Time running out on energy tax credits

By: ANDREW WINEKE
December 27, 2010
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Tim Schnicker may not be quite as busy as old St. Nick was last week, but the holiday season is keeping the energy auditor jumping as homeowners rush to take advantage of federal tax credits that expire at the end of the year.

“I’ve had a crunch the last two weeks, people saying ‘The end of the year is coming, can you get out here?’” Schnicker said recently.

The tax credit offers a 30 percent — up to $1,500 — rebate — for home improvements like adding insulation, high-performance heating and cooling units and water heaters.

The year-end rush for home improvements may be as much psychological as it is procrastination.

“People tend to do renewables when it’s warm out and efficiency when it’s cold out — it doesn’t make very much sense,” said Seth Portner, deputy director for the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office.

The GEO’s website, rechargecolorado.com, offers information on the federal credits, and also on state and local rebate programs that will continue into the new year. The state has about $10 million in rebates still available for energy-efficient appliances and home efficiency improvements; it’s handed out $7.7 million since April, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act-funded program began. The popular rebates of the moment, Portner said, are insulation and heating upgrades.

“The (rebates) that are going with a lot of speed now are ones that have been available since April,” Portner said. “People just don’t do air sealing and insulation in the summer.”

What Schnicker, owner of Pro Energy Consultants, and other energy auditors do is help homeowners figure out where they’ll get the most bang for their buck with those improvements. In a typical audit, he spends several hours walking through the home, using a thermal imaging camera to capture where cold air is coming in, while a blower door — a giant fan that fills a doorway — sucks air out to accentuate the trouble spots elsewhere in the home. Using a smoke pen, he can actually see the air flowing from cracks and holes.

On a recent day, Schnicker visited the home of Mike and Amy Niswonger. The Niswongers bought their 1970 Broadmoor-area home four years ago and have been steadily fixing it up.

“We’ve done a lot of the cosmetic things and now it’s time to do some of the less-fun stuff,” Mike Niswonger said.

With the thermal imaging camera, Schnicker spotted a missing piece of insulation between the rafters hidden behind the drywall and a leaky seal around a skylight that was invisible to the naked eye.

Insulation and air sealing are far and away the biggest problems in most houses — and the cheapest to fix, he said. People often focus on cold and drafts coming in, but new air can’t come in without air escaping somewhere else, which is often the real problem, he said.

“When people think, ‘Oh, I need a new furnace,’ or ‘I need new windows’ — usually that’s not the issue,” Schnicker said.

In its finished form, the audit is a long list of problems and potential improvements.

“If you did everything on that list, your house would be perfect,” Schnicker said.

Not that he expects most homeowners will or should tackle every conceivable improvement.

“I like to think about those 20 percent of things that make 80 percent of the difference,” he said.

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Go green, get greenbacks
The federal tax credit for energy efficiency improvements expires at the end of the year, but the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office and Colorado Springs Utilities have ongoing rebate programs aimed at energy efficiency. You can find more details on both programs at rechargecolorado.com.

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