District Energy House on Display

Posted October 7, 2011 at 4:57pm

The home building industry has been hit hard by the economic downturn, but one Washington-area contractor sees it as an opportunity.

“About two or three years ago, the industry completely went to sleep,” said Charles Juris, manager of Alexandria, Va.-based Energy Resource Management Construction Co. “That’s when my daughter told me I was too old and needed to start looking at something new. I was skeptical, but I went with it.”

Juris and his network of construction subcontractors turned to the burgeoning field of energy resource management. ERM now designs and installs energy-efficient appliances in homes and small businesses in the D.C. area.

It’s a move that might have saved the business.

“I was an old dog who didn’t want to learn new tricks,” Juris said. “But I’m glad I did because now we’re as busy as can be.”

Juris credits the Obama administration for his company’s new direction. Federal tax credits help make the upfront costs manageable for his clients, he said.

He was also affected by an encounter he had with the president at an energy efficiency event at a Home Depot in Alexandria, Va.

“I met [President Barack Obama]. I shook his hand,” Juris said. “But my co-worker grabbed him and pulled him close and said, ‘We started this company because you told us to, that this was the way to go and you wouldn’t let us down.’”

ERM has developed a hands-on marketing strategy to attract customers. On Oct. 22, one of ERM’s clients will host an open house to demonstrate the mechanics, costs and savings of energy-efficiency upgrades.

The company has already held open houses at two homes in Northern Virginia, and its latest showcase is a renovated 1890s row home on Eighth Street Southeast in the District. The company secured the properties by offering the owners a discount on the upgrades in exchange for the right to showcase the work to the public.

“If I came to you to describe what a mini-split was and how it could save you money, you’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Juris said. “But if you could see it and I could open it up for you and show you how the geothermal system works, and you felt the water running through it, you’d be much more receptive.”

The ERM team reinsulated the Eighth Street energy house, hooked up an interactive home energy management system that monitors energy usage, installed energy-efficient lighting, weatherization and water management systems, and worked with a local designer to remodel the interior.

But the crown jewel of the upgrade is the mini-split. The geothermal heating and cooling system has been in wide use outside the United States in recent years. It runs in conjunction with a ductless, breadbox-size compressor that sits outside and runs nearly silently.

Marilyn Adams, who owns the Eighth Street house, has seen her heating and cooling costs drop from around 58 cents an hour to 9 cents an hour, according to Juris.

“She got a letter from Pepco saying her monthly charges were going down by
40 percent,” he said.

Still, homeowners have to decide whether they can afford the initial investment. Juris estimated the cost of Adams’ energy upgrade at $12,000, saying the demonstration house got the deluxe treatment.

“If she went with a conventional heating system, she would’ve paid $8,000, so the difference there is $4,000,” he said. “We’re saving her about $1,500 a year, so she’ll see that return in three or four years. After you pay that off, it’s nothing but lower bills going forward. We’ll even show you where the federal incentives are and fill out your tax forms, so at the end of the day all you have to do is send it in.”

ERM will provide tours of the house Oct. 22 from noon to 3 p.m at No. 9A & B Eighth St. SE. The tour is free and open to the public, but visitors are encouraged to register at the company’s website ahead of time.