A Small Town Energy Program (STEP) contractor may recommend energy-saving measures, such as spray-foam insulation, after evaluating your home.
A Small Town Energy Program (STEP) contractor may recommend energy-saving measures, such as spray-foam insulation, after evaluating your home.

BY MEGAN KOWALSKI – A new, federally funded program promises local residents lower energy bills and more comfortable homes.

The Small Town Energy Program – STEP, for short – is a $1.42 million, three-year grant funded through the Better Buildings Neighborhood Program of the U.S. Department of Energy. The program provides financial incentives for people to evaluate and improve their homes’ energy efficiency, as well as resources to facilitate the experience.

STEP was implemented in University Park in January 2011 and expanded into Hyattsville and neighboring communities this past summer.

After signing up, the first step for homeowners is a home-energy evaluation, done by one of five STEP-approved contractors. That service usually costs $400, says program director Chuck Wilson, but participants pay $100.

The evaluation results in a comprehensive report listing ways to conserve energy, how much an upgrade would cost, and how much it would save. Wilson says that on average, participants see their utility bills drop by 15 to 20 percent. If the homeowners decide to follow through with the upgrades – and about 2/3 do – STEP Energy Coach Suzanne Parmet will help them determine the scope.

“The key job for the energy coach is to work with the homeowner to make sure they understand the report, answer any questions and work with them to understand what the

most cost-effective thing is to do,” said Wilson. Suggested fixes might include insulating attics, crawl spaces and overhangs or air sealing all the cracks and drafty places.

“Most homes have the equivalent of a 2 foot by 2 foot window if you add up all the cracks,” said Wilson. He added that replacing windows and doors is “almost always the last thing because it is the most expensive. Most people think this is where their problem is, but generally that is not the case.”

One of the biggest benefits to participants is the rebate on upgrades. Wilson says that on average, homeowners can expect a 50 percent rebate, although the rebates have been as high as 65 percent.

Hyattsville resident Paul Steinkoenig said he paid $1,400 for about $4,300 of work that was recommended after the energy audit. He praised the affordability and ease of the upgrades.

“It’s a nice improvement on our home for a good deal,” he said. “It’s been amazing how easily and quickly the pieces have come together.”

Often, new customers come through word-of-mouth reviews from neighbors. That’s how Hyattsville resident Robert DeKeyser found out about the program.

DeKeyser, who recently completed the energy audit, says that he thinks the most positive aspect of STEP is the simplicity that the program offers busy homeowners.

“It helps you negotiate the whole process because these things can be fairly complicated,” he said.

For Hyattsville Environment Committee Chair Jim Groves, “the key point here is the program is run through a grant, so nobody’s out to make a buck. It’s something that is actually being done for the good of everyone, and there’s not enough of that going on in the world today.”

The strength of small community to make a major impact in the national energy crisis is vital to the success of STEP, and Wilson says that the leaders in the community, as well as the residents, have been instrumental.

“The [Hyattsville City] Council really showed leadership on this and made it easy for the program to be implemented,” he said. “The senior staff has been very cooperative. We couldn’t do it without them.”