The average American household spends nearly $2,000 per year on energy used in the home, $200 to $400 of which could be paying for wasted energy due to drafts, air leaks around openings, and outdated heating and cooling systems. What statistics fail to convey is the feeling of not wanting to remove your coat when you walk in the door, the dread of stepping onto cold tile in the morning, and your dismay as you crank the thermostat and try not to think of what your next heating bill will look like.

The Kisker family of University Park, Maryland, had felt uncomfortably chilly at home for a long time. Roberta Kisker, her husband, and their five children loved their house, but each morning, when they sat down for breakfast, they felt a draft from their bay window. The floor of their living room, which sits above a crawlspace, felt icy to the touch. And the children slept under extra blankets in their bedrooms beneath a poorly insulated attic.


Fortunately, University Park is home to one of the many programs across the country using seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's Better Buildings Neighborhood Program to tackle comfort and energy waste problems just like this. The Small Town Energy Program for University Park, or STEP-UP, set forth to transform the market for energy efficiency within the town. To achieve this mission, STEP-UP is focusing on energy assessments and upgrades for homes, financial incentives, local community delivery partners, and low-cost outreach techniques. By giving residents of University Park a simple, easy path to energy upgrades, STEP-UP plans to reach a goal of improving the comfort of 25% of University Park's approximately 2,100 households. Within a few months of the program's launch, STEP-UP had already completed 80 energy evaluations and 36 upgrades throughout the town, helping residents not only save energy but feel comfortable in their homes again through a simple process.

A Coach for the Kiskers

Once she heard about STEP-UP from a neighbor, Roberta Kisker thought it would be a good match for her home. As a first step, she contacted the program and spoke to the "Energy Coach," an expert hired by STEP-UP to assist residents of University Park who enroll in the program. The Energy Coach answers questions, provides information, and supports STEP-UP participants as they interpret their home assessment reports, select professionals to do the work, and access financial incentives.

The Energy Coach arranged an energy assessment for the Kisker house—at a reduced price of $100—from a local energy efficiency expert who is part of STEP-UP's energy professional network. When the assessment's findings were ready, The Energy Coach reviewed them with the Kiskers, and worked with a contractor to get an estimate to perform upgrades that would address the recommended changes. These included replacing old attic insulation with higher rated cellulose insulation; installing a zippered tent hood to cut down on air transfer between the attic and the rest of the house; padding the cinderblock walls and sealed vents in the crawl space under the living room; installing a thick plastic mat over the crawlspace ground to create an airtight space; and adding insulation around the bay window.

Although a number of programs exist that could help the family with the costs and financing of its energy improvement, each has its own rules and qualifications, making the task of sorting through them time and labor intensive. The Energy Coach played a crucial role in making it easy for the Kiskers to navigate these programs. The Kiskers were eligible to receive an incentive from the utility equal to 15% of the cost of the insulation (up to $1,000). In addition, the Energy Coach identified more than $1,600 in rebates from the Maryland Energy Administration's Home Performance Rebate Program, including $100 toward the already-discounted assessment, plus 35% of the cost of their air sealing work (up to $1,500) and 35% of the cost of their insulation work (up to $1,500). The Kiskers are entitled to apply for a tax credit on their 2011 tax return equal to 10% of the cost of the materials, up to a maximum credit of $500. Finally, after helping the Kiskers identify all these options, STEP-UP provided the family with $400 toward making the improvements.

When the Kiskers understood they could improve their home's energy efficiency and comfort and receive rebates totaling approximately half the cost of the upgrades, the choice was easy to make. "The rebates were a great incentive," Roberta said. "They helped me feel I wasn't acting alone, but as part of a team that is making my home, community, and even the world a better place."

Assessments and upgrades, even with attractive financing, are effective only if they produce meaningful results. A blower door test—a way of measuring a home's air loss—that was conducted after the upgrades showed a 13% improvement in the Kisker home's airtightness, and the family's first utility bill after the improvements showed lower energy costs compared to the same month of the previous year.

"The comfort level is significantly improved around the bay window and in the children's rooms under the attic," Roberta said. The first morning after the insulation was installed in the attic, her son told her, "I don't need these extra blankets anymore! I'm so warm!"

Through their smart choices and with help from the Energy Coach, the Kiskers are more comfortable at home while spending less on their energy bills. The Better Buildings Neighborhood Program aims to do the same for more than 100,000 households and commercial buildings across the country. Take the first step to becoming one of them by finding a Better Buildings Neighborhood Program near you.