Weatherization: BCM professor leads statewide program

One Hoosier household at a time. That’s the way Kirk Alter is helping improve home energy efficiency through a two-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy with federal stimulus funds. “When we can save grandma $20 a month on her energy bills, that’s great,” he said. “There are people who are having to decide between paying the heating bill and buying groceries.” These are the Indiana residents the program aims to help. With the Department of Energy funds, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA) provided $1.6 million to create the Home Energy Conservation Program: Technical Monitoring Services. It is a partnership between Alter’s team at Purdue and two Indianapolis companies: Mezzetta Construction Services, led by Jeff Ream, (for construction expertise) and Scott, Hilliard, Kosene (SHK) (for logistics expertise). Alter, an associate professor of building construction management, said the project has provided him with a new perspective on the economics of energy consumption. “We have an illusion of what it’s like to live in Indiana. There are a lot of people who live in much different conditions. We have an obligation as builders to help them,” he said. In fact, his research and academic efforts have focused on ways to make buildings more efficient and to help the populace become more educated consumers of energy. The construction industry as a whole is beginning to adapt to these new ways of thinking as well. weatherization An industry in flux “Our role in BCM is to educate not only students, but also contractors. Contractors are not prepared for the coming change in the industry,” Alter said. He points to the recession as one area where contractors have been affected. The traditional business model for a contractor during an economic downturn is to reduce its overhead and do its work more cheaply.  Alter suggests there needs to be a change in focus. “For the new contractor of the 21st century, our job is to go solve owners’ problems. We have to understand owners’ economics, understand utility and municipal value costs, figure out operational costs,” he said. “Intelligent, educated contractors should ask building owners, ‘could I show you how to save 30 percent of your costs by tuning your building up and bringing it back up to speed?’. Tenants will have lower utility costs, so it will make it more affordable and attractive to them.” Alter said the upgrades that would achieve the 30 percent goal are also those that make employees more productive: improved temperature and humidity control and better lighting. These same ideas are playing out in residences that Alter is working with as part of the IHCDA program. Ensuring good work Alter and his partners serve as inspectors general for the conservation program. They are charged with inspecting 10 percent (approximately 2,400) of the homes that receive weatherization services through the program. “We go in after all of the work is done. We verify and ensure that all the work was done,” he said. “We also do an economic evaluation piece to determine whether it was cost effective.” Cost is an important piece of the program. The grant allows for no more than $6,000 to be spent on each home. Because of the limit, the program puts safety at the top of the priority list. They check out all combustible appliances and test for carbon monoxide. Once that is done, they can move to tightening the spaces, which usually includes sealing areas where air can get in and providing proper insulation. While new doors and windows usually are not part of the upgrades, programmable thermostats are. Alter coordinates a team of 12 auditors who inspect the completed work. Each inspection includes an extensive written report verifying the work and suggesting corrective actions. “We’ve found a lot of things that need to be fixed. It validates why we are here,” he said. Robert Freiburger, a December 2008 graduate of the BCM program, is an independent contractor with the project. He signs off on every field inspection. “It’s really cool to see this program in action,” Freiburger said. “The clients are thrilled. They love getting out their bills and showing us the differences. They can feel a big difference in their house, especially in the winter months.” When the auditors go through the homes, they also note when residents could benefit from extra education about the efficiency. “If you teach people about changing filters and programmable thermostats, they save money. It’s about behavior management and modification,” Alter said. “Conservation is generation. I sit on the board of Tipmont REMC [a local utility], and we don’t want to build another power plant. No one does. So a huge part of the program is education.” Education beyond the program In addition to lower utility bills for residents, this program has created enough information to help with research papers and other academic activities. Alter and his two graduate students have written papers and case studies based on their work and data. They have tackled topics as wide-ranging as energy policy and its effectiveness, sustainable design options for homes in rural China, a history of residential energy efficiency missteps, and energy costs in the low-income sector. “Our whole model is flawed,” Alter said. “In BCM, we have 30-40 years of wonderful research and development opportunities to work with industry professionals and find a new way to do things.” He advocates working with buildings as one system. Future builders, he says, will need to fully understand how the separate pieces relate to each other to create a more efficient system.