Perspectives Online

Fuel for Thought - E-Conservation program trains consumers to save energy — and money. By Natalie Hampton

Dr. Sarah Kirby (left) and Amy Chilcote display the contents of the home energy conservation kit — some of the tools agents use in Extension’s E-Conservation workshops and consumer-assistance efforts.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

As energy costs continue to rise, consumersare looking for ways to reduce energy consumption and save money. Through a program known as E-Conservation, North Carolina Cooperative Extension is helping consumers understand what they can do at home to conserve energy.

Extension’s Leigh Guth (left) of Lincoln County helps a home energy auditor insulate pipes beneath a home.
Photo courtesy Sarah Kirby
Through E-Conservation, on the Web at, Extension has partnered with the State Energy Office on an educational program that helps homeowners reduce their energy consumption and save money on their utility bills. This program is offered in 78 of the state’s 101 Cooperative Extension county centers across the state. The interdisciplinary program, which started in 2005, involves family and consumer sciences agents, as well as natural resources, agriculture and 4-H agents.

Energy conservation has become an important issue for consumers and communities for a number of reasons, according to Dr. Sarah Kirby, associate professor and Extension housing specialist in charge of E-Conservation.

“Most of the energy sources we use are nonrenewable, and therefore limited,” Kirby said. “And the cost of these energy sources is on the rise.” In addition, energy conservation is directly tied to water conservation because energy is required to treat, heat and pump water. This was especially critical last spring in parts of North Carolina that were still conserving water under the worst drought in the state’s history.

An auditor (right) consults with a couple as they begin the energy-savings process in their home.
Photo courtesy Sarah Kirby
Energy resources are becoming scarce and more challenging for family budgets, she said. Finally, consumers are beginning to see the connection between energy use, fossil fuel expenditures and the environmental impacts that contribute to air and water pollution, as well as global warming. To help reduce these environmental impacts, consumers need to be more thoughtful and efficient in their energy use, Kirby said.

Power companies also are interested in conservation because many need to expand their power production by building new plants. Since the cost of new power plants will be staggering, energy conservation is one way to reduce or delay meeting that need and save consumers from the impact of price hikes.

“There’s an issue, and it’s time to address that issue,” Kirby said.

The auditor (left) checks structural areas, such as where pipes fit into walls, with energy-loss potential.
Photo courtesy Sarah Kirby
Extension agents conduct E-Conservation workshops, designed to train homeowners how to use energy efficiently and conserve it in their homes. Participants receive a home energy conservation kit, complete with a light-emitting diode (LED) night light, thermometers for the refrigerator and for checking home water temperature, foam wall gaskets for blocking air leaks behind electrical outlets, a compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulb and a faucet aerator.

Fifteen counties have offered homeowners an opportunity to sign up for a home energy audit by a certified Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rater, offered at a discount. In the pilot phase of the program, audits were offered at no cost. Now, homeowners pay a fee of $100 for an audit, a bargain compared with the $500 market value for the service. The audit program focuses on existing homes that are up to 2,000 square feet, five years old and have one heating and cooling system.

“Homeowners have to work with what they have – they can’t walk away from their largest investment,” Kirby said.

The City of Rocky Mount used Housing and Urban Development funds to pay the cost of about 12 to 15 audits aimed at helping low-income residents to conserve their energy dollars.

Gaston County Extension agent Jim Burke (left) observes as an auditor examines insulation and mechanical systems during a walk-through home inspection.
Photo courtesy Sarah Kirby
The audits included a thorough examination of the home and a blower door test to identify air leakage. Raters inspect mechanical, heating and ventilation systems, insulation, and conduct a walk-through inspection of current home appliances. Following the audit, each homeowner receives a standardized report that lists specific no cost/low cost improvements and higher cost improvements that could made to the home in order to make it more energy-efficient, according to Amy Chilcote, Extension associate with E-Conservation.

Bigger changes, or retrofits include installing programmable thermostats or purchasing high-efficiency Energy Star appliances to replace older, less efficient appliances. A lower-cost energy conservation measure would include switching incandescent light bulbs to CFLs, Chilcote said. In addition to techonology changes, auditors also discuss behavioral changes that can impact energy efficiency and use.

Once a home audit is conducted, Extension agents work with the homeowner participants for one year, gathering follow-up data at six-month and one-year intervals to find out how homeowners responded to the summary information provided to them. During the year, the homeowners’ utility use is also captured. Thus far, data show that participants performed a number of no-cost, low-cost and high-cost retrofits; reduced their kilowatt usage; reduced their carbon footprint; increased their families’ comfort level and saved money.

In Buncombe County, FCS Agent Nancy Ostergaard conducts E-Conservation workshops each month during winter and incorporates conservation principles in the home maintenance course she offers five times a year. She also provides energy-related news articles to various publications monthly. Following Hurricane Katrina, when energy costs soared, clients became more motivated to conserve, and they began to see conservation as more than just a winter issue, she said.

Ostergaard says that this year 15 clients have had energy audits conducted. The response has been favorable, and last spring, some clients were waiting to use their tax refunds to make recommended retrofits. By fall, she hopes to have more information on energy cost savings for clients.

A fan is installed to test air leaks in the house.
Photo courtesy Sarah Kirby
In Orange County, FCS Agent Deborah Taylor has been conducting energy programming since E-Conservation began. Her efforts even inspired her county government to form an Energy Conservation Team.

“What has helped is that I’m in a county where people are very concerned about energy and the environment, so it wasn’t a hard sell for me,” she said.

Nineteen of those participating in Orange County energy workshops have also commissioned energy audits. Though data collection is still under way, Taylor reports that clients are responding to the audit recommendations. “It’s rewarding to hear what people have to say,” she said. “A lot of people report energy savings and cost savings.”

Among the major retrofits her clients have undertaken are installing new energy-efficient windows, buying Energy Star appliances to replace older appliances and installing CFLs where possible.
Taylor also developed a Web-based program on lighting choices. The site gives consumers information about different types of light sources, including LEDs and CFLs as well as the applications for which each is intended.

An E-Conservation video, “10 Low-Cost, No-Cost Ways to Save Energy,” is running in the local lobby of Piedmont Electric Membership Corp., giving consumers who drop in tips on saving energy. Taylor also has developed a brochure on “Energy Myth Busters” that she wants to provide for consumers.

With no end in sight to rising energy costs, consumers will become only more interested in finding ways to save, making Extension and E-Conservation increasingly valuable resources.