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Going green to the max

Going cutting-edge on energy efficiency means cutting some serious checks, Milton case shows

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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MILTON — Andrew Koh is learning that going extremely green — his house renovation project is designed to cut home energy costs in half — can cost a lot of green.

Take the new water heater he’s installing as part of the “deep energy retrofit’’ of 225 Gun Hill St., the 30-year-old Garrison-style home he and his wife, Tracy, bought last year.

“It’s the prettiest water heater I’ve ever seen,’’ Koh said.

And it’s 96 percent efficient, compared with the 80 percent efficient water heater he had not so long ago in their old condominium in South Boston. That translates to using nearly a fifth less energy, he said.

But the old heater cost about $500 and the new super-efficient one sells for “well north of $2,000,’’ Koh said.

“The biggest moral of this story, for us, is that going green will cost you more than conventional,’’ he said. “And as you go further and further to the extreme, things get exponentially more expensive.’’

He’ll save money, of course, in reduced utility costs.

But unlike other families who take a more conservative approach to going green — and get an immediate payback — Koh figures it could take many years before the savings catch up with the eco-investment at his house. Luckily it’s not all his own money on the line.

“Obviously, we wouldn’t do all of this if there weren’t some funding dollars behind it,’’ he said.

The biggest financial support comes from National Grid, which is sponsoring the project as part of the utility’s “Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program.’’ Manufacturers and retailers also have donated or deeply discounted such things as solar panels, foam insulation, and appliances.

But the fact that the true cost of the project is beyond most homeowners’ budgets doesn’t lessen the worth of the exercise, Koh said. His house, he said, is a laboratory of sorts — an experiment in the best ways to make an old house energy-efficient.

“The deep energy retrofitters are the warriors,’’ said Caitriona Cooke of the Conservation Services Group, a Westborough-based company that advises on energy efficiency. “They’re setting an example and leading the way, showing what’s possible.’’

“The ultimate goal is the trickle-down effect,’’ Koh said. “Not everybody will go to the extremes we have, but there are a lot of practical lessons to be learned from what we are doing.’’

They’re lessons likely to be heeded in Milton, he said. The town recently adopted the new Stretch Energy Code mandating energy efficiency, so it can apply to be named a green community by the state. The designation would make Milton eligible for state grants for energy-efficient projects.

Energy efficiency wasn’t high on their priority list when Koh, who runs a software security company, and his wife, a physical therapist and personal trainer, started looking for a new home. The green they sought was a yard where their two young sons could play.

“We’re not extremely green people,’’ he said. “We don’t own a hybrid car — we’ve got a Honda minivan and a little Saab wagon. We avoid the T.’’

But they realized their new home needed a new roof and mechanical systems. When they heard about the deep energy retrofit program, they were intrigued and ultimately hooked.

“There’s a social conscience component to it, as well as economic, in terms of savings on utility bills,’’ Koh said. “We thought if we’re going to do something, we might as well do it right. And it’s sort of a long-term hedge [against the] crazy turns in the economy and energy prices.’’

Since they were going to end up with a wildly efficient house, Koh and his wife decided to push things further.

They signed on for the national Thousand Home Challenge — joining an elite group who have pledged to cut their total energy consumption by 70 to 90 percent.

The work started in July with a total gutting of the 2,400-square-foot house. Key components for making the house save energy were massive amounts of insulation, super-efficient windows and doors, and such intensive sealing of all cracks and gaps that the house needs a ventilation system.

“They actually attach a fan to doorway, blow air in, and identify where the air is leaking,’’ Koh said. “They’ll go room by room with a can of foam, filling every gap and hole until it is just about as air-tight as possible.’’

On top of all that, the house will get a 5,000-kilowatt array of solar panels on the back roof, super-efficient appliances and lighting, and a monitoring system that will show exactly where energy is being used.

All the insulation meant that the house’s walls ended up about 10 inches thicker — and the roof had to be extended to reach beyond them, Koh said. The roof supports will need reinforcing because of the weight of the solar panels, he added.

Koh said he expects construction to be complete in December; meanwhile, the family is living in Mattapan.

The family also is working on changing its behavior — learning to turn off lights, waiting to run the dishwasher until full, and “teaching the kids not to look inside the fridge like it’s a television.’’

Koh said they were tempted to paint the house green — and name it Big Green Home in homage to his Dartmouth degree — but decided to keep it dark gray.

He urged everyone to get a free Mass Save energy audit (information at www.masssave.com) to find simple ways to make a home more energy efficient. He said he is hoping that some of the things learned from his “adventure in navigating the bleeding edge in going green’’ someday will be of use.

“It’s been energizing from the perspective that there’s so much to learn and it’s such a relatively new field,’’ Koh said. “It’s been a learning process for everyone from the building inspector to the contractor.

“There always seem to be multiple ways to solve the same problem. It’s why National Grid calls it a pilot. They still don’t know all the answers.’’

Koh will hold an open house today from 1 to 4 p.m. at 225 Gun Hill St. to show the work to date. More information about the project is available at www.miltongreenhome.com.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.

Measures for a super energy-
efficient house
$2,000
WATER HEATER/HEATING SYSTEM:
100,000 BTU, 96 percent
efficient AO Smith Vertex,
100 Power Direct Vent; also runs heating system through a Bryant FE4A air handler
$40,000
INSULATION:
Attic: 8 inches of Lapolla AirTight closed cell insulation, rated at * R-52
Above-grade walls: * R-38 Poly-iso rigid foam over existing * R-19 fiberglass
Foundation walls: * R-21 closed cell, spray foam
Basement floor: * R-10 rigid foam
$18,000
WINDOWS AND DOORS:
Triple-glazed, double-hung windows, insulated to * R-5 and with
a 0.2 U-factor
$8,000 to $10,000
SOLAR PANELS:
5,000-kilowatt array
Expected cost, still being
engineered
$2,900
Total annual savings on gas and electric bills
* (Note: R is a measure of how well something keeps heat in or out, with 0 the least effective. U-factor measures how well something prevents heat from escaping; the lower the number, the better. All cost numbers are estimates by the homeowner.)
SOURCE: Homeowner Andrew Koh

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