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Floor to sealing 

The Energy Resource Center goes into dark spaces to lighten the energy load

There are men in white hazmat suits wriggling through my attic and crawl space, making me think more of Breaking Bad than doing good. But far from manufacturing a community-rotting drug, they're dragging gadgetry through my home with the end goal of reducing my consumption of other societally impactful substances, namely coal and natural gas. When they're done, my annual utility bills should fall by 20 percent, the average achieved by the Energy Resource Center on each job, according to executive director Howard Brooks.

The ERC launched as a community collaboration in 1979, and as a nonprofit, it draws from a patchwork of funders: the feds, the state, counties and cities, utility companies, charitable foundations (including Indy Give!) and individuals. Springs-based ERC now employs 64 staff members across three offices covering a dozen counties in central and southern Colorado. Last year it moved into the San Luis Valley, and last month into Denver.

In the course of a year now, the center will conduct energy audits and upgrades on 600 to 900 homes. It will replace toilets, shower heads, light bulbs, furnaces, refrigerators and water heaters, and add floor, ceiling and wall insulation.

How much difference will it make? Well, in just the 118 homes ERC served in 2013 in coordination with CSU's Home Efficiency Assistance Program, that meant an annual reduction of 14,287 million cubic feet of natural gas, 738,938 gallons of water, and 30 megawatt hours of electricity, says CSU spokeswoman Patrice Lehermeier.

In other words, if each of the nearly 133 million homes in America (as counted by 2013's census) received this treatment, you can bet that some coal-burning power plants like Martin Drake could be retired; the need for infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline could be delayed, if not nullified; and fracking could cease.

Pay it forward

In the meantime, ERC focuses its work on people in need: the elderly, those with disabilities, and anyone struggling in a low-income situation (up to 200 percent of the federal poverty limit).

"The number one reason people call 211 for help in the community is that they can't pay their utilities bills," says Brooks, noting they'll likely be first referred to CSU's Project COPE for assistance, then the ERC, where services will cost them nothing.

Those who can afford to pay ERC for their work — under its "pay-it-forward" arm, with all profits reinvested in the nonprofit mission — will eventually recoup their money, in effect making a socially responsible investment. According to extensive data gathered on my home, I can expect a full return on investment within eight years.

A "blower door test," which measures internal and external air exchange by placing a plastic barrier, fan and sensors in a sealed doorway to pressurize a house, was done before and after my air sealing and insulating. In my house's case, it proved that ERC actually accomplished an above-average 25-percent improvement in efficiency. Learning that my entire eastern wall had zero insulation (WTF!?), while the blown-in cellulose in others had significantly settled, explains part of that equation.

Adjustments were also made on my furnace and water heater that spoke as much to safety as efficiency; Brooks says that one in four ERC-assisted homes will have a health-and-safety concern, such as insufficiently vented carbon monoxide.

From CSU's point of view — i.e., why there's value to it contracting with ERC — reducing the demand for electricity, gas and water means a utility doesn't need to generate and/or acquire as much. And that aids us all, says project manager Mark James from CSU's Energy Acquisition Engineering & Planning Department.

"The way we characterize it in the utility world," he says, "is, 'How much did we reduce our peak demands, so that we don't have to build new units in the future?'"

Also, he notes how CSU write-offs on unpaid bills "have to be recovered," meaning higher bills for regular customers. "The more we can make those families more energy-efficient, the more it helps everyone out."

Plug the hole

James cites the one-stop-shop nature of ERC as another benefit to CSU and its clients, as ERC is the only local entity able to address all aspects of energy in the home. Other businesses in town do provide energy audits alone, or perform work on heaters and furnaces, or do insulation tasks; ERC does it all at a competitive rate.

That's partly why ERC routinely has a two-month wait list for pay-it-forward clients, says Brooks. The other reason: It prioritizes nonprofit clients, always.

Brooks, who offered his own cell phone number for me to pass along to a neighbor in need, keeps ERC's focus on the human element as much as the ecological. He thinks about the senior citizen living on a $600 Social Security check a month, to whom the 20 percent utility bill savings equates to no small sum of money. And the young woman whose slumlord wouldn't fix the broken thermostat responsible for her $400 monthly bill; a $5 part from the ERC dropped it to below $200.

"I liken it to a coffee mug that has a hole, and you can't pour enough to keep it full," he says. "We plug that hole in the mug."

matthew@csindy.com

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