Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Adventures in energy-audit land

About a year ago, I went to a meeting sponsored by our local councilperson about saving energy. Frankly, I expected it to be the usual pablum - put in CFLs - but in fact it was fascinating. I was especially entranced by a Con Edison official who'd done his own green retrofit and took us through all the tax credits, rebates and tax deductions that made it practically free.

This summer I finally decided that it was time to put our money where my mouth is and try to make our 140-year old brownstone at least somewhat energy-efficient. So last month we got an energy audit. Somewhat to my surprise, it turns out our house is in pretty good shape, and our appliances are pretty green. The big exception (no surprise): our oil-fueled boiler, a noisy, smelly hulking black monster that once upon a time burned coal.

The surprises have come since, and the biggest one is that getting all these tax breaks is by no means a simple business. Our energy audit was conducted by a contractor licensed by NYSERDA (New York State's energy department), which hands out the state's 25% rebate for green improvements...but only if the work is done by a NYSERDA-licensed contractor. Unfortunately, there are very few NYSERDA-licensed contractors in the New York City area. There are, in fact, even fewer than NYSERDA thinks there are, as I discovered when I started calling them and discovered that several had gone out of business. Most of those left - like the company that did our energy audit - specialize in insulation.

Our contractor knew of
only one NYSERDA-licensed heating contractor, so we called him for an estimate on replacing our boiler, either with another oil-burning boiler or with a gas-burning one.

First surprise: the most energy-efficient heating systems use forced air or forced hot water. They do not use the system endemic in New York City (as well as, presumably, in the Iowa city where The Pajama Game is set): steam heat.

Second surprise: if you want a NYSERDA rebate, gas is out: there are no gas-fueled steam boilers efficient enough to meet NYSERDA's standards. (Of course we could install a whole new heating system, but replacing all the radiators and much of the plumbing in a four-story brownstone is stratospherically beyond our budget.)

It is, however, possible to buy an oil-burning boiler that just scrapes by. So I had the contractor come over to give me an estimate.

It was when I got his seven-page contract, two copies, all ready for me to sign and return, that I realized this really wasn't going to be simple. To replace the boiler, he wanted $20,500. To replace a single radiator valve, he wanted $600. (There are 15 radiators in our house, and they probably all need new valves.)

I knew it was going to be expensive to replace the boiler - why else hadn't we done it in the 30 years we've lived here (at 62 degrees in wintertime - with plastic on the windows - to keep the oil bills under control)? But $20,000? Sure, the NYSERDA rebate would cover roughly a quarter of that. And since getting NYSERDA certification takes time and trouble, I'm willing to pay a slightly higher price. But $20,000?

I called up Heat USA, the highly-to-be-recommended (if you use heating oil) coop that's helped us keep our oil bills at a manageable level, and asked what one of their plumbers would charge to replace a boiler. The answer? Even if we bought the most efficient boiler made, we would be hard-pressed to spend as much as $10,000.

Armed with that information, I called up National Grid (formerly Keyspan and before that, Brooklyn Union Gas, and stuck forever in my memory as BUG) and got them to send a plumber out to give me an estimate on the cost of switching to gas (which is what I, an at-least-halfway believer in peak oil, wanted to do all along). That estimate? $7,000, give or take - and a $500 credit from National Grid.

As I talked to all these guys, I discovered that there's an oil vs gas battle raging in New York, and right now the gas forces have the oil army on the defensive. Oil won't explode! the oil guy says. You can't get a service contract for a gas boiler! You have to install a chimney liner! It costs thousands of dollars!

Well, actually, said the gas man, you do have a steel lining. (I suspected as much, because we'd paid a small fortune some years back to replace the damn thing.) You can get a service contract - but when was the last time you had problems with your gas water heater?

What about price, I asked? Oil has generally been cheaper, said the oil man. Gas was cheaper last year, said the gas man. No help there. Faced with a decision whose results will likely outlive me, I consulted my son, who will inherit them. Since future prices are a mystery, he advised, go with the option that's cheaper to install.

So gas it is (ta-da!). And just one step into what's obviously going to be a long and painful road, here's realization number one: whoever wrote the rules for NYSERDA's program lived in the suburbs. Closely followed by realization number two: there's at least one NYSERDA contractor out there who doesn't expect customers to figure out that 75% of $20,000 is a hell of a lot more than $10,000.

Next problem: asbestos. Stay tuned.

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