'Home energy parties' sell conservation

First it was Tupperware parties and their various spinoffs. Now it's "home energy parties," The latest wrinkle in the burgeoning field of retailing energy conservation.

The "party" way of selling -- a group of people gathered at a friend's home for a lowkey, informative sales pitch -- has been adapted for marketing a variety of home products and clothing.

George Wood, head energy auditor at the Home Energy Centers (HEC) Ind., has adapted it to sell his wares: insulation, weatherstripping, low-flow shower heads, and other easy-to-install energy-saving devices. HEC, a three-year-old firm with three outlets in the Boston area, is a "comprehensive company covering all aspects of energy conservation for the homeowner -- on a retail basis," as he puts it. It's a one-stop energy shop, with the emphasis on do-it-yourself items.

He recently conducted an energy-saving demonstration at the home of Richard and Laura Johnson. In return for a free energy audit of their home, including suggestions of how to save fuel and cut utility bills, the Johnsons agreed to gather friends and neighbors to hear Mr. Wood's presentation.

The Johnsons' own one half of a three- floor duplex wooden frame house dating from the days when builders were big on high ceilings and lost of hallways and stairways.

The guests at the party, who own houses similar to the Johnsons' don't have to be sold on the need to save energy. "When you own a house of this vintage, you have to be energy conscious; it's a defense mechanism," says Laura Johnson. "Most of these people have done more than we have."

On a damp, rainy spring evening, the "party" guests dress in conservation-chic sweaters and tweed jackets -- the layered look prevails.

Mr. Wood takes the group from room to room, explaining the heat-loss problems found in defferent parts of the house.

The Johnsons have installed a low-flow shower head at his suggestion, and he invites the guests to stick a hand in to test the flow. The Johnsons' teen-aged son Kevin did a before-and-after test and he discovered that the new shower head cut water use from 11 1/2 cups in 15 seconds to 5 cups in 15 seconds. "I think it's fine," Mrs. Johnson concurs as she encourages the visitors to partake of the brownies and banana bread on the kitchen table.

Down in the basement, Mr. Wood points out the air intake and other parts of the Johnsons' oil-burning furnace, and explains how it can be tested for efficiency. Such furnaces typically have a maximum efficiency of 78 to 80 percent, he explains. The Johnsons' tested out at 71 percent. For $400, they could have a super-efficient new model installed, to get 86 percent efficiency; but Mr. Wood recommends periodic tuneups on the present boiler instead.

Mr. Wood advises "bandaging" furnace pipes with fiber-glass insulation and duct tape to keep them from leaking heat; the Johnsons' energy audit showed they were losing the equivalent of 60 to 80 gallons of oil in a year this way. The investment in quarter-inch insulation would be recouped in untility-bill savings within a couple of years.

He recommends water-heater insulation as a way to save $25 to $35 a year -- and his store just happens to have a handy-dandy kit to do it.

The questions are informed and specific. "Tell me about urea formaldehyde," says one man. "Can you paint silicon caulking? Is it nontoxic when dried?" other people ask. "This is what I've learned tonight -- bronze weatherstripping ," says yet another man, examining Mr. Wood's sample.

Although Mr. Wood clearly wouldn't mind taking orders, he hasn't done so yet at his energy parties. He's content to hand out his card and trust people will drop into his shop.

The evening ends when the guests are asked to hand in their name tags for a drawing. The winner gets a package of conservation gadgets including an aerator for the faucet and a device to cut water use in flushing toilets.

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