A Little HEET Goes a Long Way
February 15, 2011
By Audrey Schulman, President, Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET)
By Audrey Schulman, President, Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET)
In 2000, my husband, children and I moved into a 90-year-old home. The basement was so leaky that, when the wind blew outside, small papers would flutter across the floor. There were rooms in the house too chilly for us to be comfortable in during the winter, and in the summer; the house sweltered. We assumed this was just the way life was in an old home.
Then once our kids grew independent and boisterous, we decided to remake the basement into a playroom for them. Since we couldn’t afford the contractors’ exorbitant bids, I began the work myself, figuring I’d do whatever tasks I could to cut down on the cost. The demolition of the existing basement rooms turned out to be fun (great for anger management of a mom with young kids), and so I moved on to installing a banister, then repairing the foundation, my confidence growing with each new task. I researched how to do each task, then did it (sometimes several times before it was right). And since I cared about energy use, I prioritized insulation and air-sealing as I worked. By the time I’d finished dry-walling and painting the room, I’d increased the livable area of our home by 400 square feet and decreased the drafts in our house enough that the heating bill went down by 10%. Our whole home became more comfortable in both summer and winter.
I was then hooked on energy efficiency. I moved on to insulating and air-sealing the rest of the house, as well as experimenting with compact florescent bulbs (those spiral ones), power strips and low-flow water measures. I kept track of the effect on our energy bills and learned what had the greatest effect. After a decade of trial and error, I’ve lowered our energy use by 50%, made our home more valuable—a lot more comfortable—and saved us lots of money in energy bills too.
Meanwhile, I was in a climate change activist group. Everyone in the group was depressed because, in spite of all our letters-to-the-editor and demonstrations, we didn’t seem to be having any effect. We craved doing something practical and hands-on. Then we heard of Co-op Power, a group that organized volunteers to install photovoltaic and solar thermal panels. Although we liked that this work was hands-on, installing solar panels would mean we could only work on the homes of people who had south-facing roofs and several thousand dollars in cash; so I suggested efficiency work instead: decreasing drafts and installing water and electrical efficiency measures.
Homes create a quarter of the nation’s carbon emissions. Working on efficiency instead of renewables, we could lower the cost of our work enormously, get a return on investment measured in months rather than in years, and be able to help people of all incomes. Everyone has a leaky attic hatch or some inefficient incandescents in their home.
We organized our first event, sending out a few emails to sustainability email lists. On the day of the event a huge rainstorm hit and, because of the deluge, as well as how little publicity we did, we figured we’d be lucky if five people show up. Instead, 40 excited people came tromping in through the rain, carrying tools and materials, thrilled at the idea of teaching and learning. We understood we’d hit on a great idea.
A HEET member works to weatherize a home.Two years later, our organization is called HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team). At our events, skilled leaders teach volunteers how to increase the efficiency of the building where the party takes place. In this way we not only reduce the energy and water bills of that building, we also teach the volunteers how to reduce consumption in their own homes. The work is done using materials and tools largely available from any hardware store. We consult with one of the nation’s top energy-efficiency experts to ensure that the skills we teach are the best at cutting energy and water use and, to ensure quality instruction and safety, we keep the ratio of team leaders to volunteers at about one to four.
We call our HEET parties “barn raisings,” as in traditional barn raisings, where neighbors pooled skills, strength and tools to take on tasks that no one person could handle. Inspired by our work, 21 new HEET-style teams have formed in the Greater Boston area. We help these groups with their first few barn raisings at every step. We’ve worked with over 1,500 volunteers and 100 homeowners/tenants.
Our building inspections include a blower door test and combustion analysis, as well as a complete evaluation of the thermal envelope and water and electrical use. Our building sites are homes or buildings such as churches or homeless shelters and the only cost is for the materials (from $200 to $900 depending on the size of the building). If the homeowner/tenant/organization is/are low income, we seek grants to pay for the materials.
Afterwards, with the residents’ permission, we check the energy bills to make sure the use goes down. In homes, the heat and electrical use on average decreases 10%. The work should last at least a decade, saving over $2,000 for each home and $20,000 for each organization during that time. Because HEET’s work is accomplished primarily through volunteers, we reduce these emissions at a cost roughly 75% less than contractors.
Even more important than saving money or energy in the buildings we work on, we’re widely disseminating efficiency knowledge and changing people’s behavior. An online survey of our volunteers found that 73% use the skills they learn at a barn raising on their own homes. Social marketing research demonstrates that “social proof” (the perceived popularity of a behavior) makes others want to engage in that behavior. At a barn raising, volunteers see large numbers of people working on energy-efficiency tasks, which perhaps persuades them to tackle similar projects at home.
The HEET team shows off some resource saving tools such as a CFL bulb and Toilet Tank Bank.The homeowners/tenants also change. Having been given the gift of 30 strangers working for hours on their home to make it more efficient, they want to give back: 100% report they shut off lights more often and 77% say they turn down the heat, and once they see their energy bills go down, they begin to believe as I did, that we all can do something about skyrocketing energy bills. They come to believe there are ways to fight back that are easy, inexpensive and effective. Over 25% of these homes, after our barn raisings, hire professionals to do more efficiency work --adding insulation or getting a new efficient fridge-- reducing their energy use even further.
In the end, HEET helps people make their homes more comfortable and valuable, saving energy, water and money, while fighting climate change. Through HEET, people learn how to do these tasks and to expect that energy efficiency is something we all can do.
That hands-on learning and change in expectations—which for me started in my leaky basement—is proof that a little HEET goes a long way.