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
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.
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
“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.
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