Program gives Minneapolis residents a glimpse into their energy usage

Stepping on a short stool, John Reinan lifted the back of his hand to a small light fixture in his living room. Quickly turning to face his early morning guests, he admitted that he felt a puff of air emanate from the creases of the light.

The air he felt was part of what professionals in the energy business call a “blower-door test”: experts set up a powerful fan at a home’s entrance to find pockets in walls and the ceiling where air might escape.

The procedure is only part of the Community Energy Services program, which, since October, has become a quick and popular way for Minneapolis homeowners to increase their energy efficiency and save money.

Reinan is one of more than 1,600 homeowners from a variety of Minneapolis neighborhoods to participate in the program. It is sponsored by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund — which, officials say, is basically lottery money — and includes a partnership between the Center for Energy and Environment, CenterPoint Energy, Xcel Energy and the City of Minneapolis.

Through the project, homeowners attend a free educational workshop where professionals teach them how to lower energy use and save money. After the workshop, the residents can choose to set up a customized in-home visit from one of the Center’s energy professionals. The only cost for the visit is a $30 co-pay, which some Minneapolis neighborhoods have already offered to cover.

Right on time for their 7:30 a.m. appointment, Tom Prebich and Kyle Shannon drove up to Reinan’s house.

After a brief introduction, the two men, wearing tan uniforms, got to work. Shannon showed Reinan an energy output form with data provided by Xcel and CenterPoint, something that comes standard with every home visit. Not only did it display Reinan’s electricity and natural gas usage over the past several months, but it also showed the usage in an average Minnesota home and target values. For 12 months, participants receive periodic updates on their progress via e-mail.

Walking through the single-story house, Shannon asked Reinan questions about his home while offering suggestions. Shannon opened the refrigerator and commended Reinan for having it fully stocked. He said food absorbs the refrigerator’s cold better than empty space. Shannon then spent a number of minutes showing Reinan how to work his thermostat, which he was convinced didn’t work.

“It looks simple now that you do it,” Reinan joked.

From room to room, one of Shannon’s recommendations was consistent: put compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in every fixture possible. The bulbs last significantly longer than a normal light bulb and, through energy savings, pay for themselves rather quickly. And though many of Reinan’s fixtures already contained the spiral-shaped bulbs, part of the program is the free installation of CFLs wherever necessary.

In Reinan’s basement, Shannon examined his furnace and water heater. When Shannon saw the dust-drenched furnace filter, he told Reinan the more restrictions a furnace faces, the harder it has to work. After Shannon’s inspection of the furnace ducts, Prebich returned to the group, explaining that the temperature on Reinan’s water heater was right near the recommended 120 degrees.

With the inspection mostly complete, Shannon began the installation of CFLs, low-flow faucet aerators and low-flow showerheads while Prebich set up the blower-door test. He taped the blower, made of an orange piece of plastic and a large fan, to Reinan’s front door and turned on the machine. As it hummed loudly, Prebich felt various areas of the house to check for air that might pour through.

The test, which lasted several minutes, can cost between $30 and $200.

“For the price they pay, they’re blown away by how much they get,” said Ashley Robertson, a community organizer with the Center for Energy and Environment.

Aside from the benefits to homeowners, the program helps fulfill the goals of the Next Generation Act, which requires utility companies to reduce energy use by 1.5 percent each year. Before Community Energy Services began, the focus hadn’t been on residences, but Robertson said it’s now a “great opportunity for neighborhoods to help utilities reach the goal of reduction.”

As the professionals prepared to show Reinan the results of their inspection and provide information on how to continue to be energy efficient, he praised the program.

“I think it’s a great, tremendous resource,” Reinan said. “They’ve got all the information you need. I think the problem is I’m pretty well informed. The people who are interested in doing it already know. The challenge is reaching people who aren’t paying attention. There’s no reason for anybody not to do it.”

Robertson agrees, noting another problem is people who think they’ve already done everything.

“We tell people to come to the workshops then decide,” she said “There’s no pressure to do it. Except when you see all your neighbors signing up.”

Prebich, who has worked with the program since its inception, and Shannon, who started in January, said homeowners and neighborhoods are excited and receptive of the program.

As far as general recommendations, Shannon urges homeowners to get rid of appliances that are “old enough to vote,” while Prebich stresses the use of CFLs.

“Every house is different,” Shannon said. “There are different recommendations for every home. We focus on prioritizing.”

A few hours after Reinan’s inspection, Prebich and Shannon made their way to the home of Celia Siegel, who, upon attending the workshop got rid of her harvest-yellow refrigerator, a common energy guzzler that only contained a six pack and a frozen pizza. Siegel was pleased about the refrigerator’s disposal, noting that workers from Xcel picked it up for free, took 10 minutes to remove it and, within three weeks, she received a $35 rebate for the fridge.

Prebich and Shannon complimented Siegel for her energy use and left her with 11 CFLs, two faucet aerators, a new radiator key and a power strip for her television, as well as a wealth of information about possible next steps. They also explained an air sealing technique for her attic, one that would cost between $1,200 and $1,600. That price could be cut significantly by two $400 rebates through CenterPoint and the Center for Energy and Environment as well as a 30-percent tax credit on materials.

“They were good,” Siegel said of Prebich and Shannon. “They were really professional and easy to have in the house. I’ll do everything they’ve told me. It was great to hear I was doing well because I’m sort of competitive.”

And Siegel echoed Reinan’s sentiment about the program.

“There’s no reason for anybody not do it,” she said frankly.