Volume 12, Issue 5 - June 2011

Eye On Energy

Repair or Replace?
Weatherization Program Says Repair
by Arlene Stewart

I recently spent two weeks in a beta test for intermediate Department of Energy (DOE) weatherization training. The little program that could has been chugging along since it was granted savior-like status in the stimulus package. I had high hopes for the work when the increased funding was announced two years ago, but this was my first opportunity to really get involved. As a rater, I expected to slip right in since I’ve been evaluating and recommending energy efficiency improvements for years. I wonder how many others have experienced the culture shock I did.

What is Weatherization?
I knew that weatherization targeted low-income families, but that knowledge becomes infinitely more real when you start crawling around a qualifying house. While Merriam-Webster defines weatherization as “to make a house better protected against weather,” in actuality, it is more remedial. First and foremost, it’s about making the home safe, especially when combustion appliances are present. Second, it’s about bringing the house back to a minimum state, like replacing weatherstripping, realigning doors and teaching occupants how to operate their homes. Next comes improving what is already installed, like wrapping the water heater with insulation. Then, if there is anything left of the typical $5,000 allotment per house, maybe you can get to actually upgrading features, like appliances, systems or windows.

Except you can’t.

“We repair windows, we don’t replace them,” said my instructor. “The clients want you to, but you can’t do that.” We can replace heating systems and refrigerators, but not windows? Color me stunned. I knew windows were a tough improvement to justify on return-on-investment, but a blanket prohibition? What’s with that?

Apparently, years ago, in the early days of the program, windows were a favorite improvement—so much so that the basics were neglected. A low-income house would have state-of-the-art windows, but the wind would be blowing like mad through the holes in the walls.

"We repair windows, we don’t replace them,” said my instructor. “The clients want you to, but you can’t do that."

Pushing for Replacement
Still, window replacement in weatherization is not without its advocates. Ian Shapiro and his team at Taitem Engineering in Ithaca, N.Y., have been searching for ways to show just how big an impact window replacement can have.

“My fear is that we are underestimating the energy loss, especially [with] single-pane,” said Shapiro.

Funded by a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Taitem has developed a way to derive U-factors in the field that the agency feels are relatively close to tested National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) ratings. In this way, NYSERDA is hoping to show just how important window replacements are. For example, the method could show how important it is to replace a single-pane window located over a radiator because the heat loss would be so much greater in close vicinity of a heat source.

I have mixed feelings about the prospect of this U-factor method hitting the streets. On one hand, I’m all for any help that the industry can get to justify window replacement. On the other hand, NFRC ratings (and ASHRAE defaults for unlabeled units) were created to level the playing field, deliberately ignoring site and user specific variables. I worry that Taitem’s method will migrate out of weatherization, to be used by the uninformed or unscrupulous to discredit manufacturer claims on new construction or mainstream retrofits. The method has a 10 percent margin of error, which would be easy to exploit, though Taitem has applied for additional NYSERDA funding to further refine its accuracy.

Clearly though, the people doing these evaluations would appreciate a field U-factor method. A vast majority of the session attendees at 2011 RESNET Conference, where Shapiro premiered the method, wanted to use the method immediately. Nature abhors a vacuum, and window manufacturers need to continue the efforts they are making for cost-competitive window replacements, because we will continue to see non-fenestration folk trying to justify their purchases or not making purchases at all. y

Arlene Zavocki Stewart is a nationally known energy and green building advocate. Ms. Stewart’s opinions are solely her own and not necessarily those of this magazine.


DWM

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