Linda Moore regularly faced high utility bills, and spring and fall seemed to be the only time she could enjoy her home.
“I was freezing in the winter and burning up in the summer,” Moore recalls. “My light bill was so high, it was awful.”
Moore, 67, of Clinton, Arkansas, worked full time at Walmart until she had back surgery. After retirement, she returned as a part-time cashier to help make ends meet.
In July 2016, she was selected as one of 17 grand prize winners of the Arkansas Energy Efficiency Makeover Contest. The Petit Jean Electric Cooperative member’s home received about $5,000 in energy efficiency upgrades last summer. In less than a year, the payoff has been $650 in savings on electric bills and year-round comfort without constantly adjusting her thermostat.
A Decade of Success
The 10-year-old efficiency contest, run by the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas (ECA), is a signature promotion for the statewide association, its distribution co-ops, and its G&T provider, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.
“We use the contest to show co-op members and others how they can reap ongoing benefits by doing little things to make homes use energy more efficiently,” says Bret Curry, ECA’s residential energy marketing manager.
During the first two weeks of the 2017 contest, more than 5,500 entries came in to the state’s 17 distribution co-ops, the best kickoff count ever. In early September, 10 members of each co-op learned they’d won grand prizes.
GE is the sponsoring partner for the 2017 contest, so lighting is the theme.
“Contest winners receive residential lighting kits that include up to 58 General Electric energy-efficient LED lamps, which is enough to retrofit most homes,” Curry says. “Each kit includes general-purpose LEDs for use with lamps and light fixtures and LEDs for use with indoor recessed can lights, outdoor flood lights, and decorative candelabras.”
Previous years have had themes focused on heating and cooling, thermal barrier and air-sealing single-family tract homes, and manufactured housing.
The number of winners has varied from year to year, but the popular promotion has always supported a broad-based education program promoting both do-it-yourself efficiency projects and guidance on selecting qualified contractors for bigger jobs.
“If the home is air sealed and insulated properly, has the proper lightbulbs and fixtures, and the heating and cooling system is sized properly, the monthly bill should never exceed $200 on a 2,000-square-foot house,” Curry says.
Spreading the Word
Since Arkansas’s first Energy Efficiency Makeover contest in 2007, related videos have been viewed thousands of times on the Arkansas statewide’s Vimeo, YouTube, and other social media channels. Some posts receive 60,000 to 80,000 views per week.
Curry also works with the state’s 17 distribution cooperatives to organize energy efficiency seminars and assists co-op energy advisors with member energy audits at fairs, co-op district meetings, and other community events.
“I try to equip them with the knowledge where they can show members how to solve the problem on their own,” Curry says. “With good information, members can ask the right questions and have the answers in order to choose a knowledgeable contractor to get the solutions they need.”
The statewide contest has also caught the attention of contractors, many with decades of experience remodeling homes.
“We do energy assessments and energy retrofits,” says Heather Nelson, cofounder of Seal Energy Solutions. The North Little Rock-based contractor completed energy efficiency retrofits on seven homes of grand prize winners in 2016. “For the makeover, we specifically focused on energy assessments and the retrofit, which is air sealing, duct sealing, and insulation.”
At Linda Moore’s home, Seal crews added attic insulation, replaced heating and cooling components, and sealed air leaks.
Before the makeover, Moore’s July electric bills climbed beyond $700 a month. She’d replaced her roof and windows, hoping to lower her bill. She also enrolled in Petit Jean Electric Cooperative’s levelized billing program.
Under the plan, the 1,800-squarefoot ranch-style home had monthly electric bills of $380. Officials from the Clinton-based co-op say several of Moore’s neighbors have average electric bills of $200 to $300 per month for comparably sized homes.
“She was selected as our contest winner because she had the highest bills for the square footage,” says Terry Drew, the co-op’s member services representative.
It turns out that backup heat strips on Moore’s older heat pump would run every time the air conditioner cycled, meaning her cooling and heating unit were running simultaneously during the hottest periods of the year. The makeover team discovered the costly problem during its initial energy audit.
A visual inspection of the crawl space beneath Moore’s home turned up collapsed and perforated ductwork, meaning conditioned air was being lost in uninhabited voids year-round.
“You’re heating and cooling the outdoors, and you don’t even know it, because nobody crawls under their house,” says Seal’s Nelson, while one of her crew members inched along under the home on his belly. “We often say at Seal that we’re going places that mice don’t even go.”
Over the past 10 years, Arkansas’s Energy Efficiency Makeover has awarded several grand prizes valued at up to $50,000 for a single homeowner, with 16 runners-up winning prizes like Marathon water heaters. In 2016, one home in each of Arkansas’s 17 electric cooperative service territories received efficiency upgrades valued at up to $5,000.
AECC hired Little Rock-based energy efficiency firm EEtility as its primary contractor. EEtility tapped Arkansas-based Seal Inc., DK Construction, and 3eark to complete upgrades.
“Contractors we use have to be very open-minded about energy efficiency,” says Tammy Agard, managing partner of EEtility.
She notes that efficiency improvements like caulking, insulating, and duct sealing typically run a fraction of the costs of window and roof upgrades.
“Since the price points for energy efficiency upgrades are a lot different than what people typically spend on cosmetic upgrades, it can require a much different business model,” Agard says. “The challenge is getting people to see that they can achieve month-to-month savings and live in a much more comfortable home.”
Curry says efficiency information is the program’s best tool for getting consumers to act.
Contractors “give us annual kilowatt- hour reductions on each home and a dollar amount for the savings,” he says. “When a homeowner is armed with this type of knowledge, it can play a major factor in determining whether they’ll commit to energy efficiency upgrades that might be available with on-bill financing programs or an out-of-pocket investment.”