Jamison Ervin and Alan Pierce knew they could do a lot to reduce winter heat loss from their Duxbury home, particularly by adding insulation to their basement. But until recently, retrofitting their home seemed too complex and more expensive than they could finance on their own.
This summer, the couple discovered the new Heat Saver loan program from Efficiency Vermont. The specialized loans are offered through two credit unions including VSECU, which has a branch in Waterbury. Weatherization projects are eligible, as are installing new high-efficiency heating and hot water systems.
Heat Saver loans are low-interest, ranging from no interest to 5 percent depending on household income, with no minimum loan amount, and a maximum loan amount of $35,000. The loans are also unique in that lenders take the energy savings into account as income when evaluating the loan. The credit unions also allow a one-time free modification to the terms so borrowers can apply state and federal tax credits and incentives to the loan principal.
Ervin, who along with Pierce is a member of Waterbury LEAP, described their ongoing renovation project and the process of applying for the loan in an interview as part of an occasional series of conversations about energy-saving technologies and practices. Below is an edited transcript.
Why did retrofitting your home seem so overwhelming at first?
The house is roughly 45 years old. We had changed very little since we bought it in 1994, and most of that was cosmetic. We always wanted to have an energy-efficient home, but when we started thinking about projects, one thing would lead to the other, and we would start to get overwhelmed.
We thought about insulating our basement. That is probably the number one thing that people can fix in Vermont to save money. You may as well open your windows in the middle of winter as have an uninsulated basement.
But we also had some significant dampness in our basement, the flashing and the deck were installed incorrectly, and a lot of our siding and the deck itself were starting to rot. We thought that if we did insulate the basement, we’d also have to redo the flashing and then we’d also need to think about repairing or replacing the siding and the deck. And if we’re going to take off our siding, then we had the opportunity to add insulation to the walls. It seemed like too much cost, and the energy efficiency part started to get lost.
How did you try to keep the focus on energy efficiency?
We had an energy audit done about two years ago, and we chose Stowe-based Sisler Builders, since they specialize in energy efficiency and retrofits.
We first had a trench dug around the house, about one foot wide and two feet deep, in order to add a 5-inch layer of rigid foam. Now the whole house feels drier, and we no longer need a dehumidifier in our basement. Then when Sisler Builders took off the siding, they add an extra 3 inches of dense-pack insulation.
How did you solve the problem of cost?
The Heat Saver loan was a critical part of affording this project. Suddenly, it wasn’t this huge project. The paperwork was seamless; Sisler Builders filled out the form for us, and within a week, they had a check from VSECU. It has an income-dependent interest rate, and you can go up to $35,000 for any kind of home heating efficiency improvements. You can do a lot of efficiency work for $35,000.
We also refinanced at the same time with VSECU. Using both sources of finance, we were able to tie the energy efficiency work into the home repairs. I think one of the biggest barriers to weatherization is that people see all the problems of an older home and think energy efficiency is the least of their problems. This allows homeowners to do some of both.
Do you know yet how much you will save in heating costs because of the renovation?
An audit report will help you compare the cost of insulating your basement with the cost of heating, so we have a rough idea. We heat with propane and wood, and we use solar hot water as radiant heat during the shoulder season. But heating with wood takes a lot of work – cutting and splitting and carrying – we hope to do less of that. So some of the energy we save will be our own! Plus, it just feels more comfortable to be in a house that is well insulated.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If you are doing any kind of home renovation process, it is worth looking at thermal efficiency as part of the project. I think all homeowners should consider having an energy audit; it’s worth every penny because it helps show exactly where you can save the most money and prevent the most heating loss.
Another important point is that the Heat Saver loan is not just for people doing a whole home renovation; it’s also for anyone who wants to do a very simple energy efficiency upgrade, like installing an air-source heat pump, or adding insulation in the attic. Someone with a newer home could focus on improving air seals around the windows and that would be just a few thousand dollars.