TRAVERSE CITY - Soon after they moved into their drafty old Victorian on Washington Street, Ty and Johanna Schmidt knew they needed to work toward a more energy-efficient home.
But coming up with the money for an energy audit and improvements was another matter.
So when they read about the TC Saves program, the frugal couple - both physical therapists who share a single job - were the first to sign up.
Johanna and Ty Schmidt installed an energy efficient dishwasher and refrigerator in the kitchen, seen here, as well as insulated their walls, attic and basement; and replaced light bulbs in their Traverse City home with energy efficient bulbs through the TC Saves program. The program's goal is to decrease energy bills through an energy assessment, weatherization funding and zero-percent financing on major efficiency improvements. (AP photo)
The pilot program offers homeowners in Traverse City's Oak Park and Traverse Heights neighborhoods an opportunity to significantly cut their energy bills through a home energy assessment, weatherization and zero-percent financing on major efficiency improvements.
About 1,000 homes in the two neighborhoods are eligible for the program, which runs through February, said Brian Beauchamp, energy program director for the Michigan Land Use Institute, a TC Saves partner.
So far, 200 homeowners have signed up.
"Our hope is to expand it outside those boundaries," Beauchamp said. "The whole goal is to build a local economy around energy efficiency, creating jobs and saving money for homeowners."
The project is part of the Better Buildings for Michigan program, which is funded by a $30 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to achieve more energy-efficient homes and businesses. Michigan received the second-biggest chunk of money and is one of the first states to launch a pilot project of the program.
The Traverse City program is a partnership between the city, Traverse City Light & Power and the local nonprofits SEEDS and MLUI. Homeowners pay $100 to receive up to $1,000 in services, including a programmable thermostat, compact fluorescent light bulbs and high-efficiency showerheads.
Energy audit specialists and licensed contractors Brown Lumber and James Anderson Builders analyze each home, spotting air leaks in a variety of ways.
The contractors also identify dozens of other energy-saving opportunities and show homeowners how to make their homes more comfortable.
So far the most common problems include a lack of insulation, inferior insulation or improperly installed insulation, especially in attics and walls of older homes, they say. Also common are air leaks, particularly in foundations, and outdated, inefficient furnaces and water heaters that can lead to gas leaks and unsafe carbon monoxide levels.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average American household pays 10 percent to 20 percent more in energy bills because of these problems.
"The biggest benefit of the program is helping to educate the consumer ... understand the building science of a home and where they're spending money and losing money and where they're conserving
energy and reducing their electrical bill," said Jason Vanderford, program director for Brown Lumber.
After learning their house was full of gaps in the crawl space and foundation and also lacked insulation in the walls, attic, knee walls and basement, the Schmidts chose to take advantage of a zero percent financing loan - up to $20,000 for up to 10 years - for "green" insulation.
Additional energy upgrades included new energy-efficient appliances like a refrigerator and a dishwasher.
Now the couple's home is 58 percent more airtight, allowing them to heat with wood as part of shrinking their carbon footprint, Ty Schmidt said.
"We've done that in years past, but we had to have the furnace kick in. Now it's just cozy and warm, and our house has never been cozy and warm," he said. "We're also super cheapskates - we won the top neighborhood energy use award for smallest utility bills - so seeing our puny $23 DTE gas bill for December was very exciting."
In Marquette, 193 of an eligible 1,200 homes are signed up to participate, said Natasha Koss, program manager for the Superior Watershed Partnership, the nonprofit coordinating the project with the city of Marquette.
"It's important from a resident's perspective because it's a deal, and deals don't come around very often," Koss said. "Now people are not only using less energy on a daily basis, but learning different ways to do that."