Plug into energy savings: CharlestonWISE helps residents make homes more cost-efficient
When hot air started pouring into Erin Leigh and Richard Lavrich's house through an electric outlet, just about everyone except Bruce Looney was surprised.
To learn more
The CharlestonWISE Impact Project is holding free home energy conservation workshops. The next one is at 6 p.m. Aug. 16 at the St. Julian Devine Community Center, 1 Cooper St. in downtown Charleston.
For more workshop dates or information, visit charlestonwise.com, call 529-3421, or email Renee Patey at CWIP@sustainabilityinstitutesc.org.
Looney, an energy efficiency inspector, knows that homes have energy-wasting air leaks and he knows where to look for them. Looney has been busy lately inspecting homes, including the one shared by Leigh and Lavrich, as part of a multimillion-dollar effort to improve the efficiency of homes in Charleston.
"It's a lot of fun," said Looney, of Southside Power Co. "Every house is different."
After three years of planning and study aimed at creating a program to help Charleston residents reduce energy use and save money, CharlestonWISE is up and running.
Originally seen as a public-private partnership that might involve city government, the program has evolved to one that's being operated by the nonprofit Sustainability Institute, mostly funded with private and federal grants.
Currently open only to residents of Charleston, the initiative should expand to the surrounding area this fall.
The idea behind CharlestonWISE -- WISE stands for "worthwhile investments save energy" -- is to help building owners through the often-complicated process of learning what improvements would be the most cost-effective ways to cut energy use.
The program helps people arrange an assessment, decide what improvements make sense, choose a contractor and coordinate rebates and tax credits.
For example, rebates from CharlestonWISE and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. can cover the full cost of a home inspection and provide substantial rebates on home improvement work. Tax credits can further reduce the cost of some improvements.
CharlestonWISE is open to all city homeowners and small business owners. The SCE&G rebate program is open to customers of the utility.
In a related effort called the Impact Project, the Sustainability Institute is providing free inspections to 200 homes that have already been selected, as a way of researching the most cost-effective ways to improve buildings in the Charleston area.
A $500,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation is paying for the assessments, and to retrofit 50 particpants' homes.
"The Impact Project provides the research we need for the long-term sustainability of the CharlestonWISE program," said program manager Renee Patey.
"CharlestonWISE is a business-like program," she said. "It's permanent, it's market-driven and you pay for everything."
Leigh and Lavrich, for example, were having their James Island home inspected recently at no cost to them through the Impact Project. If they decide to improve their house, they could use the CharlestonWISE program to decide on a scope of work, select contractors and arrange rebates.
"You go for the biggest, cheapest stuff first, then you work your way down," said Looney.
Looney and two men from the Sustainability Institute spent several hours at Leigh's house recently, taking measurements and checking for air leaks.
They noted things like a large fish tank, which can add humidity that make air conditioners work harder, and even checked how much power the pump in a backyard pond was using. All of that will go into a report calculating the home's efficiency.
"I'm really curious what it is going to say," Leigh said.
With the house closed up and a large fan pulling air out through the front door to test for air leaks, some of the troublesome places quickly became apparent.
Air leaks were found in and around electric outlets on exterior walls, the fireplace, a poorly sealed exterior door, connections behind the washer and dryer, and leaks around windows.
The good news was that inspectors found the house is better insulated than they expected.
Patey said cost-effective energy savings are typically identified through the home assessments. The goal of each program of proposed work is to reduce energy use by at least 20 percent and reduce energy expenses by 30 percent or more.
Patey said that at the first home to go through the CharlestonWISE program, a 3,400-square-foot house that scored poorly on efficiency measures, energy use was reduced by more than 40 percent in May and June compared to the prior year.
To get to that impressive result, the homeowner undertook every recommended efficiency improvement, at a cost of about $5,100. But after rebates from CharlestonWISE and SCE&G, the homeowner's cost was about $2,700.
The expense of the improvements should be recouped through lower energy bills in just two or three years.
The CharlestonWISE program has received $1.5 million in federal Department of Energy funding, awarded through the Southeastern Energy Alliance, to run the program for the first three years. A revolving loan program is being developed for the initiative.
"A lot of what we do is relieve people of dealing with the contractors," Patey said. "The Sustainability Institute provides all the quality control and assurance."
Leigh and Lavrich plan to consider the suggestions they will get for improving the efficiency of their 1,400-square-foot home. They would like to avoid electricity bills like the one they got for about $200 after the cold snap in February.
"I'm really glad we did it," Leigh said. "I actually feel better about the house than I did going in."
Reach David Slade at 937-5552.