Low-interest Loans for Heating Efficiency

ByBen McCanna 
Lewiston Sun Journal
April 16, 2012 

WINSLOW — For more than a decade, John and Sheila Bacon were throwing money out the window.

More accurately, the couple was losing money through the walls of their poorly insulated 62-year-old Benton Avenue home.

Not anymore.

A year ago, the Bacons took advantage of a low-interest loan program to retrofit their walls with cellulose insulation and the attic and basement with foam insulation. Since then, their heating costs have dropped dramatically. The loan was one of two products that are available from Efficiency Maine, an independent trust dedicated to promoting efficient and cost-effective energy use throughout the state.

When the Bacons moved into their home in 2000, Sheila Bacon, 61, knew right away that the home needed more insulation. The second floor of the Cape-style home was unbearably hot during warm weather and the whole house was drafty during cold spells. But it wasn’t until oil prices rose a four years ago that fixing the problem became unavoidable, she said.

Around that time, John Bacon, 63, began keeping track of heating oil deliveries — the frequency, the quantity and the cost. During the winter of 2008-09, their forced hot water heating system consumed more than 1,000 gallons of oil. The next two heating seasons it consumed about 1,200 and 1,000 gallons, respectively.

By the end of the winter of 2010-11, the Bacons were fed up. They learned about the Maine Property Assessed Clean Energy, or Maine PACE, Loan. Within four months, their home was insulated.

The savings during the next heating season were drastic, they said. Even though the winter of 2011-12 set records for mildness, they contend the results are significant.

“This year we used 591.7 (gallons),” John Bacon said.

Paul Badeau, director of communications for Efficiency Maine, said the Maine PACE Loan has been available for about a year, and it has served about 200 homes. The program provides loans ranging between $6,500 to $15,000 to improve energy efficiency for qualified homeowners in 116 municipalities, including Portland, Waterville and Winslow. The average loan amount is $12,900. The interest rate is fixed at 4.99 percent, with 5-, 10- and 15-year terms.

The program draws from an initial funding pool that stood at $20 million last year, Badeau said. This year, the pool stands at $18 million. As loans are repaid, the money returns to the pool to expand the program to more homeowners.

“Unfortunately, we can’t help every Maine homeowner needing energy improvements, but the goal is to weatherize as many homes as possible,” Badeau said.

Last week, Efficiency Maine rolled out its newest program, the PowerSaver loan, which provides a greater range of loan amounts and is available in all Maine municipalities, according to a news release.

The first step to qualifying for either loan is to get an energy audit of your home, Badeau said. The audits are performed by energy advisors — a list of whom can be found on the efficiencymaine.com.

“Whether or not you take advantage of our loan products, an energy advisor will do a top-to-bottom energy assessment of your home and look for efficiency measures. From there, (the audit) serves as a blueprint and a way to prioritize what you should do with your home first.”

The average cost of an audit is between $300 and $600, he said. To qualify for a loan, the audit must prove that the home could experience a 25 percent gain in efficiency through weatherization.

The Bacons said their May 2011 audit revealed the potential for a 50 percent gain. By mid-July, their $15,000 loan came through. By late July, workers arrived to insulate the walls. They drilled three-inch holes in the walls and pumped the cellulose into the gaps with hoses. The total cost of the project was $18,000, which included additional improvements like a new basement bulkhead.

The process took three weeks and the effects were immediately noticeable, Sheila Bacon said.

“Before we had the work done on the house, I’d refer to the upstairs as Sauna City,” she said. “If it was 85 degrees outside, it was at least 85 degrees upstairs. It was not pleasant.”

After the work was completed, the upstairs temperature never rose above 75 degrees, she said.

John Bacon said the effects were visibly noticeable after snowfalls.

“I would go outside and just marvel that there were no huge icicles hanging off the roof,” he said.

At the present cost of heating oil, Bacon estimates the project will pay for itself in less than 10 years. After that, it’s gravy, he said.

“This is the first loan I’ve taken that is paying me back,” he said. “After I pay this off, it’s going to keep paying me for just as long as I live here. If there’s such a thing as a good loan, this is it.”