By Stephanie Ritenbaugh / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
That drafty hallway.
The bedroom that’s always cold.
The rain gutters that sprout icicles in the winter.
For many homeowners, these are the quirks that come with a house.
But South Side nonprofit Conservation Consultants Inc. says these can be solved — often with simple fixes like a caulking gun or new furnace filter — and homeowners will see smaller bills as a result.
“We want homeowners to have a more comfortable, safer home with less energy usage,” said Jeaneen Zappa, Conservation Consultants’ executive director. “A home is typically someone’s most expensive asset, but they’re not always getting what they want out of it.”
The Pittsburgh region has a lot of older housing stock, which often means buildings that are less energy efficient than newer construction. Also, fewer people now have the basic education in how to properly maintain and repair their house, she said.
“For instance, how many people even change their own oil in their car? Previous generations typically did that themselves,” said Ms. Zappa.
Conservation Consultants, which has 14 employees, works with utility companies to provide more than 5,000 energy audits per year for homes of eligible low-income residents. It also distributes about 1,800 water saving kits in the state. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission recognizes the nonprofit as a certified conservation services provider.
The nonprofit is now preparing to launch a new program called Green Zone that will target middle-income homeowners.
When people are buying new homes, Ms. Zappa said, they get an inspection, but that doesn’t tell them the whole story about their houses.
“We can work with them to provide that road map so they can make changes to their energy usage before they, say, put dry wall over a problem area,” she said. “Because once you’ve done that work, you don’t want to go back and redo it.”
Green Zone plans to go neighborhood-by-neighborhood in the Pittsburgh region. An energy audit would cost an estimated $500. The proceeds of the program will go to help fund Conservation Consultants’ mission to assist low-income residents.
“As an organization, we try to be the bridge between the public and for-profit companies that provide these services,” Ms. Zappa said. “CCI isn’t trying to sell you windows. It’s just giving you a road map and we can point them to credible companies. We’re like a concierge.”
The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission mandates that utility companies provide services to low-income residents to help lower their heating and electric bills and improve energy efficiency.
“Peoples Natural Gas has partnered with CCI for a number of years,” said Sadie John Kroeck, director of customer relations for Peoples.
Under the Low Income Usage Reduction weatherization program, for example, customers whose income is at the 150 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to have an energy audit. Conservation Consultants also identifies tax incentives and rebate programs and low- or no-interest loans that could defray costs.
“It’s customized to the home. It might be insulation, furnace repairs, caulking or anything to make the house more efficient,” Ms. Kroeck said.
The weatherization program has been in place since 1986.
Conservation Consultants, formed in 1978, was initially based in Highland Park before moving to a 114-year old building on the South Side, according to Richard Rothhaar, director of business development. In 2012, its budget was $3 million.
The building — actually two buildings sewn together and a third addition — has been retrofitted to LEED certification, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, from the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council. The building features solar panels, natural lighting and a heating system that provides radiant heat through the floors using a network of pipes leading from the boiler. CCI owns the building and rents offices out to other businesses and nonprofits, including the Pennsylvania Resources Council.
“We see this as a living laboratory,” Mr. Rothhaar said of the building that serves as an educational tool for school groups, as well as a way to experiment with different energy saving techniques.