Energy efficiency options for all budgets

We talked to Jasmina Burek, an energy-efficiency expert, to help us understand the new incentives and rebates available.

With the new tax incentives and rebates for home energy-efficiency upgrades in the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s a lot to know about how and when to apply for them. More specific details are yet to come, but while I was Googling my way to whatever details we can share now, I found Jasmina Burek. She wrote this must-read piece for The Conversation, an independent news website. I found it more helpful than most of the news stories, so I got in touch we had a chat – or, actually, since it’s 2022, a Zoom.  

Jasmina is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and an expert in using computer modeling to evaluate how our homes use energy. In other words, she knows how to figure out what we should expect from any energy-efficiency upgrade and has some great advice on how best to do it. Lucky for us, she’s also interested in how to translate her kind of technical knowledge into a language we can all understand. Our conversation was so informative that I’m sharing it here.

 

The new (Inflation Reduction Act) law’s supporters say its incentives and rebates could save people $500 to $1,000 a year over time. How easy is it to get that benefit, and where should people start?  

I’m not sure exactly how they calculated that figure, but it’s likely an average. The savings could be larger or smaller for you, depending on your house. The first step is to see whether your house is efficient or not. So the first incentive I would try to qualify for is the $150 toward an energy audit of your house. Or you could do it yourself using the Department of Energy’s DIY guide. That will tell you where your trouble spots are – especially where you might have air leaks in your windows and doors. Those leaks are responsible for 25% to 30% of energy costs in a house.  

The second thing I would do is to fill those leaks, which is called weatherization work. It means adding weatherstripping around your windows and doors and fixing holes in floors, walls, and ceilings. The Inflation Reduction Act gives you tax credits of up to $1,200 a year for that and in-store rebates of up to $1,600 if you are a low- or moderate-income household. (to find out if your household qualifies as low or moderate income, use this guide). The great thing is that fixing those leaks has the most impact and lowest cost of anything else you could do to boost your home’s energy efficiency. Especially if you live in a house built before the 1980s. Building codes underwent a lot of change in the 1980s. 

 

It would be great to use all these incentives to get all the things: an electric car and all new windows and more insulation and solar panels and a new furnace with a heat pump and so on. But even with the incentives, I couldn’t afford to do all that at once. What should be my top priorities? 

After you’ve fixed those leaks, the next-biggest money savings comes from using LED lightbulbs. But when it comes to the big upgrades, windows are the obvious next step, especially if they are 20 years old or older.  

It’s definitely important to do things in the right order. It would be pointless to buy a new efficient furnace if you have older windows. Solar panels are another example. Many people want to buy solar panels, but if they don’t weatherize, buy new windows, and add an efficient furnace, they would need to buy more solar panels to do the job. If you do the efficiency upgrades first, then you need to spend less to get the solar system you need. Instead of buying ten solar panels, you might just need five, for example.  

Of course, if money is no object, then do it all simultaneously. But money is an object for most people.  

 

It sure is! It’s great to know that some cheaper fixes are also bigger fixes, but how long should it take? Is there even a point if it takes years? 

I am often asked this question. And people do wonder whether it really matters if we can’t do it all. Most of us have limited financial resources. But the important thing to remember is that you don’t have to go all the way. You can start with small changes and still make a difference. You don’t even have to replace every window at the same time. You can go one or two at a time if that’s better for you.  

 

Jasmina Burek photo

Jasmina’s labat UMass Lowell works on ways to improve sustainability in buildings and homes by finding cost-effective design solutions to decrease their energy demand and carbon footprint.  Specifically, Sustainable and Resilient Buildings Research focuses on mitigating climate change’s urban risks and advancing quantitative environmental analysis for building energy and resilience. For more information, visit https://jasminaburek.com/