By Mike McKibbin
There’s living off the grid, then there’s living carbon-free.
Wheat Ridge resident Eric Wilson worked on his nearly 70-year-old home for five years to make it energy efficient and carbon-free.
“I pay a lot of attention to my carbon footprint and things like how much I drive and how much meat I eat,” Wilson said in an interview. “Since I work in the field of home energy efficiency, we thought it made sense to do this with our house.”
Wilson joined the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden in 2010, has performed energy audits and design assistance for a state energy program and conducted blower door tests on tribal housing. But Wilson said such a background is not necessary to undertake this type of project.
Wilson said he and his wife bought their first home in 2012 — a less than 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, single-family home built in 1950 in the eastern part of Wheat Ridge, near 38th Avenue and Harlan Street.
Wilson said he knew of a special mortgage program that granted a 50 percent state incentive if home energy efficiency steps were taken within the first 90 days of home ownership. Xcel Energy offered other energy rebates, along with the bank the Wilsons used for a home loan.
“All told, we got about $4,000 of work done for around $1,000,” Wilson said.
Among the steps taken were air sealing the house, including attic leaks, then adding about one foot of cellulose insulation of shredded newspapers, Wilson stated. Wall insulation was blown in through holes drilled every 16 inches around the outside of the home. Most of the insulation work was done before the family moved in, Wilson said.
“That made the rooms a lot more comfortable,” he added.
Attic insulation also helps keep humidity levels low and prevents rooftop ice freezes, Wilson said. The home’s crawl space was also air sealed.
A 15- to 20-year-old gas boiler that heated the house needed to be replaced about three years after the family moved in, Wilson said. An electric heat pump was installed since the home did not have heating ducts used by natural gas furnaces, he added. The system doubles as a summer air conditioner of sorts to help keep the house cool when temperatures rise, Wilson said.
“There is a perception that heat pumps don’t work well in the kind of climate we have in Colorado,” he noted. “But modern heat pumps have come a long way. They’re much more efficient and can heat a home even when it gets to 15 below zero like it’s been here lately. We’re completely happy and it’s kept our house nice and warm.”
Small backup electric heaters are present but not used too often, Wilson said.
Wilson estimated the heat pump’s $5,000 cost was recovered almost immediately through lower heating bills. A new gas boiler could have cost around $12,000, he added, while geothermal heating and cooling was another consideration but cost more than $20,000.
The Wilsons also replaced a gas water heater with an electric heater, while the home’s stove and clothes drier were already electric and it had double-pane windows, Wilson added. The family spent less on all the improvements than the cost of a new gas boiler or furnace, he stated.
While the Wilsons get all their electricity from Xcel’s Windsource program, which charges a slightly higher rate than natural gas-produced electricity, the family’s utility bills are slightly lower than last year. That’s despite the perception electrical heating is more expensive than natural gas.
“So we were able to turn off our gas connection, which saves us a $14-a-month connection charge,” Wilson said.
Other improvements were venting kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans to the roof instead of the attic, which helps reduce rooftop ice freezes. The couple thought about replacing a solid wood door, but decided “it was really part of the house and we enjoy the older aesthetics of a home like this.”
Wilson advised someone considering a similar project to carefully screen a contractor to ensure they are qualified and experienced in the type of work involved.
“Make sure they are committed to energy savings and don’t cut corners,” he said.
Home energy auditors can also help guide a homeowner, Wilson added, but cautioned against those that are too invested in selling any one system to a customer.
Wilson also explained his family’s project at a February 12 Sustainable Edgewater Seminar — hosted by the city’s sustainability committee — entitled “Vintage Home Carbon Free.”
Committee chair Lilly Allison Steirer said the City Council formed the 7-member group in early February. A temporary committee worked last year to set the groundwork for a sustainability plan to be added to Edgewater’s comprehensive plan now under revision. The committee plans to present its draft plan to the council in August.
“The city has had a recycling program for about the last 10 years, and we want to look at that and things like greenhouse gas emissions,” Allison Steirer said.
Feedback will be gathered through a citywide survey and a planned March 19 open house with the city’s recycling provider, Republic Waste Management. Energy use, land and water use are other areas the committee will research, Allison Steirer added.
Future seminar topics could include rainwater harvesting and composting, she said, and once the council adopts a sustainability plan, the group will likely continue as a permanent board to oversee efforts and make regular reports.