We caught up with Richard Burbank, President & CEO of Evergreen Home Performance in Rockland to help us learn a little more about home performance, tightening up our Maine homes and indoor air quality.
SRG: What exactly is home performance and how is that similar to or different from insulation or weatherizing?
RB: Home performance more than a catchy phrase – it’s a way of thinking about your house as a system of interrelated parts. This whole-house approach looks at everything from the building envelope, to the heating system, to the way you use your space to figure out how to make your home work – or perform – more efficiently. Weatherization actually does the same thing, but it historically described government-funded insulation and air sealing projects in low-income housing. As energy efficiency expanded into the private market, the focus shifted from triage to comprehensive improvement, and the new term emerged.
SRG: We’ve heard a lot in recent years about mold issues sometimes developing when homes are too tightly insulated. How can we protect against this?
RB: Don’t blame the insulation – blame the moisture! Mold loves moisture, and it won’t grow in a dry home. If a home is only dry because drafts keep moist air moving, an insulation project can trigger a mold problem because the moisture load that was being controlled by drafts is suddenly concentrated. The key is to balance air tightness – which keeps warm air inside – with adequate moisture control. Ventilation can be part of that strategy, but keeping water out of your house is the best place to start. Drying out your basement means you won’t have to worry about mold.
SRG: I heard recently that one of the most important places to insulate in a home is the basement. Do you agree and can you tell us why?
RB: Here’s a dirty little secret: your house is really just a bell jar over your basement, and it doesn’t pay to ignore it. In fact, you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you start your energy upgrade there. Insulating your foundation walls will preserve any byproduct heat from your furnace or boiler, and it’ll prevent cold air from seeping in and up to your living space. An uninsulated foundation has the same thermal value as a single pane of glass, so spray-foaming the walls will earn you a huge return on your investment.
SRG: Basements can also be pretty wet in this part of the country. Won’t insulating a wet area exacerbate a mold problem?
RB: The balance between heat, air, and moisture is very delicate, and adding more insulation might encourage moisture-loving mold. But a wet basement is a health hazard no matter how much insulation you have, and whether you’ve got standing water or just persistent dampness, you’ve got to address it. As the cold air in your basement warms up, it rises into your living space – and takes dust and mold particles with it. Proper insulation will slow that airflow, and encapsulating the basement with a vapor barrier will keep moisture out.
SRG: We can all pretty much agree that we don’t want to be wasting money on heating costs if we can help it. But few of us have a chunk of cash to devote to a big weatherizing project. Do you have any suggestions?
RB: There’s no doubt about it: you could spend a lot of money trying to bring one of Maine’s old homes up to modern efficiency standards. Most of us are never going to get there, but there’s a lot we can do to make our homes less leaky and more efficient. The silver lining of high heating bills is that you’re already investing a lot of money in keeping your home warm. Some creative financing – and we help a lot of homeowners figure this out – can help you spend that money wisely, so you invest in an efficiency project now and save money every year.
Say you’re spending $4000 on fuel every year. A project that reduces your energy use by 25% will cut $1000 off that bill. It might take an initial investment of $10,000, but you can finance that through the PACE program and pay it back at $80 each month ($960/year). That means you’re saving money from the very beginning – $40 for the term of the loan, then $1000 every year – plus you’re cozy and comfortable.
SRG: Anything else you think we should know?
RB: Home performance is both simple and complicated. The simple bottom line is that if you make your home more efficient, you’ll waste less energy, save more money, and be more comfortable. The complicated part is figuring out what to do and how to pay for it, and lots of homeowners don’t know where to start. They get an energy audit, get overwhelmed by the laundry list of problems, and put on another sweater. Or they do a little here and a little there, and they get discouraged because they don’t see results. It’s okay to start slow, but you want to start smart. Bring in a BPI-certified contractor who can help you understand how your home works and implement the solutions that will help it work better.