Packing Heat: The Firepower of the Lowly Caulk Gun
Cutting-Edge Energy Technologies Such as Solar Panels Don’t Deliver as Much Bang as Plugging Leaky Homes
By JEFFREY BALL
Syracuse, N.Y.– Like a lot of Americans, moving-company owner Art Delaney has been trying to curb his energy use to help the planet and pinch pennies. First he got serious about recycling. Then he traded in his SUV for a Toyota Prius. Now he’s trying to tame an energy hog so obvious it was somehow easy to overlook: his leaky house.
The 30-year-old Delaney home here in frigid upstate New York is heated by fuel oil. It burns through some 1,000 gallons in a typical year. Mr. Delaney and his wife didn’t think much about that burn rate until last year when they built a new vacation house in the Adirondacks that’s much more energy-efficient. Suddenly, their old house seemed like a sieve.
So, this winter, the Delaneys hired a specialist to ferret out fossil-fuel waste. After more than two hours of climbing through the house on a recent morning, the house doctor found cracks everywhere: around the fireplace, beside bookshelves, under windows.
“We might as well be sleeping in a tent,” Mr. Delaney said.
Marketers, politicians and consumers like to imagine a world of solar panels, wind turbines and cars fueled by wood chips. But none of that gadgetry packs the here-and-now punch of a decades-old option: plugging leaky homes with a caulk gun.
In the drive to curb the growth in fossil-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions, “it’s the leaky holes that matter,” says Hal Harvey, chief executive of the ClimateWorks Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Backed by more than $1 billion in pledges, the foundation supports renewable energy but is working to persuade governments first to implement tougher energy-efficiency standards. The goal, Mr. Harvey says, is “systematic ways of plugging those leaks.”
By 2030, improving the energy efficiency of buildings could limit greenhouse-gas emissions more than ramping up either wind or solar power, according to a new study by consultant McKinsey & Co. and funded in part by the ClimateWorks Foundation. And that energy-efficiency push would save more money than it costs, the McKinsey study says, while the renewable-energy alternatives would cost more than they save.
Homes are embarrassingly inefficient. They consume 21% of all energy used in the U.S., according to federal figures. That’s more than cars, or planes, or offices. Yet studies say U.S. homes commonly waste 30% of the energy they use. About one-third of that energy loss could be stopped by such simple moves as caulking and insulating.
Building new houses that are more energy-efficient would make sense. But the bigger problem is the houses that exist today. Some 115 million homes exist in the U.S., and less than one million more are built every year. The federal government says that existing homes consume about 90% of the amount of energy that will be used by the country’s housing stock in 2030.
If energy efficiency makes such sense in theory, why doesn’t it happen more in practice? Although energy-efficiency upgrades typically pay for themselves in reduced fuel costs over time, they still require a high up-front investment — one many homeowners, who might soon sell their houses, are loath to make.
One answer is for the government to pony up incentives to bridge that gap. In much of the country, incentives for renewable energy exceed those for energy efficiency, reflecting an infatuation with the high-tech over the ho-hum.
President Barack Obama’s stimulus package would inject billions of dollars to patch leaks in homes of low-income Americans. How much it would do depends on how intelligently the home repairs are made.
The state of New York has some of the juiciest incentives for energy efficiency in the nation because cold winters here make using energy wisely a no-brainer. In New York, consumers can get rebates as high as $5,000 for adding insulation and caulk — repairs that can cost many thousands of dollars more.
Money, though, isn’t the only hurdle. The U.S. may not have enough people trained to roll out cost-effective efficiency upgrades as quickly as the Obama administration is proposing. Besides being dirty and sweaty, the process is often devilishly delicate.
One recent afternoon in Syracuse, workers in white protective suits were sealing up the leaks in Barbara Martinez’s house. Built early in the last century, the 1,600-square-foot house lacks insulation, which explains why Ms. Martinez’s combined natural-gas and electric bills for a single month this winter totaled $536 — more than her monthly mortgage payment
Adding insulation now would require first ripping out the old wiring and replacing it with fire-resistant wiring. That could cost several thousand dollars — money Ms. Martinez, a translator for the Syracuse school system, said she can’t spare.
So the workers were doing what they could: plugging up holes in the attic and basement with foam and caulk. Zero Draft of Central New York Inc., the firm doing the work, estimates it could shave $100 off Ms. Martinez’s monthly gas and electric bill. Because Ms. Martinez’s income is low enough, incentive money from a local utility company will fully fund the job, which cost about $1,600. Grants for new wiring are available in New York, but Ms. Martinez didn’t get one.
Mr. Delaney, 50, earns too much to qualify for that large a state subsidy. But he needs no convincing about the wisdom of investing in energy efficiency himself. His company’s moving vans average about seven miles per gallon. That explains why he recently traded in his own Toyota 4Runner.
“I burn enough fuel in my trucks,” he said. “I don’t need to burn it at home.”
That’s also why, this winter, after his Adirondacks house was finished, Mr. Delaney signed up his main house for a “home energy audit.” In the attic, the technician from Syracuse-based house-doctor company GreenHomes America snapped photos of daylight around pipes. In the living area, he pointed a $7,000 infrared gun at the walls and ceilings to ferret out hot and cold spots invisible to the naked eye.
Then he fitted a giant suction fan inside the frame of the house’s front door. After turning on the fan, which sucks air out of the house to make leaks easier to spot, he walked around the house with a hand-held stick that spews smoke. When he held the stick up to a bathroom light, the smoke was blown downward by air pouring in from leaky seals.
By the end of the morning, Mr. Delaney had grabbed the infrared gun himself and was firing its red beam with abandon, his arms outstretched and locked, shooting-range-style.
Appalled by evidence of the house’s leaky frame, Mr. Delaney inquired about tapping renewable energy — installing a geothermal system to pull natural heat from deep below the ground. Michael Rogers, GreenHomes America’s senior vice president, advised against it. “We would still recommend efficiency first,” he told his customer.
So Mr. Delaney ordered up about $8,000 of improvements — mostly insulation and caulk. The high-tech toys will have to wait. Now, “if you put in the renewables,” he said, “you’re still dealing with an inefficient home.”