Raising the Foundation

Energy-efficient houses create comfort and savings, lead the way to the future

Posted on Jun 12 2010 in Energy

Harrison REMC consumers Cathy and Randy Sherrod built a Touchstone Energy home in 2007 and are so pleased with its comfort and efficiency they display the home’s medallion right outside the front door. Over the course of a year, the 3,200-square foot home averages less than $25 a month to heat and cool.

Electric co-op home program reaps low bills, high praise

Randy and Cathy Sherrod pay less than $300 to heat and cool their 3,200-square-foot home. But that’s not $300 a month — which is common for a lot of folks with a home that size.

Their heating and cooling cost is less than $300  for an entire year.

You don’t have to be a retired Air Force load master who designed weight and balance systems for C-130 cargo planes and the Space Shuttle, as Randy is, to see how that annual cost balances out. That’s less than $25 a month to heat and cool their all-electric rural Harrison County home.

“It just blew us out of the water,” Sherrod said, recalling when their first bills started coming in from their electric co-op, Harrison REMC. “It opened our eyes, and we said, ‘WOW!’”

The Sherrod home was built to Indiana Touchstone Energy Home standards. Those standards guarantee comfort, energy efficiency and savings.

The program offers electric cooperative consumers statewide — working with their contractor and their co-op — the chance to live in a home built from the foundation up using the latest technologies, techniques and materials. These upgrades come together to create a home that out-performs those built merely to code with conventional practices and materials. “It starts paying off the very first month people live in the home,” said Bob Geswein, the energy-efficiency advisor at Harrison REMC, “and the comfort is immediate.”

“The Indiana Touchstone Energy Home Program is a list of prescriptive standards that, at the end of the day, provide a performance,” said Holly Yensel, who helped develop the program at Bloomington-based cooperative power supplier Hoosier Energy REC. “It is the premier home-building program in the country.”

The Touchstone Energy standards include such things as upgraded insulation, doors and windows, and all-electric heating/cooling and mechanical ventilation equipment. Also part of the standards are techniques to eliminate air infiltration or drafts. The standards create a tight “thermal boundary” and a well-controlled environment inside the home.

Once built, the home is tested and scored for its air-tightness and performance based on the home’s individual characteristics by an independent rating service. This third-party testing is key.

“Too many times you can look at a home on a blueprint, and it’s going to have this or it’s going to have that, and you’re going to say ‘that’s an energy-efficient home,’” said Yensel. “But if there were some mistakes made during construction, a wrong recessed light fixture or a poor job with the caulking package, all of a sudden that home doesn’t perform.”

A typical Indiana Touchstone Energy home exceeds performance levels set by the likes of Energy Star by as much as 30 percent and can approach 50 percent or better efficiency than the same home built just to code. Based on those performance scores, heating and cooling cost estimates are given to the homeowner and guaranteed for the first year by the electric cooperative serving the home.

“We were a little skeptical with what they gave us,” said Sherrod, “until we actually saw the bills. It certainly made believers out of us.”

Breaking ground

The Indiana Touchstone Energy Home Program was first developed by Hoosier Energy for its member co-ops in the southern half of Indiana in 2004. In 2008, Wabash Valley Power Association, the cooperative power supplier to the REMCs in the northern half of the state, adopted the program, too. Over 200 homes, mostly in southern Indiana but now also starting to spread across northern Indiana, have been built to the program’s standards.

“There’s a lot of pressure these days on utility companies to help their customers save energy. These homes don’t use very much energy,” said Laura Matney, residential energy advisor at Wabash Valley, who oversees the program there. “So it’s something we can do to help our members save energy, and they, in turn, save money.”

“The builders were looking for a program that would support them in building quality, energy-efficient homes and give them credibility — without breaking the bank. The Touchstone home program does just that,” noted John Keusch, manager of member services at Dubois REC.

The Jasper-based co-op was one of the first to actively invite builders to take a short required seminar that covers the program’s standards and to get homes under roof. “When the first homes were done, the word was passed on, and we got calls from other builders wanting to go through the program. It is truly a win, win, win situation.”

One of the first concerns people have about building a Touchstone Energy home is added cost. But many custom builders are already incorporating these upgraded products and techniques.

“If a builder is doing a good job anyway, it doesn’t take him that much more time or that much more material. So it’s not a significant extra cost to the customer,” Matney said.

“People tend to get all caught up in ‘what’s the payback’ on things like the heating and cooling and insulation. It pays back faster than cherry cabinets or granite marble counter tops,” she noted. “Put the extra money in the building envelope and insulation and heating and cooling equipment that will help you pay for the nice things like your cherry cabinets and granite counter tops. Put the money where it matters.”

National home energy efficiency guru Doug Rye tells folks that a geothermal system might add $40 a month to a 30-year mortgage, but it saves more than that each month in energy costs over conventional heating and cooling systems. So, geothermal not only pays for itself, it actually generates a positive monthly payback.

“Energy prices are going up. The more efficient the home is now, the more it’s going to save the homeowner in the future … because what goes down? Nothing,” said Jeremy Loftus, a Georgetown-area custom home builder. “Plus, with stricter criteria on power plants, that energy cost is going to get transferred to the homeowner down the road. It’s well worth the money to invest in energy efficiency now.”

tehomeLoftus and six other custom home builders will be showcasing seven model homes, all built to Touchstone Energy standards, this month at the Home Builders Association of Southern Indiana 2010 Home Expo in Georgetown. It’s by far the largest grouping of Indiana Touchstone Energy Homes and could very well make Nelson Court in Copperfield the most energy-efficient cul-de-sac in the country.

“It’s going to help open the community’s eyes a little bit more,” Josh Tanner, another of the builders, said of the expo and its focus on energy efficiency. “Homeowners will be a little bit more willing to spend, so they can save.”

“If we can parlay these seven homes into 25 or 30 other Touchstone Energy homes, then we will have accomplished what we really want to do — and that is to get it to grow,” said Geswein. Back in December, he sold the Copperfield developer and the individual builders on the ambitious goal of having all Touchstone Energy homes for this year’s expo.

Mark Jansen, of Energy Efficient Homes Midwest, which rates and certifies homes for Touchstone Energy, Energy Star and others, said Indiana’s program has strong requirements that also add to a home’s resale value. He noted in the next couple of years, energy efficiency will be built into all new homes. “The way the codes are ramping up, the builders are not going to have a choice,” he said.

Another selling point is that Touchstone homes, by saving energy, reduce a home’s carbon footprint. An average Indiana Touchstone home avoids 30,500 pounds of carbon dioxide a year compared to the same home built to current code.

Gaining ground

When school teachers Justin and Nikki Pearson were looking to build a new home south of Rochester in 2008, they weren’t thinking about energy efficiency or carbon footprints. But their builder, Brady Brower of Then & Now Construction, did.

He’d already built Touchstone Energy homes elsewhere in northern Indiana and saw the monthly savings for his customers and convinced the Pearson family of five of the benefits.

“We consider ourselves frugal. We’re careful about what we spend,” said Nikki Pearson. “When you’re heading into an investment like a new house, you always wonder if this sounds too good to be true. In this case, it worked out well.”

According to Fulton County REMC, the family’s 4,400 square foot home is averaging just under $300 a year for heating and cooling. Pearson said that was the biggest surprise. That’s what they were paying just to heat a drafty 1,300-square foot home they had been renting.

The only concession with the new home was that Nikki wanted the flame of a gas fireplace, but settled for one of the new generation electric fireplaces. “When you’re standing in our living room, you can’t tell it’s not real,” she said.

She said the home is comfortable, and gives them added comfort when they do consider the environment. “It’s nice to know you’re doing something to help out the situation in the world. If you’re starting from scratch, why not do that?”

Back down across the state, energy efficiency and the carbon footprint were top priorities for Randy and Cathy Sherrod when they first started planning their retirement home in Harrison County in early 2007. They were returning to Indiana from Texas after Randy’s career there in the Air Force. They were coming home to land adjacent to where Cathy grew up. She asked her brother, Richard Gettelfinger, a builder of modular homes, to build them an energy-efficient custom home. He agreed and began researching.

Cathy said they knew gas wasn’t going down and alternative energy sources were iffy in their area. That’s why they looked at the whole package of the home. “No matter what kind of energy you use,” she said, “it’s going to benefit you.”

They turned to Geswein at Harrison REMC for advice during one of his home-efficiency seminars. Building to the Touchstone standards was a revelation to Gettelfinger and the Sherrods. They said Gettelfinger, especially, became a taskmaster in following the standards to the letter.

The home became a family project for Randy, Cathy and her siblings. They took turns applying 242 tubes of caulk making sure every boundary seam was sealed. “We caulked and caulked and caulked. And then caulked some more,” she said.

“When we started, we didn’t understand the real benefits that were ahead of us. What you do today, pays off so much tomorrow,” said Cathy.

“When people are thinking about doing an energy-saving Touchstone home, sometimes I think they look at the cost factors and say, ‘hmmm, naw, can’t do that,’ without really sitting down and thinking about the overall picture … in let’s say five years,” said Randy. “All that cost is coming back to you in the way of cooling, heating, …”

“… Comfort …,” Cathy added, which is the thing she likes best about their home.

“… Comfort,” Randy continued, “enjoyment.”

Cathy said as they’ve gotten older, they’ve thought more about what we’re leaving to future generations. “Maybe this will help our electric bill right now, but maybe in the future it will help our kids and their grandkids and their grandkids.”

FEX_035Each Touchstone home receives a medallion. It features the “three amigos” of the Touchstone Energy logo beneath a gabled roof. When it comes to the home program, those figures could represent the co-op, the builder and the homeowner coming together to create a greener foundation on which all homes could be built.

Cathy’s advice to folks considering building a new home: “Build what you want and what you need. But if you’re going to do it, go ahead and do it the best for you and the future. There’s nothing you can say that’s bad about building an energy-efficient home.”

— by Richard G. Biever, senior editor of Electric Consumer