Can home insulation become a celebrity like Lady Gaga?

Lady Gaga and home insulation - one's a celebrity and the other deserves to be, a home renovator says.

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With the snow falling and the electrician busily finishing up the rewiring at Sheep Dog Hollow, there’s a bit of a lull in the greening part of the renovation. So I thought I’d take advantage of it to exploit Lady Gaga’s fame to bring more attention to the issue of insulation. (Yes, I apparently have no shame.)

When most people think “green,” they think of cool, celebritylike stuff like solar and wind power. But the reality is that the most accessible and least expensive way for most Americans to green up is to better insulate their homes.

I know, fiberglass batting just doesn’t rank along with post modern pop icons like photovoltaic cells and Lady Gaga in the cultural scheme of things. But insulation can save average homeowners hundreds of dollars a year, to say nothing of putting a healthy dent in the nation’s carbon footprint.

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Yes, I’d even say it was more worthy of the attention of the paparazzi than Ms. Gaga – at least, if you’re talking fundamental things, like paying your winter heating bills.

But, just like Lady Gaga, solar and geothermal and wind power have been the big the big stars in the green world, and that’s been reflected in Washington policy: There are celebrity-size tax credits and other incentives to encourage people who can afford the upfront costs of solar and geothermal to install them, but the bonuses for increasing the insulation in one’s current home – something within the reach of most working Americans – are paltry by comparison.

Yet, if you put down the cash to install any of those fancy green options – and walk away with $20,000 or in rebates and tax credits – without a properly insulated house, it’s like “putting a Prius engine in a car with four flat tires,” to quote greenbuildingadvisor.com’s Michael Chandler.

Yes, our green incentives are currently skewed to the rich and to photo-op ready options such as solar. But they could soon be brought into balance.

At the end of my previous post, I mentioned the “Cash For Caulkers” program, which is formally known as the HomeStar program. It would essentially create a set of incentives to encourage average homeowners to hire local contractors to insulate their homes – a.k.a. "retrofit" houses. It would provide rebates of up to 50 percent to weatherize existing homes.

Advocates think of it as a twofer: a democratic (small “d” as in for everyone), cost-effective, go-green initiative, and a job creator all in one.

“The construction industry has a 24.7 percent unemployment, it’s been demolished, it’s in a depression, and we use materials that are 90 percent domestically produced,” says Matt Golden, a member of the Home Star Coalition, which represents industries involved in home renovation and pushing “Cash for Caulkers.” “This will save people money and create jobs locally – it’s a win-win.”

Cash for Caulkers could do this, according to the coalition’s website, by establishing “a $6 billion rebate program to encourage immediate investment in energy-efficient appliances, building mechanical systems and insulation, and whole-home energy efficiency retrofits. HOME STAR will rapidly create jobs in both construction and manufacturing, while saving families money on their energy bills. It will build on current state programs and existing industry capacity for performing both retrofits and quality assurance, using federal standards and incentives as a common platform to lower program costs and increase consumer awareness.”

The details are still being worked out in Congress, but Mr. Golden says a bill could be “dropped” by the end of this week and incorporated into one of the various jobs bills making its way around Capitol Hill. It’s got support of labor unions and Fortune 500 companies alike, in part, because it’s designed to be short-term and market-based.

“Its goal is to do more than just help people go out and buy a bunch of stuff. This is about fundamentally transforming the market,” says Golden. “We have an industry that was focused on new construction for years and now is really beat up – with one in four workers unemployed – and this program gives businesses the confidence to shift their focus to retrofitting homes and reinvest and start hiring people. It’s putting in place a foundation for a type of industry that can continue to grow in the future without the need for subsidies.”

But there is skepticism about the program. The Business Pundit is worried about adding to the deficit, among other things:
1. When the government drives consumer purchasing incentives, they don’t always work.
2. If loans aren’t being offered, how will consumers come up with thousands of dollars in cash to pay their half?
3. It’s easy to commit fraud under the catch-all phrase “weatherization.”
4. It would be more effective to weatherize commercial and government buildings, too.

The HomeStar program is being designed to address at least the top three concerns, according to Golden. And even the Business Pundit says he “hopes it works.”

From a rather pedestrian green perspective, wouldn’t it be wonderful if insulation and weatherization could attain Lady Gaga-like status? More Americans could save 20 to 30 percent on their heating bills and live in much more cozy homes. That’s worth a paparazzi snapshot in my opinion.

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Alexandra Marks blogs twice a week about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. Click here to find all her blog posts and articles.

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