Labor Day is behind us, and the kids are back in school. The days have been noticeably shorter and the swamp maples are beginning to turn. Alas, summer doesn’t last forever, and it’s time to think about readying the house for winter.

This year, thanks to an infusion of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Efficiency Maine has a Home Energy Savings Program that offers homeowners incentives to have their homes audited by professionals and retrofitted to reduce energy consumption. (A similar program is available for businesses.) Maine was targeted for funding because there are so many older homes here and winter heating costs are very high.

How does the program work?

It all begins with an energy audit. The audit provides a report with observations and recommendations for each area of the house: the exterior, the cellar, each floor, and the attic.

The audit will tell you what needs to be done to conserve energy and what materials to use. The recommendations are prioritized with health and safety factors at the top of the list, followed by a listing of steps in order of highest to lowest energy savings. 

Who is eligible?

Single- and multi-family homes are eligible, along with apartments of up to four units. Mobile homes built after 1976 are eligible. All income levels are eligible. 

What kinds of rebates are available?

There are two levels of rebates. If the audit determines you will save at least 25 percent on energy costs, you can be reimbursed 30 percent of the cost of the retrofits, up to $1,500.

If your energy savings reach 50 percent, you are eligible for 30 percent reimbursement up to a maximum of $3,000. Rebates must be pre-approved. You auditor will submit the report and paperwork to Efficiency Maine for approval.

Cheryl Shattenberg manages and ensures quality control of Home Energy Evaluation Testing at Community Concepts. She trains new energy auditors for Community Concepts and the Maine Housing Authority. Community Concepts is headquartered in South Paris, but does energy audits from north of Waterville to Maine’s southern border.

The audit is key

“Most people don’t understand the complexity of the audit. A good energy evaluation looks at cause and effect and understands that one change affects all the other parts. Anyone you hire for an audit should be a certified BPI professional. The Building Performance Institute has established national standards for home performance and weatherization,” said Shattenberg.

“The house really needs to be looked at as a whole,” she said. “We consider health and safety first.”

Examples of health and safety concerns are indoor air quality, fire prevention, and moisture build-up that could cause mold.

“The exterior has a story to tell,” said Shattenberg. Observing your house from the outside, and auditor will look for drainage problems where the grade does not slope away from the house, exhaust vents, peeling paint in large strips (indicating the area is not insulated), condition of the roof, chimney flashing, basement windows, type of windows and doors and the condition they are in.

Thinking about insulating your attic? “Before you add the insulation, you need to check what’s there. Do you have insulation containing vermiculite? It contains asbestos, and you don’t want to disturb it because the asbestos can become airborne. You can’t insulate over knob and tube electrical wiring, because it can get hot and start a fire. You’d have to have an electrician rewire it first.”

An auditor will ensure you know what steps to follow. “It’s not simple,” said Shattenberg. 

What does an audit cost?

At Community Concepts, an audit for a single-family house up to 1,500 square feet costs $300. The maximum charged for a single-family house is $500. Costs throughout the state may be higher. 

How do you find an auditor?

Participating energy auditors are located all over Maine. At Efficiency Maine’s website, you can search for a certified auditor by zip code and distance from your house. You can also search based on the number of audits a practitioner has done.

“It’s really important the work is done right,” Shattenberg stressed. “Make sure you hire someone who cares and is thorough.”

Auditors figure the energy savings using a computer-modeling program. They send the report to Efficiency Maine along with the rebate paperwork. At Community Concepts, auditors compile a bid sheet itemizing materials and labor. They write contracts with the homeowner and with the contractor. “We oversee and coordinate the entire process. Our goal is to look out for the best interests of the homeowner,” said Shattenberg. 

What’s an average retrofit cost?

The cost of the retrofit varies greatly from house to house, even similar houses built in the same year. “Each home has its own quirky little things going on,” said Shattenberg. “Every home has its own personality, reflecting the people who live there.” 

Is the program popular?

“It’s been crazy!” exclaimed Shattenberg. “I could use six more full-time auditors to keep up with demand.”

The incentives offered through Efficiency Maine will end December 2012. Shattenberg hopes funds can be found to extend the program beyond that date. “There’s an incredible need to cut energy costs in this state. Homeowners need the money they’re spending on energy costs for other things and we need to reduce our carbon footprint.”

For more information, go to Efficiency Maine at www.eficiencymaine.com or call 1-866-376-2463. Cheryl Shattenberg can be reached at Community Concepts: 743-7716.

Ellen S. Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Norway.