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Kentucky Living Home

Energy Savers

By Across Kentucky and across the nation, working in construction means knowing how to help people save money on their energy bills from September 2013 Issue

Energy Savers

Credit: Tim Webb

D. W. Kidwell builds a "bird beak," a level corner where soffits meet, for a Vanceburg home. People's Self-Help Housing Inc. is a nonprofit business that builds green, energy-efficient homes for low- and moderate-income residents in Lewis County.

Check out what these energy professionals do - from homebuilders, home raters, energy advisors, installers of renewable energy systems, to independent contractors, lighting sales and technicians, linemen, and more - to discover if an energy career is right for you

You choose: an energy bill that's $2,000 a year or $850?
From the outside, a new home built by People's Self-Help Housing looks a lot like many other homes in the hilly eastern Kentucky countryside. The difference is on the inside.

Greg Miller, director of design and construction technology for the Vanceburg nonprofit company, says, "At People's Self-Help Housing the way we build homes has evolved in the last 30 years. Instead of relying on the 'rule of thumb, we've always done it this way' approach, now we use building science. I'm interested in everything when it comes to houses - the mechanical systems, how the floor plan functions, if the design is eye-pleasing. Before we start a new house we look at the building as a whole during the design process to create a very energy-efficient home."

Miller explores a myriad of combinations on paper first, thinking through window locations and types, selecting appropriate heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning equipment, and choosing insulation and air-sealing details. Each element and combination is analyzed for energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Miller says, "Whether it's one of our smaller 900-square-foot, two-bedroom homes or our largest 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom house, building a highly energy-efficient home is an accumulation of things. Our homes are stick-built from scratch on-site with a solid foundation. Most of our work, including plumbing and electrical, we do in-house with two five-man crews. We do hire subcontractors for a few items such as drywall and HVAC installation.

"We know we are not going to beat manufactured housing on the cost of the house - but on the total cost of ownership we will win. The monthly utility bills and regular maintenance costs for our homes are much lower. Even if you have no interest in saving the planet, it makes financial sense to buy an energy-efficient home. For an existing three-bedroom home in our area, the typical yearly energy cost is more than $2,000. For a comparable new home from People's Self-Help housing, the yearly energy cost is only about $850. Our homeowners are very happy with the comfort of their new houses - and with much lower electric bills."

Proven results for whole-house comfort
The whole-house approach to lowering energy use works for existing homes, too. John Smith, owner of Smith Insulation in Flemingsburg, says, "There are so many factors that go into how your home works and breathes and operates. That's why it's a good idea to start with a home energy audit like the ones performed (usually free) by most of the local electric co-ops."

Finding out exactly how a home is wasting energy, whether it's due to air leakage around doors and windows or not enough insulation, is step one on the road to fixing the problems. Making the changes that will do the most good is known as an "energy retrofit." Although electric co-ops do not recommend individual contractors for performing the work, some (such as Fleming-Mason Energy and Big Sandy RECC in the eastern part of the state) maintain lists of contractors whose energy retrofits do reduce energy use.

"In the 15 years since I started my company," Smith says, "the technology and energy savings potential has changed a lot. I started out with cellulose insulation. Although it was better than fiberglass, the applications are limited. As soon as I could I changed to spray foam insulation. Now we are not restricted to certain wall sizes or the height of the attic. We can spray it directly onto the underneath of the roof deck. That's important because that will block the radiant heat from the sun before it gets into the structure. And in the winter it prevents heat loss."

Smith says industry tests show that spray foam insulation is five times more energy efficient than cellulose, and seven times more efficient than fiberglass. "Homes I've insulated with spray foam are now operating with energy costs of $33 per 1,000 square feet per month. If I can do that for a customer whose old utility bills were $300 a month then that's a worthy investment."

But it's not just about the money saved. Smith takes great pleasure in the phone calls he gets from satisfied homeowners. "One customer called just to tell me 'my floors are warm and that's something I've never had before.'"

Exploring the sunny option
Working so closely with electric co-ops has also helped Smith see the community-wide impact of lower energy bills. "Conservation of energy is the key to everything," Smith says. "When we can maximize conservation, then producing energy becomes a minimal need." When many people use less energy, that combination can reduce the need to run existing power plants at peak levels and delay construction of new ones.

Matt Partymiller, operations manager for Solar Energy Solutions in Kentucky, says he spends a lot of time talking with potential customers about all aspects of energy usage. "Some of the people who call us are interested in becoming more self-sufficient by using less energy from traditional power sources. Other callers say 'my electric bill is x and I'd like it to be y,' and they think that solar might be part of the answer."

His company specializes in the design, installation, operation, and maintenance of renewable energy systems.

No matter what a customer's motivation for calling is, Partymiller is careful to ask a lot of questions. "We'll research what their monthly utility bills are to find out how many kilowatt-hours they are using, and quantify their goal. It's an education process as we help the consumer discover where improvements could be made."

Partymiller says, "The first step is to have an efficient home. The last thing we want to do is install a solar system to offset wasted energy when the homeowner really needed to do something like replace an inefficient HVAC system or install modern lights."

Sometimes instead of using the sun's energy to generate electricity, a better option is a much simpler approach, using direct sunlight on special systems to heat water for the household or for a swimming pool.

Partymiller adds, "Although most people I talk to are interested in reducing their bills, very rarely are they aware of their exact energy consumption. Sometimes we install whole-house energy monitoring systems to help them understand the costs to using more energy. In Kentucky we're starting to see more awareness and more people are beginning to invest in energy efficiency."

Shining a light on energy savings
For Hopkinsville native Brian Fort, thinking about energy comes naturally - his dad owns an electrical contracting business and his brother is a lineman for Pennyrile Electric. Brian developed his real-world problem-solving skills as a master electrician working for his father, then six years ago he joined the sales team at the Hopkinsville office of Engineered Lighting Sales. Now he advises other businesses on the best products to use to reduce energy consumption. Independent contractors then perform the installation.

Fort says, "There are avenues to take in every direction to save energy with lighting. We offer a variety of products from more than 50 manufacturers." Fort's customers are commercial, industrial, and residential accounts whose lighting needs cover a wide range of situations.

Finding the best way to light the interiors of vast warehouses and factories is a challenge. The overhead light fixtures (known as "high bays") are mounted far above the work area and often operate around the clock.

Fort says, "We can replace a single 400-watt metal halide high bay light with a six-unit fluorescent light that totals 195 watts, cutting their wattage in half. Our customers often have 200 high bays in their facilities, so cutting their energy use in half means their energy use and electric bill will go down a lot - and that's what everybody's going for."

Replacing old lights with new ones offers two other advantages. The newer bulbs are much less expensive and operate at cooler temperatures. Fort says, "We had one customer who found that with the new lights they didn't need to run their air conditioning as much and that saved them even more money."


What you'll need to know to work in the energy business
Mark Saunier, founder and president of Comfort and Process Solutions Inc., says, "Since 1999 we've had a vision of putting the customer first and representing the most energy-efficient equipment and controls in the HVAC industry for commercial and industrial customers. Our employees all have a passion for service that lives up to our motto, 'Delivering real-world energy savings.' A key to our success is that we are always learning about new technologies. The people that are strong in math and science are the people who will be the leaders in the energy world going forward."

John Smith, owner of Smith Insulation based in Flemingsburg, says finding good employees isn't just about physical strength. "What I want from my employees is a general ability to work at the expected level, but the main thing they need to have is an open mind. We do things differently than what everybody else does, so they must be able to see and accept new building techniques."


What kind of energy job is right for you?
No fear of heights? Dedicated to safety? Don't mind extreme heat or cold? Then learning to be a lineman might be right for you, as shown above at the Somerset Community College Lineman Training School. Applicants must be 18 years old and have either a high school diploma or GED. Find out more online at www.somerset.kctcs.edu and search for "Lineman Training Center" or find out more on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LinemanTechCenter.

Maybe you'd prefer an indoor job? If you've been away from school for a while and don't have access to a guidance counselor, this U.S. Department of Labor Web site, www.doleta.gov/jobseekers/assess_yourself.cfm, is a good place to start matching up your interests with a new career in alternative fuels, research and development, or renewable energy.

When you've developed a list of current skills and interests to build on, you will be ready to contact Kentucky colleges and universities about a path of study that will prepare you for the energy job that's right for you.


WEB EXCLUSIVE:  ABC ENERGY JOBS

Reputable schools offering instruction in energy careers will mention that students who complete their courses will gain the knowledge to pass nationally administered quality assurance tests in their chosen field of work. Here are six terms you're likely to see in career and course descriptions or when you are exploring energy job options.

BPI Building Performance Institute sets national standards for the correct measurement, analysis, and installation of energy-efficiency improvements such as home weatherization.

HERS Home Energy Rating System is a certified HERS rater who measures the energy efficiency of a building.

LEED Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design lists efficiency standards for devices and buildings, as well as the certified architects, engineers, and workers who design, construct, and install them.

NABCEP North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners is the group that sets the standards, administers tests, and validates the work history and levels of experience for solar panel installers.

NEC National Electrical Code contains the standards for the safe installation of electrical wiring and devices.

RESNET Residential Energy Services Network is the organization that sets the national training and certification standards for HERS Raters and Home Energy Survey Professionals.