What's Missing from Mass Save

What's Missing from Mass Save

  • Paul Eldrenkamp's house
By Paul Eldrenkamp

I had a Mass Save audit a couple of months ago. My wife and I were preparing to have photovoltaic (PV) panels installed on our roof through the Solarize Newton program; having a Mass Save energy assessment was a required step in that process.

The Next Step Living employee who came to my house to do the assessment was very personable. He walked around the house with me, gave me a few compact fluorescent light bulbs to put into some fixtures that we almost never use, and suggested about a half dozen times that my house might be a good candidate for heat pumps.

My house, in fact, is not a good candidate for heat pumps, no matter how badly the Next Step Living employee wanted it to be. But I’ll come back to that shortly.

Ignoring the possibility that your obligatory initial home assessment will be done by someone who doesn’t know that much about how houses work, there’s a lot to like about the Mass Save program. Funded by a surcharge on our electric and gas bills, the Mass Save program provides a host of rebates, incentives, zero-interest loans, and free light bulbs to encourage Massachusetts residents to use less energy in their households. (To know how much you pay into the Mass Save fund, look for a line item on your gas or electric bill that says “energy conservation.”).

Whenever we’re planning a project with our clients, we do our best to help them take full advantage of the various Mass Save programs, in particular the 7-year, 0% interest, $25,000 HEAT loan for various efficiency measures.

Despite its many qualities, I see three main problems with the Mass Save program. One is that the program is targeted at the really easy improvements. From a cost-effectiveness point of view, this is understandable. If your mandate is short-term payback—and that is true of the Mass Save program—you need to cherry-pick your projects.

In metropolitan Boston, however, there are a lot of leaky old houses where we could make noticeable efficiency improvements if we could just reach some places that most need air-sealing and insulation. To do that, though, we need to have a decent carpenter on site to make the required holes and then patch them in afterwards. This adds a layer of effort and cost that the program generally can’t deal with. The advice homeowners seem to often get in these situations is not “here’s an opportunity, and here’s how you can deal with it” but instead “there’s not much we can do for you; here are some light bulbs.”

The next problem is the conflicting priorities that the person doing the home assessment might have. I think this explains why the Next Step Living employee visiting my house really wanted to push mini-split heat pumps in a house with a 90%+ efficient boiler and an Energy Star-rated air conditioning system already in place, each less than ten years old, well-maintained and fully functioning.

Mini-split heat pumps represent possibly the most profitable item in Next Step Living’s menu of services. In order to stand a chance of generating the margins that their investors expect, they need to try to turn as many low-profit home energy assessments into high-margin heat pump installations as they can—even if it’s not necessarily the best thing for the house.

The final problem is the difficulty of putting in place a system where Mass Save contractors such as Next Step Living can be accountable for the impact of their work. Given that the goal of the program is to reduce the energy consumption of the homes they work on, one would think it would be possible to get some real data from real projects, based on comparisons between pre- and post-weatherization project utility bills.

This appears to be impossible, alas—there is no data available, as far as I have been able to find out. I have faith that the impact of Mass Save work has been very positive on some homes, but I’m equally sure that a lot of homes have seen negligible improvement, or no improvement whatsoever.

For a variety of reasons we have chosen not to become a Mass Save contractor. However, we do have a system in place to track and analyze the results of our work on household energy usage. If you’ve participated in the Mass Save program, would like to try to measure the impact of that work, and are willing to share a couple years of utility bills with us (one year of pre-project and one year of post-project usage), please get in touch. Together perhaps we can start to fill in an information gap that will help make us all better-informed consumers.