Date Tags money

No, I'm not talking about my work, or my employer. I assure you that those tax dollars are very well spent, thankyouverymuch. Instead, I want to publicize a Massachusetts program which will likely benefit several of my friends and save them a lot of money. Those of you who are not property owners in the beautiful and generous Commonwealth of Massachusetts should just stop reading now. Seriously. There's nothing for you here. Go read the archives-- there's some good stuff there. But if you do own your own house in Massachusetts, both the state and federal governments would like to help you insulate it. And by 'help,' I mean 'pay over 80% of the cost.'

After shivering my way through the winter of 2008 and 2009, I reluctantly concluded that another winter like that one would be even worse than dealing with contractors, and that I should just grit my teeth and get my house insulated. The problem, however, was that I didn't actually know why my house was so cold. I'd already had the windows replaced and insulation blown into the walls. So where was heat escaping? Why was I paying so much for heat?

This required the advice of an expert. Being vaguely aware that my gas company (NStar) offered 'energy audits' to its customers, I found a phone number and called it. Little did I know that I had actually invoked MassSave, a vast left-wing conspiracy to weatherproof my house.

And not only 'vast' but 'extremely well funded' as well, given how much the whole thing must have cost. For starters, the 'energy audit' (which was really a 'heat audit') lasted four hours. In that time, the auditor (hi, Chris!) went through the pipes in my basement, crawled around in my attic, tested my walls for insulation, and generally left no stone unturned. He was very knowledgeable about insulation and heating systems, very happy to answer questions and explain things, and all around a great guy. But more relevant to this post, he:

  1. Was able to pinpoint exactly where our heat was going and what we should do about it, and
  2. Was the one who explained how juicy this gravy train is.

First of all, there are the rebates. Massachusetts, it turns out, really wants you to insulate your house. So much so that they are willing to pay 75% of the cost of doing so, up to $2,000. And then there's a federal tax credit for anything above that, meaning that the two governments are jointly willing to pick up 82.5% of the cost of something I may not have done otherwise. And that's just the cost of insulation. There are other rebates for replacing your furnace or heating system with a more efficient one, but you'll need to contact MassSave yourself for details. (My furnace was pretty efficient already, it turns out.)

So what if you need more than $2,500 of weatherproofing? Well, then you might consider another program: an interest free seven-year loan for up to $15,000 (so long as the money pays for energy efficiency improvements, like new windows or blowing insulation into your walls). I'm not sure how this interacts with the federal credit, but hey: free money. (This is probably a good time for me to note that I'm a gas-heat customer with NStar. But I believe that all of these programs are open to electric-heat customers, too, as well as those who get there energy from NationalGrid. And extra programs for low-income customers, too, but I don't know where the cutoff lies.)

So how does it actually work? Before the auditor left, he gave me a printed list of recommended improvements, where each recommendation included an estimated cost and an estimated pay-back time (i.e., how long it would take for the improvement to pay for itself). He also left literature on all the applicable programs for which I qualified. At this point in the process, you would have two options:

  1. You could find and hire an insulator yourself. If you do this, you pay the insulator insulator and file for a rebate.
  2. You can sign a contract with MassSave. Or rather, with the auditor's agency: Conservation Services Group (CSG). I'm not sure how exactly MassSave and CSG relate, but the the auditor worked for CSG. Also, CSG is more than happy to act as middleman between you and the insulator. In this option, you don't get to choose the insulator yourself, but
    • CSG will guarantee an upper bound on the price of the work, and
    • They will apply the rebate off the top. That is, you only pay the after-rebate price.

We went with option 2. We selected some but not all of the recommended improvements (you don't need to do them all) and signed a contract with CSG. At the appointed time, the insulators came and did their work. A few weeks later, CSG came back again to inspect the results and (presumably) make sure the insulators did it right.

So, what are the numbers?

  • How long did it take? It's not a fast process. We called in late spring and had our audit in the summer (don't have the exact dates). We signed the contract in mid-August, had the work done in mid-October, and had the final inspection in early November. Also, the scheduler for CSG had some serious issues. At least three times we got a call in the morning asking if we were free for the audit/inspection later that afternoon. Um, no. We're not.
  • How much did it cost? We ended up paying $484 for about $1,935 worth of work. And we're going to get $145 of that back on our taxes, making a total cost of $338.
  • How much did I save? Hard to say. We also spent another $500 on other energy efficiency improvements, like programmable thermostats and insulation for our heating pipes.[^1] But if we compare this past winter to the one before it we get the following table:
    | 2008/2009 | 2009/2010
    Bill | Therms | Price per therm | Cost | Therms | Price per therm | Cost
    November | 138 | $1.60 | $220 | 54 | $1.19 | $64
    December | 230 | $1.60 | $366 | 84 | $1.36 | $112
    January | 273 | $1.57 | $429 | 140 | $1.24 | $173
    Total | 641 | | $1015 | 278 | | $349

Lots of confounding factors there. It's hard to separate the benefits of the CSG insulation from the other improvements, and the price per therm fluctuates over time. And we really should also compare average temperatures of the two winters.[^2] But I choose to believe that the $666 (heh) that I've saved so far this winter is due entirely to the insulation. (And that's right: the improvements will have jointly paid for themselves in a single winter. W00t.)

So, should you make the call? Sure. The audit is free. And if it finds that there is no way to improve your snug and cozy new-construction dwelling, then, well, you probably don't live in Camberville MA. But if you're like most of my home-owning friends and bought a unit in a 100-year-old two-family condo- conversion,[^3] then what can I say? Free money.

[^1] Steam heating, meaning that there are steam pipes in my basement from the furnace to our unit. I used to think we had a naturally-warm basement, but then I insulated these steam pipes. Ah, no. Our basement is freezing now that I'm not inadvertently paying to heat it.

[^2] If anyone knows where I can find average monthly (local) temperatures for the past few years, please let me know. I'd love to add it to the table, but can't find it on the web anywhere.

[^3] If you are in a condo, try to get your fellow owners on board. The auditors really like to do an entire structure at once, not just a single unit.