On blustery winter days, when Malissa Kirszenbaum would stroll by the front door of her previous home in Randallstown, it was like walking in front of a fan.
She and her husband, Leon, were stunned by soaring utility costs.
"Our bills were absolutely phenomenal. Our neighbors had the same problem," recalled Mrs. Kirszenbaum.
Running the air conditioner on most summer days was out. They didn't feel like cooling the great outdoors.
But today, despite moving to a larger house in Ellicott City, the Kirszenbaums are paying significantly less to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., and BGE is just fine with that.
The Kirszenbaums bought a home participating in BGE's ambitious "EnergyWi$e" program. The program, inaugurated last fall, has already certified 549 new homes in the Baltimore region, with 1,270 in the inspection pipeline. BGE hopes that 70 percent of the new homes built locally in the year 2000 will have EnergyWi$e technology and construction mandated by the program. The key to the effort's success is the dollar sign in the program's name.
BGE is paying participating builders for the extra costs of higher-efficiency water heaters, better insulation and pricier windows.
Bob Ward, one of the biggest builders in Harford County, said that the program is a "big benefit to the buyer that doesn't cost me anything and doesn't cost the buyer anything."
The average per-dwelling rebate paid by BGE to builders who pass the utility's EnergyWi$e inspections has been $1,800. The maximum per townhouse is $1,500. The minimum for a single-family detached home is $2,000. BGE and builders in the program say that the rebates allow builders to upgrade homes without having to charge higher prices.
The biggest winners, they say, are the homebuyers, who will not only get energy-efficient homes, but will also find it easier to secure mortgages for those homes.
According to BGE, many lenders will increase the debt-to-income ratio of a prospective borrower as much as two percent for EnergyWi$e.
The rationale is that the heating and air-conditioning bills will be lower, thus allowing more of the household's income to go for monthly mortgage, insurance and tax payments.
For example, lenders traditionally have wanted to see the monthly mortgage payments plus tax and insurance total no more than 28 percent of pretax monthly income, and payments of all debts to reach no more than 36 percent.
An energy-efficient home can help borrowers whose payments put them over these traditional ratios. The savings can be as much as 25 percent on the heating bill of an all-electric new home with a heat pump, according to BGE.
A 2,600-square-foot Colonial home built to EnergyWi$e standards uses around 12,869 kilowatt hours a year, while the same home not built to those standards will use 17,186, according to J. Mark Duerr, a BGE marketing administrator. At current rates, the savings for the Energy- Wi$e home can be as much as $400 per year.
Mrs. Kirszenbaum says that in their new Doughhoregan Homes-built residence, from November 1994 through March, the average BGE bill ran $104 a month. She says their bills have come down between $50 and $75 a month from what they were paying in Randallstown.
The savings are impressive, but the improved comfort in the winter is noticeable as well, she said. "There's no drafts."
Conservation programs such as EnergyWi$e are seen by state regulators and utilities as a way to defer costly and controversial generating plant construction. The program and similar ones for existing homes and businesses have the potential to restrain the peak load demands of BGE customers.
Maryland utilities were ordered by the state Public Service Commission to begin designing conservation programs in 1988, according to Greg Stagg, a PSC regulatory economist, and the current programs are the result of a collaborative effort of utilities, regulators, industrial users and consumer representatives.
By the end of next year, BGE hopes to have 4,700 new homes built to EnergyWi$e standards, and estimates that energy-saving measures will reduce these homes' demand by 3 megawatts from what less efficient housing would require.
While that is helpful, it is still just a start. By way of comparison, BGE got some additional capacity with the recent completion of its newest generating project, Perryman Unit 51, a gas-fueled facility in Harford County that will produce 140 megawatts in normal operations.
But BGE still has to purchase power from neighboring utilities on the coldest winter days when customer demand pushes past 6,000 megawatts.
BGE officials say EnergyWi$e is an effective approach because it is "passive" -- built into the home and thus requiring no extra effort -- and because it makes sense financially to homebuyers.
"American consumers want to be 'green,' " said Barry K. Hedden, a BGE marketing administrator. "But they want incentives."
So does the home construction industry. BGE has concentrated most of its efforts over the past year on selling the benefits of the program to builders rather than homebuyers.
Currently, six of the 20 largest area builders are participating -- some in just one subdivision to get a feel for the program, some in all their new home sites, like Bob Ward Homes.
Mr. Ward says some companies may not want to spend money upfront to meet the program's construction and appliance requirements, with no assurance their homes will pass final inspection and get the BGE rebates.
"It's a little tough to meet the standards," said Mr. Ward, particularly the final inspection that uses a large fan in the front door sucking air out of the house to measure leakage, the "blower door test."
Mr. Ward's company hired a consultant to ensure his homes would be efficient enough to pass the inspection. "He does it before BGE," Mr. Ward said.
Bob Ward has 11 new-home communities in Maryland that are EnergyWi$e, said Wendy Gatzke, marketing director.
She said that when a prospective buyer looks at comparable homes, the EnergyWi$e stamp of approval "gives us the upper edge." And she said giving buyers more flexibility on the debt-to-income ratio helps first-time buyers.
In addition to Bob Ward Homes, other "Top 20" builders with dwellings in the program include Ryan Homes, Patriot Homes, Masonry Contractors, U.S. Home Corp., and Cornerstone Homes.
Combined, these six builders build nearly one in every five homes in the area.
The largest builder in the region, Ryland Homes, with 12.8 percent of new home sales, is not in the EnergyWi$e program.
A Ryland spokeswoman, Sharon Greene, said that the company "recognizes the importance of energy efficiency in its homes, and we're glad to see that homebuilders and homeowners see the value of programs such as the one offered by BGE."
"We have nearly 30 years of experience in this area, and feel good about the emphasis we place on energy efficiency," Ms. Green said. "That's why we incorporate several energy-efficient features in our homes, such as insulated windows and doors, air infiltration prevention, low-flow faucets, and water-saver showers and toilets."
A major showcase for the EnergyWi$e program will be the Home Builders Association of Maryland Dream Homes '95, which is being co-sponsored by BGE.
The September show, at the Piney Orchard planned community in Odenton, will feature six new homes built to EnergyWi$e specifications.
After a builder has finished an EnergyWi$e home, a BGE inspector, perhaps Jim Whalon, will make sure the house is really as tight as advertised.
Recently, he was doing a final inspection at a home in Ellwood Builders' Fox Haven subdivision in Reisterstown. It was Mr. Whalon's job to check the model numbers of water heaters, to make sure the ducts have the right tape around them and to check off all the other requirements.
At the end of the inspection came the "blower door test."
Watching Mr. Whalon was Jeff Sonntag, an Ellwood carpenter whose handiwork was now being put to the challenge.
"When we first started, we were having little bits of problems," said Mr. Sonntag. "But we worked them out. We set our own fan up to check . . . we found the problem."
Mr. Whalon opened the front door, installed a large canvas over the door with a hole at the bottom, and set up the fan and the gauges to measure air flow out of the house.
He turned on the fan. Air could be felt seeping through electrical outlets as the pressure in the home dropped slightly. That was OK. "We don't want a house that's too tight," Mr. Whalon said; a certain amount of air infiltration is essential.
After a few minutes, he was satisfied. Mr. Whalon was looking for the fan test to pull an amount equal to 35 percent of the home's 19,740 cubic feet of air out the front door per hour, and the Ellwood home was at 33 percent.
L "This is doing very well," concluded a satisfied Mr. Whalon.
ENERGYWI$E UPGRADES REQUIRED BY BGE
* High-efficiency heating and cooling equipment. For example, in gas-heated homes, the furnace must be rated at 90 percent AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency). BGE says most furnaces are at 80 percent.
* Attic insulation must be at least R-30, and wall insulation of R-13 to R-22, depending on what option package is chosen by the builder.
* Low-flow shower heads, which can save more than 10,000 gallons of water annually for a family of four.
* Fiberglass water heater blankets are required (for heaters that are not high-efficiency) and, in some cases, water pipes must be insulated.
* High-performance, dual-pane windows must be provided, with a weather-sensitive metallic coating that blocks heat from entering a room, reducing cooling costs.
* Compact fluorescent lighting is mandated.
* Air infiltration reduction is required to prevent leaks around doors, windows, wiring and attics.
* Ducts must be sealed with a flexible mastic or foil tape, and duct work installed in unheated areas must be insulated.