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One of the smartest ways for homeowners to save money on major appliance upgrades is to hook into an energy efficiency rebate program. The Neighborhood Energy Connection (NEC), a non-profit organization in St. Paul, Minnesota, helps local residents take advantage of Xcel Energy’s rebate programs that cut the cost of whole-house energy efficiency upgrades.

It can start with a visit from the “Home Energy Squad”, a program offered jointly by Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, the local energy providers (NEC implements the program for Xcel Energy). The Energy Squad installs simple efficiency-improving products such as compact fluorescent lights, door weather-stripping and high-efficiency showerheads at no cost. Consumers pay only for the materials – the installation is free and funded by the utilities.

The crew also performs a walk-through to identify which larger upgrades would lower the homeowner’s energy bills and improve the home’s performance the most. The Home Energy Squad concentrates its delivery in small geographic areas, holding workshops so neighbors can see each other participating and the service can be delivered on a block-to-block basis.

Customers can also request a complete home energy audit by Xcel Energy, including a blower door test, an infrared scan and a home report with recommendations on what to do next.

After an audit, the customer can take advantage of Xcel Energy’s Home Performance Rebate program, which saves consumers an average of $600 on major energy-efficiency improvements. The three required home upgrades that participants undergo with the help of the rebate program are air and bypass sealing, installing attic insulation and weather-stripping and replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights. Participants then choose two or more other improvements from a list that includes air conditioners, refrigerators, and furnaces, among many others.

“We’re trying to get people off the fence who have been sitting on the fence,” says Chris Duffrin, director of NEC.

The board of trustees for the United Methodist Church of Northfield, about 40 miles south of St. Paul, put the rebate program to work when it performed an energy-efficiency upgrade to its pastor’s residence.

“We decided to look into improving the home with special attention to energy efficiency,” says Ron Sommers who chairs the church’s trustees. “The rebate program encouraged us to do that.”

The house was constructed in the 1960s and was well-built, but needed a new boiler. The Home Performance Rebate helped the board budget for the improvements, and in the summer of 2008, contractors installed the new boiler with an accompanying high-efficiency water heater.

The board chose to use local contractors that were approved under the program. “That way, if we had a problem, we’d have someone in the neighborhood,” Ron says.

The home now stays warm using its 93-percent-efficient boiler, improved insulation and its tightened building envelope – the air seal of the house. It also has a new high-efficiency air conditioner. Since the work was finished, the board has noticed a significant decrease in the cost of energy the home uses each month.

In 2009, NEC signed 130 clients up for the rebate program.