Meeting the Demand for Home Efficiency

Source: Baltimore Sun

By Will Morton

Kathleen Deimler had a ritual at her old home on Herring Creek near Ocean City: Come winter, she would shroud the sunroom in plastic in an attempt to protect against the weather.

“I was cold all the time,” said the retired hospital secretary.

So when she and her husband decided to buy a home closer to his workshop and garden, Deimler knew what she wanted.

“I was shopping for an Energy Star home,” said Deimler, 71.

The couple chose a Cape Cod-style farmhouse built three years ago by T&G Builders of Berlin, a mile from the ocean and with high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, high-performance windows and an energy-saving water heater.

The Deimlers no longer worry about drafty windows, interior cold fronts or bills that threaten to unbalance their budget. They estimate that energy for their new home costs them $70 to $90 a month, about half of their old bill.

“I’m not spending as much money on the electric bill as I was,” Deimler said. With the new electric heat pump and gas-powered backup for especially cold weather, she said, “it’s a lot more comfortable.”

Started by the federal government in 1992 to reduce greenhouse gases from computers and monitors, the Energy Star program has gradually been broadened to household appliances, office equipment, home electronics, lighting and new homes. To win that designation, houses have to exceed national code requirements by at least 30 percent (or 15 percent more than state codes, if those codes are more stringent).

About 132,000 Energy Star homes were built last year, up from about 5,500 homes in 1998, said Sam Rashkin, the program’s national director.

With predictions that home heating bills could soar as much as 47 percent this winter, that number could grow even faster as builders look for a competitive edge in appealing to buyers concerned about energy costs.

Builders like Energy Star because it brings in increased revenue without driving up costs much. And builders get in on a national advertising campaign, which in Maryland has Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appearing plugging energy-efficient homes in TV ads.

Achieving Energy Star designation typically costs a builder up to $1,500 and adds $1,000 to $2,500 to the average home’s sales price, Rashkin said.

Builders say the numbers vary more widely. Energy Star houses cost up to $5,000 more to build, but the homes are priced the same as regular houses to remain competitive, said Joe Gregory, purchasing manager of Edgewood-based homebuilder Bob Ward Cos.

Either way, that’s good news for builders, who initially signed on to stand out from the competition, Rashkin said. Others joined later to keep up, especially as energy costs become front-page news.

“If the cost of fuel prices wasn’t going through the roof, the builder wouldn’t want to build Energy Star,” said John Loyer, a specialist with the National Association of Home Builders, a 220,000 member trade group.

Energy Star homes make sense for consumers, too, experts say, because they can rely on the standards to deliver savings.

“These days, given what’s happening to the prices for electricity, natural gas and heating oil, any sensible homebuyer ought to be looking for ways to cut their energy costs,” said Ronald B. Gold, vice president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, a New York-based not-for-profit that studies energy economics. “This is one easy signal that the house is going to do that.”

“It’s a great strategy toward hedging any risk with energy prices in the future,” said Jennifer Thorne Amann, senior associate at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group.

“With Energy Star, you can trust that the house you’re going to buy is going to be among the more efficient homes out there,” said Amann, co-author of the group’s consumer guide to energy savings.