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Energy efficiency now a bigger share of business for building contractors

Cam Burns
CLEER
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

CARBONDALE, Colorado – A combination of energy efficiency and renewable energy programs and technology advancements – on the local, state and federal, levels – are helping local contractors stay in business during tough economic times.

Although there are indications that the recession is starting to abate, some contractors attribute local and regional energy programs for helping them stay in business.

“I would say our retrofit work would represent 20 percent of our volume, and that’s 20 percent we didn’t have five years ago,” said Rick Rogers, branch manager for Insulvail, an insulation company based in Gypsum. “And it’s good work.”



Rogers cited a recent effort to improve energy efficiency at the Rifle Housing Authority’s senior housing complex – where Insulvail workers spent several weeks weather-stripping, blowing in insulation, and making other improvements – as an example.

Chris Allen, sales and production manager at Glenwood-based Climate Control Co., a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning services firm, said currently 30 to 40 percent of his company’s work is in efficiency upgrades. And that doesn’t include energy efficiency work in new construction, which lately has been spurred by new building codes.



“I would say we’ve seen a pretty good impact from energy efficiency in general,” Allen said. “We’ve seen a big uptick in business so far as people wanting to do energy efficiency.”

Climate Control recently made energy efficiency upgrades to the Meeker Town Hall, two city of Rifle buildings, eight buildings in Carbondale, and a 92-unit project in Eagle.

According to electrician Steve Hiscock, owner of Silt-based Flatops Electric, efficiency work is about 20 percent of what his firm does these days. Hiscock said Flatops did about the same amount of business in efficiency work in the mid-2000s in dollar terms as it does today, but with the economic downturn and a shrinking market, the efficiency work has roughly doubled as a percentage of his business.

Flatops’ first major efficiency project was a major lighting retrofit at the Garfield County libraries. “We did the Carbondale library, the Glenwood library, New Castle library, the Silt library, and part of the Parachute library.”

Regional energy efficiency programs, such as Garfield Clean Energy (GCE) and Energy Smart, which provide incentives and support for local governments, small businesses and homeowners to become more energy efficient, have significantly increased the number of energy users seeking to make improvements.

Program managers at CLEER have reached out to the contractor community to increase contractors’ awareness of rebates, utility programs, and ways contractors can help potential customers find the right funding and approaches to cut energy costs.

Contractors are also benefiting from the rapid advancement in recent years of several key technologies relating to energy efficiency. The current fast-paced evolution of light bulbs and fixtures is one example.

“The electrical industry is changing so rapidly right now with all the new products coming out. There’s the new fluorescent lamps and CFLs, and then there’s the LED market, which is going crazy right now,” Hiscock said. “I think fluorescents are still holding the bigger part of the market because of the cost, but LEDs’ cost just in the last four years or so has dropped in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 percent. If that continues to happen, a lot more manufacturers will get into the market.

“Plus LEDs have changed a lot. When they first came out, the lamps didn’t have very much light output. Thus, they were relegated to sectors like the automotive service industry and marine-related industries. Now they’re much better,” he said.

There’s a similar evolution happening with major building equipment such as furnaces and boilers. Modern furnaces and boilers are much more intelligent than they were just a few years ago, and boast sensors and digital controls, allowing them to sense when they need to adjust to heating and cooling needs and to switch off when they’re not needed.

“In older furnaces you get 100 percent output all the time, which is like having your pedal to the metal,” said Climate Control’s Allen.

Garfield Clean Energy and CLEER have held numerous workshops on key technology areas to increase knowledge about these technology developments, in addition to best practices for use and installation.

But work for contractors hasn’t just been in the more high-tech areas.

Take ductwork, for example. Lately, Allen said, there has been a lot of contractor attention to making sure that ducts don’t leak as much warm or cool air as they did in previous decades, partly due to the increased awareness of the potential for energy and cost savings.

“The national statistic on ducts is that they leak 30 percent,” Allen said. “The more leakage you can take out, the better. People are trying to get it down to 10 percent or better.”

Additionally, some jurisdictions – Glenwood Springs, for example – are requiring residents to do heat-loss calculations on their homes before they can get a building permit to upgrade old equipment, Allen noted.

“That’s really good,” he said. “And that’s the way it should be. A lot of the stuff out there is whatever the home or business owner bought at the time, and way too big.”

Finally, the general public’s interest in energy-related matters has grown considerably in the last decade.

Garfield Clean Energy’s efforts have generated $6.7 million in work for contractors and clean energy-related businesses and suppliers while saving $1 million in energy so far. Annual energy savings from these projects are projected to save an additional $5.5 million for residents, businesses and governments over the next five years.

More than 140 energy efficiency and clean energy-related contractors (electricians, HVAC, insulation, lighting, plumbing, building, solar installers, etc.) are actively engaged in Garfield Clean Energy-initiated programs.

“We had to adapt to the energy efficiency business, and it took a little while,” Allen said. “But once we adapted and went with it, it was good. I really think it’s the future, and just three years ago the future was pretty uncertain.”

Several contractors noted there are other benefits to the energy efficiency and renewable energy programs currently occurring.

One, Rogers said, is that retrofit jobs are generally smaller than new construction jobs, so contractors can use those jobs to fill in empty slots in their schedules.

Then there’s the obvious benefit to the building owner.

“The homeowner gets lower energy costs, and often there are rebates associated with the retrofits,” Rogers said. “But the main thing is that homeowners are getting much more comfortable homes. Most of the older houses we work on were built with old energy codes, so the insulation is oftentimes very limited. Sometimes walls are just empty cavities needing to be filled. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Hiscock noted that some of the lighting upgrades he’s done will give his commercial clients the ability to save on maintenance costs by replacing failing equipment with new products that last longer and save energy.

“If we hadn’t gotten into energy efficiency, I don’t know that we’d be 34 employees at this point,” Allen said. “It’s been kind of a savior for us. Now it is everywhere.”

To learn more about how your business can start saving energy from these programs contact Erica Sparhawk or Rob Morey at CLEER, 704-9200.


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