Energy project aims to aid homeowners

Durai Swamy was interested in reducing his carbon footprint by making his Huntington Beach home as energy efficient as possible.

So he turned to the Community Home Energy Retrofit Project (CHERP) of Huntington Beach in the interest of doing the work without overpaying for it.

CHERP, which is made up of real estate agents, contractors, city officials and those passionate about sustainability, is hosting free community forums about its services.

Members educate homeowners on how to retrofit their properties at a reasonable cost, said John Shipman, the program's regional director.

The group has worked with residents in Claremont to retrofit about 200 homes since 2008, according to its website, and is expanding into Orange County and other communities.

The organization is working with the city and the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce, which has a Sustainable Surf City Committee. CHERP provides tips on how to get rebates from local energy and water agencies and find contractors and technicians who are qualified to perform energy upgrades.

"It's going to help the whole community," Swamy said. "If you can avoid spending more on energy, the carbon footprint gets smaller, and that way we feel that we are contributing to society as a whole."

That philosophy is something the retired 68-year-old chemical engineer has practiced in his previous homes, where he installed solar panels to produce electricity and removed turf to reduce water consumption.

Swamy's new property, in the 19000 block of Homestead Lane near Garfield Avenue and Newland Street, will have more than just solar panels and drought-tolerant landscaping. He bought the house at the end of March and has already added a more-efficient furnace and a tankless water heater.

He is putting in low-flow toilets and having high-efficiency faucet aerators installed at the kitchen sink and other water fixtures.

Though Swamy purchased equipment rated to be about 96% efficient, Shipman explained that merely installing those units wouldn't necessarily save the homeowner money.

He supports a method he calls "reduce, then produce," where homeowners reduce their energy through cheaper alternatives, such as using LED light bulbs or buying Energy Star-approved appliances, before investing in expensive items like new furnaces and solar panels.

"Because if you try to produce [energy] first, you'll spend way too much money," Shipman said. "So we helped him save money on what it would normally cost to install all this."

After attending one of Shipman's workshops, Swamy was referred to Joel Pereda, a contractor with Enso Squared Building Solutions. Pereda assessed how well the house was insulated and whether there were leaks in the central heating ducts.

Using an infrared device that measures temperature, Pereda and Shipman found spaces in the walls and attic that lacked insulation. They also found leaks in the pipes where hot air was escaping.

By adding insulation where it was needed, installing new air ducts and putting in double-pane windows, the home was able to more effectively retain heat, allowing Pereda to install a smaller, more-efficient furnace.

"Now you can just walk around in a shirt, and you'll have a nice and comfortable constant temperature inside the house because of the way the system was designed," Shipman said.

Typically for a house his size — four bedrooms and three bathrooms in 2,370 square feet — Swamy would have had to install 24 solar panels to produce the energy he desired to power his home. However, since he opted to maximize the efficiency of his equipment, he only needs eight panels.

"With the energy use down, you can be less reliant on the [energy] grid," he said about using solar panels. "You don't want to be totally off the grid, but you can send power to it during the day when you're producing energy and use some power from it at night."

While the energy savings will come back to Swamy in the long run, start-up costs can be startling.

Just a few weeks into owning his $750,000 house, Swamy has invested about $20,000 in the upgrade project. With the help from Energy Upgrade California — a state initiative involving the California Public Utilities Commission, California Energy Commission and various regional energy agencies — he can expect about $4,500 in rebates.

Pereda said making a house as efficient as possibly doesn't necessarily require homeowners to pay thousands of dollars. He and his company are trying to help those in low- to middle-income brackets identify inexpensive ways to improve their homes.

"We can do this in Norwalk, Fullerton, Buena Park, Fountain Valley or Long Beach," he said. "It doesn't have to be up in the hills or along the coast. There's more than one way to be efficient, and we're still trying to get there."

Aaron Klemm, the energy project manager for Huntington Beach, said the city will waive building permit fees for high-efficiency systems.

"If you just looked at it from a return-on-investment point of view, energy efficiency has huge returns on investment," Klemm said. "You're not only eliminating waste, but solar will get you a 6% to 8% return on investment. It's small, but it's better than what you get at your bank."

Swamy said he plans to rent out his project home for about a year and then move in when his lease on his current home expires.

"So far, I'm happy with the project," he said. "At times, my wife doesn't want me to spend so much time on these kinds of things, but for me, I think this is a good thing."

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