A lot of people talk the talk about being green and sustainable, but far fewer actually walk the walk. Then there’s Linda Wigington, a true example of both passion and practice. Wigington runs the Thousand Home Challenge, a deep retrofit initiative geared at inspiring and enabling owners of existing homes to reduce their energy use by 70 percent or more.

As the founder of this initiative, Wigington is excited by the results that have been achieved so far by the 24 homes that have completed the challenge.

“We’ve learned a lot. It’s really exciting,” she said. “Achieving deep energy reductions is easier than I thought it would be.”

And, in her ongoing quest to learn more about all facets of green design and reduced energy use, she has recently begun doing some contracting on the side. Wigington is specializing in ductless heat pumps due to the technology’s efficiency and performance benefits.

Behind the Challenge

According to Wigington, the idea for the Thousand Home Challenge came from a summit held several years ago, and she has been the “champion” of the challenge ever since. Originally, the challenge was operated by Affordable Comfort Inc. (ACI), but, when funding fell through, Wigington gained the rights to the initiative and now operates it herself.

“The goal of the Thousand Home Challenge — the purpose of this initiative — is to lay the foundation to transform North American homes by demonstrating potential for deep reductions in 1,000 existing homes across the U.S. and Canada,” she explained. “We define ‘deep’ reductions as 70 percent or greater … and our focus is measured energy use.”

The initiative has been heralded by others for this approach to energy retrofits. According to William Rose, a senior research architect at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “There are many green building efforts out there. Most of them will result in one or a handful of boutique buildings and some bragging rights with little impact on what drives the effort in the first place — significant reductions in the overall energy picture.

“To make a difference, a program must have three elements: existing buildings, deep fixes, and lots of buildings. The Thousand Home Challenge has what it takes,” he added.

A Different Type of Initiative

Wigington said it became clear to her a decade ago that energy use needed to be reduced much more drastically than the 10-30 percent that traditional energy-reduction programs were achieving. The Thousand Home Challenge is different from other programs because it requires a much deeper reduction in energy use, but also avoids strict rules for how to achieve the reduction.

There are two paths to achieve the challenge, referred to as Option A and Option B. Option A requires a 75 percent reduction from the home’s most recent verifiable energy consumption. Option B requires a home to perform approximately 75 percent better than an average home in the same climate, with similar finished floor area, occupancy, and heating source.

“Most of our projects choose to use Option B, which makes sense any time a home is already performing better than average,” Wigington explained.

She added, “Some of our projects have achieved 90 percent reduction, and some have achieved more than that because they are net zero or net producing.”

Wigington also pointed out that anyone who is curious about how their home is performing can access the challenge’s threshold calculator. This tool, which is available online in a spreadsheet format, enables households to determine the customized energy reduction they would need to achieve to meet the challenge.

“We wanted it to be flexible,” Wigington said. “There are many ways to achieve deep energy options. We want to have a lot of homes involved. We want the diversity. The strength will be showing all of the approaches and ways people can take.”

Diverse Approaches

As examples of some of the diverse approaches, Wigington pointed to solar photovoltaics (PV) and ductless heat pumps.

Some naysayers, she said, say it’s not possible to achieve the 75 percent reduction without photovoltaics.

“Out of 24 projects, 19 have photovoltaics, but only 16 actually needed photovoltaics to meet the challenge,” Wigington said.

Another technology aiding homeowners in achieving drastic reductions in energy use is the inverter-driven ductless heat pump.

“I’m singularly biased towards ductless heat pumps,” Wigington admitted, adding they are ideal for zoning. “They make it very easy to heat only one part of a house. You don’t have to bother heating the rest of the home at the same level.”

Yet, as she urged homeowners to consider installing these systems in their homes, she kept hearing them report the bids were too high compared to more traditional systems. Since she wanted to understand the higher costs and gain her own hands-on experience with this equipment, Wigington got into the contracting side of the business.

“What I learned right away is it’s a whole lot different if you have a ranch house, and you’re installing a single head on the inside of an outside wall, with the outdoor unit conveniently close by. That’s a really easy installation,” she said. “Guess what — you get two-story houses with heads on interior walls, and you’re trying to run insulated lineset, condensate line, and wiring through interior wall cavities that you don’t have access to … it’s a whole lot more difficult, expensive, risky, and time consuming.”

Because of her experience, Wigington said, “I have much more appreciation for what it’s like to be a contractor, which is good.”

She added this includes an understanding of the selling, scheduling, ordering, and managing processes involved in every job.

Notably, one of the first homes that completed the Thousand Home Challenge uses a ductless heat pump. The home, which is located in Urbana, Ohio, is owned by Ward Lutz and has been featured by Wigington in many presentations. It is now a net-zero energy home, and Lutz made the following statement about his participation in the challenge: “My actions are in response to my vision of a future of fossil fuel depletion and an increasing accumulation of the consequences of their use. It is my hope that my actions and what I have learned from them will inform and motivate others to engage in a deep energy reduction project.”

Hundreds of Thousands

Looking ahead, Wigington said there is vast potential for the Thousand Home Challenge, and the final goal is not simply to reduce the energy use of one thousand homes.

“Ultimately, the Thousand Home Challenge isn’t done when we’ve gone from 999 to 1,000 homes,” she said. “We see the challenge as being successful if towns, states, or maybe corporations adopt the challenge as a meaningful initiative … and that we engage hundreds of thousands of citizens to be aware of the potential to drastically change the way we use energy and improve the environment.”

Publication date: 11/17/2014

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