…turning trash back into treasure

IV. LIPA and NYSERDA Case Studies

1.      The Need for Case Studies

Trying to make sense of the evolving home energy efficiency transition programs without actually going through the process was extremely difficult and mind boggling.  A single resource that put the different programs together like the proceeding sections of this report could not be found.  There was also a huge mystery of what to expect, what the overall expense would add up to or what legal requirements may arise.  If this is how I, a person with construction experience, felt when beginning this process, is it possible to imagine that an ordinary homeowner would be completely turned off by this program structure?   Fortunately, two homeowners were found who were willing to at least take the initial step to get a Home Performance Assessment.

2.      Calverton, Long Island (LIPA)

The first homeowner who was interested in increasing the energy efficiency of her home was a 34 year old single public school teacher. In 2008 she purchased her first home, a 1951 Cape Cod style home in Calverton, NY which is serviced by LIPA.  In 2009, she was informed that her property taxes would increase from $7,000 to $10,000 per year, a sizable amount that she did not expect and could not afford.  In hopes to cut down her taxes and overall utility costs, she was interested in participating in the “green” tax credit programs that she had heard of and turned to me for help.

After evaluating her home, we determined the following options were available to her that upgraded her home in accordance with the federal tax credit program; replacing her windows and doors with ENERGY STAR certified products and reinsulating her second floor attic space or possibly building out the walls to create habitable bedrooms.  Frustrated with the inability to find out information from LIPA on hiring “green” contractors or the possible financial assistance programs that she may qualify for, we decided to focus on simply replacing her windows since changing the walls of the second floor may consequently increase her taxes even more.

A list of her current window dimensions were made and brought to the local Lowe’s for a general quote for replacement windows that qualified for the ENERGY STAR tax credit program.  Since Lowe’s advertises these credits, it was understand that they sell products that help satisfy the criteria.  A return quote for materials and installation was $6,222 for 14 windows.  It was unclear how much was labor and how much was product and how much she would qualify for in tax credits.  She could not get the answer to those questions until after she purchased, installed the windows and applied for the credit.  In order to avoid a trap which would ruin her financially, all to reduce her taxes by a possible few hundred dollars, the homeowner replaced 2 windows, moved in with a friend and is now leasing out her house with the option to buy.

3.      Howard Beach, New York City (NYSERDA)

The second homeowner who was interested in increasing the energy efficiency of her home was a 76 year old married Vietnam veteran and physician who has owned her 2 family home since it was built in 1971.  In 2008 and 2009, the homeowner replaced her old rotted wood double hung windows with new vinyl ENERGY STAR certified casement windows but never applied for the federal tax credit.  Hoping to not make the same mistake, she agreed to participate in the program by hiring  a BPI certified company advertised by NYSERDA.  This contractor will be referred to as Mr. P.  An extreme amount of faith was put into Mr. P because it was thought that he had experience with the home energy efficiency transition procedure as implied by NYSERDA.[1] It was asked of him to perform the necessary tests on the home that are required to correctly take advantage of the home energy efficiency transition incentives.  We were under the impression that we would get a ‘Comprehensive’ Home Assessment as advertised by both the federal and state agencies that promote this program.  It was never stated to us that Mr. P was only certified to do a basic envelope test.

As predicted by NYSERDA, the appointment with Mr. P took about 3 hours.  He inspected for air leaks using a thermal leak detector and a door blower test but did not attempt to evaluate the mechanical systems of the house.  At the end of the appointment, $300 was charged and a few days later an estimate totaling $4,345 for insulation[2] was received without a Comprehensive Home Assessment.  Out of $4,345, $3,215 was quoted to blow in insulation over an already insulated 1,800 square foot attic space.  The homeowner was extremely discouraged as was I, the person promising guidance through this tangled web.  Mr. P made no attempt to follow up on the estimate and when asked about the Comprehensive Home Assessment, evasive excuses were made.  Finally, Mr. P agreed to put together and send out the incomplete assessment in the mail[3] and recommended a mechanical professional who was certified to audit the central air conditioning system and furnace (which would cost another $300). Ironically when we received the assessment, it was completed under the LIPA program/software and did not correspond to the homeowner’s utility company of National Grid.    Does this sound odd and confusing?  Does it seem like the homeowner paid $300 to have someone put a fan on her door and give her an inflated estimate?

Aside from myself, an independent consultant, there wasn’t anyone there to protect the homeowner from a ‘contractor’ who is overcharging for adding insulation over an already insulated attic and caulking a sill under a set of stairs.  Given that Mr. P gave the homeowner a LIPA assessment, there was an increased  red-tape possibility that the homeowner would not qualify for the National Grid rebate  after the work was completed and the rebate was applied for. If Mr. P would have given the homeowner the correct National Grid ‘Comprehensive’ Home Assessment, we could have continued to searched for contractors who were willing to give an honest estimate for the work that needed to be done.   However, there is always the red-tape possibility that she wouldn’t qualify for a National Grid rebate at the end of that road either, especially if the honest estimate came from a non-BPI certified contractor.   It is also noted that the utility companies hire a third party that evaluates the BPI certified contractors for ‘quality assurance’ but that step comes after work has been performed and a rebate is applied for.

Unfortunately these events support my originally theory that this policy is structured to benefit the quick transfer of money within a growing “green jobs” industry and not really based on helping or protecting the homeowner or the environment.  The policy makers seem eager for that monetary value that they can associate with this sector without regard to the many homeowners that were taken advantage of to get that statistical number.   The way the system is structured, it seems that a BPI certified contractor has more support and representation that a homeowner would.  The homeowner, who is the foundation of this system, is being asked to open up their wallet and if they are unhappy at the end, they can voice their ‘opinion’.  Why isn’t there more public discourse regarding the lack of initial homeowner support in this process?  Could it be that the program is so confusing that very few homeowners take the first step to call the BPI certified contractors in the first place?


[1] NYSERDA: What to Expect http://www.getenergysmart.org/SingleFamilyHomes/ExistingBuilding/HomeOwner/Participate.aspx

[2] Mr. Ps Estimate Document

[3] Mr P’s Comprehensive Home Assessment Document

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