Making a Difference, One House at a Time How a Some Cold States Helped Change DOE Rules

Programs that deliver weatherization services have wrestled with the dilemma of not installing energy efficient improvements when stopped cold by the Savings to Investment Ratio (SIR) requirement. In colder states the dilemma takes on a greater urgency. State code could be R-38 more than exists in the attic, yet the SIR would not reach 1.0 with the existing insulation in place. State codes are a good indicator of the levels it would take to establish energy efficiency and comfort.

When the local CAP agency from Missoula, Montana called the state office to express a frustrating pattern with the SIR, they got Jonathan Ballew. “The Agency showed me that adding insulation would not pencil out in homes heated with gas where the existing level of insulation was R-11 or more. The Savings-to-Investment Ratio (SIR) would be below 1.0 and therefore not allowed under the Montana audit tool used to determine cost effectiveness.” The Missoula agency was frustrated by walking away from attics with drastically less insulation than the state code minimum of R-49. This set into motion a series of events that would lead to a nationwide change in how the cost effectiveness of some measures are calculated.

Jonathan began to research the math behind the SIR and found the Lifespan of insulation was at the root of the problem. Jonathan researched insulation manufacturers, trade associations and relevant published reports to find their data had a much longer Lifespan for insulation than DOE’s ‘Allowable Default ECM Lifetime.’ “Everything I was finding pointed to insulation being effective for as much as eighty years more than DOE allowed.” Jonathan stated.

Next Jonathan turned to Energy OutWest (EOW) and surveyed member states to see if the ‘Lifespan’ of measures in their audit calculations was limiting their installations. “I realized that this was a problem that was affecting a lot of states.” Armed with empirical data from EOW member states and the insulation manufacturers, Et al. Jonathan looked for help to get his research out where it would have an impact. “I called Mimi,” Jonathan said. Mimi Burbage works for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and is President of Energy OutWest. “If anyone would know what to do with the information I collected, it would be Mimi.”

“When the SIR of a measure is calculated and the Lifespan value is low, it can bring the measure down below the required 1.0 [savings-to-investment ratio]. Then you can’t install the measure, even when you know the little insulation they have isn’t doing the job.” Mimi explained. The SIR issue was brought up and discussed at an Energy OutWest meeting. EOW members shared similar experience of walking away from measures and homes because of existing insulation levels. It was a common occurrence, agencies were finding existing insulation in homes, not enough insulation to improve energy efficiency or comfort, but enough insulation to disqualify the measure.

Mimi had been looking closely at the SIR’s of measures and was supportive of Jonathan’s research and instrumental in coordinating a meeting with Glen Salas, of Simonson Management Services. Glen invited Derek Schroder, of the US Department of Energy, to the call. After the meeting Glen contacted Mark Ternes, of Oakridge National Labs. Mark is in charge of the National Modeling Program (NEAT) used by DOE. “Jonathan had done a lot of research on this issue, which gave us the background to move this issue forward. I was able to coordinate a conference call and get the right people to the table so Jonathan could explain his findings,” Mimi explained.

Oakridge ran the numbers from the information Jonathan provided and came up with the same result; in certain applications, The Lifespan, of the installed insulation should be longer than the twenty years currently listed in the ‘Allowable Default ECM Lifetime’.

Backed by Oakridge’s findings, Jonathan and Mimi, brought the issue up at the next Energy OutWest Board meeting. After Jonathan explained his research to the EOW Board along with the Oakridge findings, the EOW Technical Committee prioritized the measure lifetimes discussion for insulation and heating systems and supported the effort to pursue this project. “I knew this was something that would have an impact on all programs. I wanted to make sure that DOE saw this as more than a couple of states looking for a rule change.” Mimi said,

The states of Montana and Alaska, as DOE Grantees, made a formal request through proper channels to lengthen the Lifespan of insulation so that the cost can be spread over a longer period of time. This resulted in the ability to add insulation on top of older insulation and still meet the SIR requirement.

The ability for agencies across the country to improve homes by bring insulation up to current state codes, through increasing the insulation levels, will make a positive impact on reducing energy use and improving comfort. “I think the beauty of this is how well the system worked to implement change,” Mimi said. “And I’m proud of the roll Energy OutWest played in this process. I’m also very thankful for Jonathan Ballew, for digging into the data and finding the facts we needed to make this happen.”

Jonathan was somewhat surprised at how quickly the process moved to make the change. “We were dealing with DOE Rules, I didn’t think things would move this fast.” Jonathan started his research in the spring of 2018. On January 17, 2019 while the government was in a partial shutdown, DOE issued Weatherization Program Notice 19-4, Table 9.1 extending the Lifespan of certain insulation measures and fossil fuel furnaces. “Essentially, these major measures will get 10 more years to accrue savings against the installed cost of the measure; that’s a 50% increase!” Jonathan proclaimed.

The science of residential energy efficiency is changing as the understanding of building science, materials and technology is opening doors to greater possibilities in efficient energy use. When everyone pulls together for a common goal, great things can happen. Energy OutWest is on the cutting edge of residential energy efficiency. Its members represent DOE Grantees and weatherization agencies in sixteen states and two Tribal Nations. The process that led to the changes in DOE’s Allowable Default ECM Lifetime and its implications for local weatherization providers will be a topic at the next Energy OutWest conference scheduled for August 10 – 14th, 2020 in Austin, Texas. For more information on WPN-19-4 and other weatherization related topics please visit the Energy OutWest website at

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Energy OutWest (EOW) is an independent organization devoted to the advancement of knowledge and practice in the field of weatherization. EOW is a very active peer exchange organization directed by a board with representatives from fifteen states... View More

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