Arlington house may blaze new trail in energy conservation

Project uses super insulation to cut loss of heat

Alex Cheimets showed the thick insulation on his two-family house in Arlington. His project, which cost $100,000, is being used to study super insulation as a way to conserve energy. Alex Cheimets showed the thick insulation on his two-family house in Arlington. His project, which cost $100,000, is being used to study super insulation as a way to conserve energy. (Winslow Townson/Associated Press)
By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / January 18, 2009
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ARLINGTON - The massive project started with a small water stain on the dining room ceiling that nagged at Alex Cheimets.

He took the leak repair to the extreme.

Four years later, his two-family condo in Arlington is encased in so much insulation, the builders switched to extra-long 10-inch screws just to attach it to the roof.

His unique "super insulation" project has cost $100,000, though half of it is being picked up by sponsors including NStar. But Cheimets expects when it is completed in the coming weeks it will save him up to 70 percent on his energy bills, or as much as $4,000 a year.

The project is being closely watched by state officials who are hoping such super-insulated homes become more common.

"Right now, that home is highly unusual," said Ian Bowles, the state's secretary of energy and environmental affairs. "That type of investment is going to need to become much more commonplace."

Bowles acknowledges the cost of super insulation is still prohibitive for most. But he thinks prices will fall as various state mandates, including an 80 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2050, force residents to seek ways to be more energy efficient. More demand for super-insulated houses will mean more competition for the work, pushing down labor and material costs, he said.

Cheimets said he knows it will take years before the job's cost equals the investment in his 80-year-old, oil-heated house. But he believes as super insulation costs fall, and oil prices inevitably rise, the condo can be an example of how an average person can be more energy efficient.

"Not everybody is going to make oil out of algae," Cheimets said. "I think this is [an area] where everybody, everybody can do something, because this is not high tech."

There's no industry-standard definition of "super insulated," according to the state, which generally considers a home super insulated if its insulation far exceeds building code requirements.

Such homes popped around the United States when fuel prices soared during the energy crisis in the 1970s and early 1980s. But interest dropped with the price of oil.

Carlos Martin of the National Association of Home Builders said some of those early homes were plagued by mold caused by improper air flow, but he added those problems have been largely solved. With price by far the biggest obstacle, Martin said it is important to figure out ways to get money to people who want to be super insulated, such as with mortgages that fund energy efficient homes, or special financing for "green" projects.

Cheimets did not intend to turn his home repair into a statewide example. The stain was caused by a problem with the siding, which Cheimets and his condo co-owners decided to replace. The idea for super insulation came after Cheimets wondered whether he could do better than the relatively thin layer of insulation often used under new siding, and maybe relieve the home's persistent indoor chill.

Cheimets, a 44-year-old engineer with two children, approached the state with questions about super insulation, and the state became interested in monitoring his project. New windows, doors, and roof were added at the insistence and expense of project sponsors Cheimets enlisted after the state got behind the work.

After the work is done, sensors will measure humidity and help track heat loss. A blower test with a giant fan will see just how tight the home is sealed. An oil tank sensor will track oil use at different indoor and outdoor temperatures.

Though the house is near completion, its thick, new insulation coat was still visible on a recent visit. Four inches of foam board insulation cover the outside and 6 inches has been placed on the roof. To make up for the loss of air flow through the old clapboards, a new ventilation system allows fresh air to come in, while permitting indoor air and pollutants to circulate out.

The thick exterior insulation puts the siding a few inches out from the windows. But on a small, completed section of the house, it's not noticeable.

"We wouldn't have done it if it was going to be ugly," Cheimets said.

At times, Cheimets said the extensive project has been overwhelming, but mainly, he sees it as an opportunity.

"There's a million houses out there. I know math, one house is nothing," Cheimets said. "But as an example that other people can follow, or other states, . . . that's great."

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