicles. “A house is similar,” he notes, “but lasts a lot longer and costs a lot more.”  

Konstantino also advocates for approaches to financing weatherization that don’t require homeowners to pay up front for work: “it’s the down payment thing that kills it for a lot of people.”

Energy efficiency experts like Steve Cowell, president of the nonprofit E4TheFuture, favor offering no-interest home energy loans, an approach used by some of the states that rank highest for energy efficiency like Massachusetts (No. 1) and Vermont (No. 3). No-interest financing can be a strong lure, Brock says, when “there is so much debt aversion.” 

The societal “cost-benefit analysis changes” markedly, Thompson notes, when factoring in healthier living spaces, reduced carbon pollution, lowered dependence on volatile fuel markets and greater housing affordability. By those measures, he adds “weatherization would go deeper, to a level beyond what we’ve traditionally considered economically worth it based on fuel costs alone.”

As more people experience those benefits, Thompson is confident that momentum for more efficient housing will build: “When people want things, they make them happen.”  

Resources

Winter’s descent returns us to a primordial quest, trying to hold heat – that eternal escape artist – within our homes. 

In Maine, nearly two-thirds of households depend on heating oil, more than in any other state. Energy expenditures represent 9 percent of the state’s GDP and take on average $4,000 annually from each Maine household. 

Beyond the fiscal drain are the untabulated costs of carbon pollution, and the noxious emissions that heating oil generates both indoors and out.

Weatherizing houses through air sealing and insulation cuts these costs. Quite simply, it helps people be “richer and warmer and healthier,” says Jesse Thompson, a principal at Kaplan Thompson Architects and a member of the Maine Climate Council’s working group on buildings, infrastructure and housing. 

A study in Vermont of combined energy cost savings and quantifiable health benefits in weatherized homes found the 10-year value per household was roughly three times the initial cost. 

“Buildings offer the biggest potential return on efficiency,” says Suzanne Watson, a Maine-based program leader with the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, making weatherization a sound economic and ecological investment. It is also “one of the cheaper ways to reduce carbon [emissions],” notes Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. 

Breaking through Inertia

 So why isn’t rapid weatherization underway in Maine? 

Alongside practical pitfalls — like an insufficient number of contractors and a rundown housing stock that often needs repairs alongside weatherization, homeowners often just don’t know where to begin. Efficiency upgrades are “the sort of thing people will hem and haw on for years,” says Sarah Brock, energy program manager for the nonprofit Vital Communities, which works in the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire. 

To overcome that resistance, Vital Communities relies on “norming,” Brock says, helping people meet certified contractors at a social community event and hear directly from neighbors and friends who have had weatherization work done. Voorhees acknowledges there is convincing social science research behind this “positive peer pressure” approach.

When planning its first weatherization campaigns in 2016, Vital Communities deliberately chose to let regional weatherization contractors “be the experts in the room,” Brock notes, unleashing their creativity to design an approach that would meet local needs. 

The weatherization drives open with an event widely promoted by community volunteers such as members of a service club or town energy committee. Residents turn out to enjoy free food, a potential door prize and the chance to meet with certified contractors and learn what’s involved in weatherization. Interested residents can sign up at the event to get a free or low-cost home energy assessment. 

For weatherization marketing to work effectively, Brock has learned that “you have to take a top-down and bottom-up approach.” Efficiency Vermont formerly did a lot of its marketing “from a desk in Burlington,” she notes; now it hosts a fall “Button up” campaign – helping communities organize local weatherization workshops that offer participants free home-energy assessments and $200 in appliance coupons.

Some Maine communities have organized similar collective purchasing campaigns to make weatherization more efficient and economical for homeowners and contractors alike. The nonprofit Window Dressers (see video) also engages community volunteers in promoting weatherization, constructing inexpensive window inserts that have helped Maine residents save an estimated 880,000 gallons of heating oil over the last decade.

MEET THE WINDOW DRESSERS: The nonprofit Window Dressers, featured in this video by Charlie Stuart, engaged roughly 1,000 volunteers last year in constructing more than 7,500 window inserts, a third of which were donated to low-income households.

Getting More Creative

Creative thinking and collaboration are especially important to address the rural efficiency gap that makes energy more expensive and weatherization more difficult in remote communities, says Suzanne MacDonald, community development officer at the nonprofit Island Institute in Rockland. Its Bridging the Rural Efficiency Gap project drew together energy efficiency organizers from four rural states, enabling them to share experiences and strategies.

A similar exchange could occur on the Maine Climate Council’s buildings working group, which met for the second time on November 19. Next June, it will report back to the Council with recommendations for expanding Maine’s weatherization workforce and for increasing the efficiency of existing buildings and new construction (such as updating the state’s decade-old building code). 

Steven Konstantino, a building science specialist in Portland, hopes that Maine can move toward a rating system to help prospective homebuyers assess efficiency — like the federal Energy Star appliance labels or the US EPA’s fuel economy stickers on vehicles. “A house is similar,” he notes, “but lasts a lot longer and costs a lot more.”  

Konstantino also advocates for approaches to financing weatherization that don’t require homeowners to pay up front for work: “it’s the down payment thing that kills it for a lot of people.”

Energy efficiency experts like Steve Cowell, president of the nonprofit E4TheFuture, favor offering no-interest home energy loans, an approach used by some of the states that rank highest for energy efficiency like Massachusetts (No. 1) and Vermont (No. 3). No-interest financing can be a strong lure, Brock says, when “there is so much debt aversion.” 

The societal “cost-benefit analysis changes” markedly, Thompson notes, when factoring in healthier living spaces, reduced carbon pollution, lowered dependence on volatile fuel markets and greater housing affordability. By those measures, he adds “weatherization would go deeper, to a level beyond what we’ve traditionally considered economically worth it based on fuel costs alone.”

As more people experience those benefits, Thompson is confident that momentum for more efficient housing will build: “When people want things, they make them happen.”  

Resources

Author

Marina Schauffler

Marina Schauffler is a writer and editor who explores the complex interconnections between ecology and culture. Since 2014, she has written the column “Sea Change” about the challenges of living sustainably in Maine. She holds a Ph.D. in natural resources and a master’s in creative nonfiction writing. Find more of her work at www.naturalchoices.com.

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