Here we go again. Another New England winter is directly ahead. Will it be mild and snowless like last winter or it will it be like the year before with ice dams galore and no place left to put the snow? That is the question.
Most homeowners in the local area are provided with gas and electricity from a major utility. All National Grid customers are qualified to receive incentives and rebates for energy conservation work under the Mass Save program. Changes in the residential utility-sponsored energy conservation program have been dramatic over the last few years and continue to evolve. However, the rebate for homeowners is significant, including free air sealing and 75 percent of the cost of insulation, up to $2,000, among other items. The work performed under the program is generally good and moves in the right direction toward energy efficiency, but it does not always offer the homeowner the best and most complete solution.
The initial Mass Save assessment is worthwhile and quite detailed. However, it does not include the use of a thermal (infrared) camera while your house is under negative pressure using a blower door (which is a large fan set up in an exterior door that blows air out of the house during the thermal imaging). The infrared camera reveals thermally deficient areas and air leaks that might otherwise go undetected. The combination of using these tools is often critical in properly prioritizing energy conservation measures.
It is common knowledge in building science that reducing air leakage in homes is the most cost-effective priority. The program covers the basics of air-sealing in the attic and basement with the use of caulking and targeted spray foam, but it does not go beyond these areas. Air-sealing additional areas in the interior of the house such as fireplaces, at baseboards and at window trim can be very effective at reducing air leaks, saving money and increasing comfort.
A particular inadequacy of work that is restricted under the Mass Save rebate program is its failure to address recessed lights. Due to the liability concerns of the utility companies, contractors are instructed not only not to insulate recessed lights, but to remove insulation that may be over them in an attic. This leaves holes in the top of the house that contribute mightily to heat loss. Building code allows Insulation Contact (IC) rated recessed lights to be insulated directly. For non-IC rated recessed lights, building and fire codes require that insulation be more than 3 inches away. There are different approaches to effectively sealing and insulating recessed lights, which is the subject of a previous article that ran in this paper last Feb. 28 called “Plugging heat loss caused by recessed lights.”
Another area of concern with work covered by the Mass Save program is the limiting of attic insulation to R-38, which is the minimum requirement in the Mass. energy code. Just over the border in New Hampshire, R-49 is specified in their energy code. Adding insulation to R-49 adds only an incremental cost to an already heavily incentivized project, but provides greater savings for the homeowner. Savings will vary significantly depending on the size of the house and tend to be most substantial for homes with larger attics.
The best way to take advantage of the utility-sponsored program and get the most effective work done on your home, including work that takes into account individual differences between residences, is to request a local insulation contractor at the time of the Mass Save assessment. You can contract with the IC to do the sponsored work and, separately, to do work not covered by the program.
Tim Gould is the director of Informed Energy Solutions located in Amesbury, MA. Contact him at 978-388-6349. On the web at www.InformedNRG.com.