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After Weatherization

image credit: Infra-red photo used with permission.
Rick Barnett's picture
Consultant Green Builder

Rick Barnett has a B.A. in psychology (UCSB) and an Interdisciplinary Master’s in Environmental Management (Oregon State University, 1981).  Before becoming a builder, Rick introduced recycling...

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  • Oct 25, 2019

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Atmospheric pollution is rising despite huge growth in solar, wind, and storage, noticeable progress with EV’s and microgrids, and efficiency programs claiming as much as billions in reduced energy bills.  The New York Times offered this explanation about the limited impact of clean energy:  “Even with the impressive recent gains for renewable energy, the world is still far from solving global warming……One reason: carbon-free sources like wind, solar and nuclear power aren’t yet growing fast enough to keep up with rising global energy demand…….global coal consumption could stay flat for decades……the average coal plant in Asia is less than 15 years old (compared to about 41 years in the United States). ”

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Looking to move past existing options, I’ve found potential by installing high quality thermal systems on existing homes.  In the absence of good thermal performance, space conditioning for interior comfort has become the largest residential energy expense throughout the country.

Due to efficiency trends, thermal performance is hardly affected by hundreds of programs and organizations.  Fortunately, insulation systems that significantly cut thermal leakage have entered the new home market. Using this technology for energy retrofits would be labor-intensive, offering local job opportunity.

Good thermal performance is most effective at times of peak energy use, when a utility’s energy cost is highest. The connection to peak demand creates an incentive for utility investment in thermal retrofits.  With experience from 2 million post-construction scores, the RESNET HERS® Index can assure that improvement from a retrofit is reliably used to cut a utility’s energy expense.


Residential energy codes were established to improve thermal performance by strengthening the barrier between interior space and outside.  Thermal shell standards were developed for underfloor, wall and attic insulation, windows and doors. 

Energy conservation programs began in the 1970’s with weatherization crews sealing accessible areas in leaky old homes.  Unfortunately, “Fall Energy Saving Tips” look about the same in 2019 as they did in the 1970’s.  And the continued popularity of this approach to thermal performance is featured in a new TV program called “Weatherization Nation.

The 1980 DOE report, “Low Energy Futures for the United States” (DOE/PE-0020) offered a glimpse of future homes that went far beyond weatherization-level performance:  “improved design and construction incorporating passive solar, superinsulation, and double envelope construction can greatly reduce energy requirements”.  The 1980 goal of thoroughly separating inside and outside is available on high performance new homes, but leakage from over 100 million existing homes remains a significant element of growing energy demand.


Residential demand has not been curbed because most interior space is surrounded by thermal defects such as lumber, pipes, wires, ducts and electrical boxes.  This is like wearing a flannel shirt when you need a parka.  Leakage can be nearly eliminated by applying high performance “wrap” technology to the rafter/wall structure of existing homes.

With insulation around ceiling joist, a home’s attic becomes hot in summer, pulling cool air from the house.  In winter, the cold attic pulls heated air.  Thermal leakage has become an accepted feature in the residential sector.  Once the thermostat is set, few think about the effectiveness of their home’s thermal shell. 

   infra-red photo


One effort to reach beyond conventional efficiency programs is in Camden, Arkansas.  In 2016, the Ouachita Electric Coop spent $1.6 million on upgrades to reduce energy use by their members.  In contrast to the typical business strategy of selling more, Ouachita offers an incentive for members to buy less.  Without new expense, owners and renters enjoy on-bill financed efficiency upgrades.

Ouachita Electric’s progressive financing model is described in their 2017 report, “Inclusive Financing for Energy Efficiency”.  Regardless of occupant credit, efficiency loans are secured by the certainty of future electricity sales to the home.

The 2017 report ends by looking at a future of “deep energy savings while creating value for all members and fueling local economic development”.  Ouachita Electric could move toward that future by cutting residential thermal leakage. Insulation products (rigid board and spray foam) that reduce a home’s need for energy are available to local contractors.

   Owens Corning

A utility’s need for long-term reliability creates an incentive to finance thermal retrofits, and a home’s long-term need for energy assures repayment of the loan.  Ouachita General Manager Mark Cayce agreed during a phone conversation: “you’ve opened our eyes to the value of thermal performance for our members…with the local jobs and reduced peak load, we’re taking a close look at this”.

Improved comfort and resilience add value to a thermal retrofit.  Details about the step after weatherization are in “Thermal Optimization:  A Private Sector Program for Energy Efficiency”. Thermal performance is the only option that can reduce residential demand, since the efficiency is from products that don’t require energy.


Atmospheric pollution is sprinting from 410 to 420 ppm even faster than the 3 year dash from 400 to 410 ppm.  Natural gas, the primary fuel for residential HVAC, is now driving the US contribution:  since 2016, the bridge fuel has been responsible for more US carbon emissions than coal in addition to significant methane emissions. 

Renewable energy is the popular option for balancing supply with growing demand.  Although the cost of rooftop solar is falling, utility scale systems remain expensive, as seen recently in SDG&E’s 400% rate increase proposal.  And few are aware of a 2017 reminder from Solar Daily: “expansion of renewable energy cannot by itself stave off catastrophic climate change”. 

While technology continues to develop, thermal retrofits can drop demand closer to a level that renewable energy is able to supply.  Taking residential performance to the step after weatherization is an essential element of a sustainable energy system.

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Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Nov 1, 2019

Rick, thanks for this article.  It seems many utilities are mostly focused on EE appliances, light fixtures etc.  Is this because this is an easier area to tackle?  You also mentioned old leaky homes, but I can say from my own experience that new homes have the same issue.  I can feel cold air blowing in from some of my windows.  I think the nearer homes may even been worse as they are building homes faster than ever and cutting corners.   How can utilities help solve these issues? 

Rick Barnett's picture
Rick Barnett on Nov 1, 2019

Current efficiency programs promote efficiency products, most of which require energy to function.  Leakage is prevented with a thermal system that doesn’t require energy, doesn’t deteriorate, and functions for the life of a home. A thermal system allows the demand reduction to be measured, and it only cuts space conditioning energy, the largest type of residential consumption.  Any utility that recognizes the need for demand reduction can negotiate with local contractors to retrofit customer homes at a cost that can be recovered within a reasonable time period.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 1, 2019

Thanks for sharing, Rick. Energy efficiency is obviously important for many reasons, but in terms of large-scale attempts to match supply and demand in a way that doesn't tip the climate scales, do you think the ROI of residential efficiency is worth the investment when compared with other strategies like attacking industrial energy, transportation, or decarbonizaing the electric power sector? Obviously we don't have to choose any particular solution exclusively, but I also worry that too much of an 'all of the above' might dilute attention and resources, making a focus on the optimal solutions that much more important

Rick Barnett's picture
Rick Barnett on Nov 2, 2019

the utility-financed thermal retrofit that i suggest would measurably cut a home's demand for space conditioning energy.  The certainty of this demand reduction would allow the utility to permanently reduce the amount of purchased energy.  The payback period for this investment would be based on local contractor pricing.

You compare thermal efficiency to broader climate solutions that have unknown price tags, payback periods and measurable emission reduction.  I consider the certainty of near-term demand reduction to be the biggest reason for a utility to find out how much local contractors would charge to thoroughly seal customer homes.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 3, 2019

 I consider the certainty of near-term demand reduction to be the biggest reason for a utility to find out how much local contractors would charge to thoroughly seal customer homes.

That's a great point-- well put, Rick. And thanks for your insights!

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Nov 5, 2019

Rick, thanks for highlighting the potential energy savings from better thermal management in well-insulated homes. Good thermal design in newly built houses is one thing; upgrades and retrofits for older homes, as I'm sure you know, is quite another.

To go beyond the standard weatherization measures that most people know about, the homeowner may be looking at a major remodel. Justifying it on the basis of energy savings alone is difficult. But roofs do ocassionally need to be replaced, or new siding installed, or remodeling performed for other reasons. Those present opportunities to upgrade thermal efficiency. There are some good products now available, but the average low bid contractor may not know about them.

That's where energy efficiency programs from utility companies can help. By making customers aware of the payoff potential and providing links to information on qualified products, contractors, and consultants, they can generate "negawatts" that benefit everyone.

One important caveat, however, is the heat leakage "path of least resistance" principle. Efforts should always be focused primarily on the areas of greatest leakage. My house in California, for example, is fairly well insulated. Yet we burn more gas for heating, and consume more electricity for cooling than we should. The "weakest link" in our home's energy efficiency turns out to be my wife's respiratory health and comfort. She likes fresh air, and suffers when the house feels stuffy. Cooking odors from frying or toasting are especially problematic. So there are times when it's cool outside and the heater is running, because she insists on leaving a couple of windows open.

If I try to object, she asks me how much the extra heating or cooling is actually costing us. The answer, when I estimate it, comes out to a dollar or two per day, on those days when she feels the need to "let in some fresh air". She just looks at me and doesn't quite say "and you're making a fuss about that?" I don't have a good comeback.

There are good solutions for this sort of problem that don't involve divorce. Air-to-air heat and humidity exchangers enable fresh air exchanges in tightly sealed houses at low energy cost. They can be coupled with high quality air filtration and purification systems so that make indoor air quality better than outdoor. But like many other measures, they are more practical when designed in to new construction. Retrofits are possible, but hard to justify in terms of energy cost savings. 

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Nov 5, 2019

Thanks for your insights. Curious if you know of any utilities out there that are currently running successful programs to help with this issue? 

Rick Barnett's picture
Rick Barnett on Nov 5, 2019


Even with incentives, homeowners are not able to prioritize the long term benefit of thermal performance vs. the immediate return on a new coutertop or floor.  That's why I promote utility financing, based on their long term interest to sell energy to the home.  If contractors can offer a thermal retrofit that allows on-bill financing to recover the investment in a reasonable amount of time, utilities are more likely to move in this direction

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