WAMU 88.5 : Metro Connection

Moderating Our Energy Consumption

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As the mercury starts to drop, the cost of heating our homes starts to rise. And federal officials say that may be especially true this winter, as costs spike for natural gas and heating oil. The average homeowner can expect a price hike of about $200 this winter. But an owner in Falls Church, Va. is avoiding the costs by creating an eco-friendly home.

Brian Castelli’s house looks pretty normal, but looks can be deceiving. The house is extremely energy-efficient. It’s well insulated and air tight, and the light bulbs are all energy-efficient LEDs or compact fluorescents.

“I’ve been doing this for three decades and talking about it, and I just felt that now it was time to put my money where my mouth was, and see if I could build a really super efficient home,” says Castelli, who is the executive vice president of the Alliance to Save Energy.

“The house is passively solar sited,” explains Castelli. “That means in the summer, no sun comes in through the windows, the doors, because of these long over hangs.”

The roof extends four feet out, shading the windows during the hot summer days. And in the winter, the structure allows the sun, which is positioned lower in the sky during the colder months, to come into the house.

“We get solar heat gain, which warms the house and the floors, and it’s just tremendous,” he says.

In the basement, Castelli has geo-thermal heating and cooling, which is powered by three 400-foot wells under the driveway.

“Geothermal uses the constant temperature of the earth, which is 56 degrees, and you only have to bring that up 20 degrees,” he says. “In the summer, it’s the opposite.”

Castelli also has an instant water heater, which works only when the faucet is turned on. This prevents unnecessarily heating gallons of water 24 hours a day.

Lower bills for energy-efficient home

So just how efficient is this house? Castelli compared his Dominion and Washington Gas Light bills for the last year in his previous home to the bills for the first year in his new energy-efficient home. The monthly average at the old house was $177, while the average at the new home is $150. Another detail: the new house is more than double the size of the old house. And Costelli says a lot of what made that possible, didn’t cost that much.

“For example, the passive solar design, that’s not gonna cost anything. Insulation is cheap. Not only is it cheap, it’s the most inexpensive thing you can do.”

Even in an existing home, people can administer a pressure test, caulk cracks, and insulate the attic. More expensive adjustments, such as the geothermal heating and cooling, can be offset . Castelli says the federal tax credit for geothermal was really helpful.

The federal government paid for a third of it. In his case, they gave him $20,000. And it’s not the only tax credit for energy efficiency available. There are plenty of options for individuals who want to make their homes more eco-friendly.

“There is a 10 percent tax credit for insulation and windows, also doors and skylights,” says Lowell Ungar, head of policy at the Alliance to Save Energy. “There is a credit up to $300 for furnaces and air conditioners, and heat pumps and water heaters.”

There are options available through the state, as well.

“The appliance rebate program includes a fairly long list of items,” says Al Christopher, who directs Virginia’s Energy Division.

Some deals include $300 for a water pump, $75 for a clothes washer, and $1500 for an energy-efficient air system. Christopher says they’re running low on appliance rebates, so those who are interested should hurry. There are still some 20 percent rebates that could last until March 2012. Meanwhile, rebates in Maryland are already gone, but state officials may consider renewing them. In the District, there are grants for weatherization for low-income families. In addition, most utility companies have their own incentives: BG&E, Pepco, and Dominion can help with energy audits, and install light bulbs and other appliances.

[Music: "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" by Beegie Adair from Jazz Piano Christmas]

Photos: Moderating Our Energy Consumption

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