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Engineers make Bull City homes green

Engineering students work to create energy efficiency in Durham homes, funded by a $25,000 grant from the Piedmont Natural Gas foundation.
Engineering students work to create energy efficiency in Durham homes, funded by a $25,000 grant from the Piedmont Natural Gas foundation.

Two engineering students are getting hands-on with energy efficiency.

The Piedmont Natural Gas Foundation awarded a $25,000 grant to senior Marc Loeffke and junior Charlie Molthrop for a pilot program to monitor energy use and target sources of inefficiency in 15 Durham homes. Their goal is to reduce energy use and carbon emissions while saving homeowners’ money.

Loeffke said they are not afraid to get dirty in the process of energy efficiency improvement.

“I personally get to perform the heavy lifting in the homes, sweating in a hot attic equipped head-to-toe in coveralls, dust mask, kneepads and a headlamp,” Loeffke wrote in an email Monday. “Then I later get to look over the change in energy consumption post-improvements, analyze how much my efforts reduced usage of the air-handling unit and fully quantify my impact.”

Loeffke and Molthrop will focus on more tightly sealing ductwork and areas that are not air-conditioned, like attics and crawl spaces. They will also insulate hot water heaters to ensure that they heat the water inside and not the surrounding air.

“Up to 40 percent of a home’s energy usage can be attributed to heating and cooling,” Molthrop wrote in an email Monday.

Additionally, Molthrop and Loeffke will install home energy monitors to provide consumption data. Using PlotWatt—a Durham-based tech startup that provides energy monitoring analysis for free—total energy use data can be dissected into data about specific appliances, such as the air conditioner or water heater, Molthrop said. This will help them accurately report how much carbon is offset for each home and estimate the cost-effectiveness of expanding to future homes.

The data can also be used to identify broken or poorly performing systems or appliances, Loeffke said.

“With just a few simple improvements households can save money, lessen their ecological impact and diminish the strain on the electric grid,” he said. “The only catch is the initial investment required, which a struggling family may not be able to afford even if its investment pays off within the year.”

Loeffke added that they can decrease costs for the program by attracting support from companies that are interested in offsetting their greenhouse gas emissions. Having specific carbon reduction data will help in this process.

Information provided by a survey administered by Duke Carbon Offset Initiative helped Molthrop and Loeaffke select homes based on their location and how much energy reduction could be expected. All of the participants are Duke employees, David Cooley, associate for project development at DCOI, wrote in an email Monday.

“We hope to help community members realize that being sustainable not only helps the environment but also helps their pocketbook,” said Cooley, who supervises the pilot program.

Piedmont is funding separate projects at Furman University and Vanderbilt University, too. Each project will allow students to share their expertise with local community partners and promote energy efficiency and environmental stewardship, David Trusty, managing director of public relations at Piedmont Natural Gas, wrote in an email June 14.

The grant money will support student fellowships, faculty stipends, materials, technology support and travel, Trusty noted.

If the Duke pilot project produces economical carbon reductions, the program could expand to include more local homes, Cooley said.

“If we can identify discernible reductions from this pilot project, a residential energy efficiency-based carbon offsets program could be a great way to meet Duke’s zero emissions goals while helping local residents save energy and money and giving students real-life experience,” DCOI Director Tatjana Vujic said.


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