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Philadelphia: The City of Energy Savings

February 28, 2013 - 2:51pm

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Philadelphia has a rich and storied history, much of which is reflected in its housing stock. Predating modern energy-efficient designs, these historic homes are hard to heat and cool -- wasting energy and raising energy bills. To help homeowners save money and improve comfort, Philadelphia neighborhoods, nonprofits and the local government are partnering to improve the energy efficiency of the city’s homes.

With a grant from the Energy Department’s Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, Philadelphia and its surrounding counties started EnergyWorks -- a public program designed to make energy efficiency improvements easy and affordable. EnergyWorks offers a range of programs, including the Select Neighborhoods Partnership, to assist homeowners in the area by making available reduced-cost home energy audits and low-interest financing for energy efficient upgrades.

In Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood, many of the homes were built in the 19th century when coal was the primary heating fuel and higher air flow was necessary to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Often homes in this neighborhood have four times higher air flow than the target air leakage amount -- wasting homeowners’ money and energy. University City District, a nonprofit special services district for the neighborhood, saw the EnergyWork’s Select Neighborhoods Partnership as a way to help University City homeowners improve their quality of life and save money.

Working with the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) -- the local nonprofit that administers EnergyWorks’ residential programs -- University City District found a home energy auditor who had previously worked in the neighborhood and had experience with older homes. Because homeowners were aggregated in a specific geographical location, University City District was able to negotiate a reduced rate -- 50 percent lower than the already low-cost audit EnergyWorks offers individual homeowners -- for the 36 residents who signed up for the program.

“It can be really hard to get people over the initial hump of getting the audit,” says Seth Budick, Manager of Policy and Research at University City District. “By offering the really reduced rate audit, we have been able to reduce the barrier of entry, helping increase participation.”

Following the audit, 10 homeowners worked with a professional contractor to make energy efficiency upgrades -- including air sealing, adding insulation and replacing ductwork -- and four homeowners took advantage of the low-interest financing EnergyWorks offers. Thanks to upgrades, one homeowner was able to achieve a 27 percent reduction in air flow -- improving the comfort of his house all year long.

The best thing about the Selected Neighborhoods Partnership for University City District was the feedback from the residents. “The level of enthusiasm that we have had from the community has been strong and reassuring,” said Budick. The response was so positive University City District decided to coordinate a second Select Neighborhoods Partnership this year. Forty-six homeowners -- including Budick -- have signed up for the program, which started last month. So far 20 home energy audits have been completed, and one homeowner has already contracted to have energy efficiency upgrades.

Thanks to the Select Neighborhoods Partnership, almost 2.5 percent of homeowners in University City have had home energy audits performed -- a service that many homeowners feel they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do without the program.

Interested in improving the efficiency of your home? Through the Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, more than 40 state and local governments have developed programs to improve building efficiency. Visit the Better Buildings Neighborhood Program to find a program in your state. And be sure to check out Energy Saver for tips and advice on ways to save energy and money.

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