Helping others find energy savings is good business

Mark Lee sees homes and businesses as living, breathing structures that require protection from the elements similar to their human inhabitants.

"If you're inside your house and you're wearing a sweater and you step outside, the wind will bite through that sweater," Lee says. "If you don't have an airtight shell around the insulation in your home you can lose a lot of heat. What I do is similar to taking that sweater, putting a windbreaker over it and zipping it up."

As the owner of Better World Builders, Lee, 41, makes a career out of showing people how they can reduce their energy consumption and save money. His Southwest Michigan-based company is rooted in the idea of helping to build a better world by helping people to take control of their energy costs -- particularly low-income residents who are often forced to choose between heating their homes or putting food on the table.

Heidi Johnson, 33, owner of Athena Construction in Three Rivers, also has a business focused on energy assessment, a field she calls a new and emerging, one with unlimited potential.

For her, the best-case scenario she sees in energy savings investments is homes where owners seal up as many areas as possible to prevent heat from escaping by taking such steps as putting plastic on windows. She says older people are especially aware of the importance of keeping doors and windows tightly shut, insulating their homes as best they can and using Energy Star appliances.

"The worst case I see when doing assessments is people leaving doors and windows or something in their home open during the winter or using a stove for heat because that is their only option to heat their home," Johnson says.

Assessments are fairly straightforward and can take anywhere from two to six hours to complete, depending on the size of the home or business.

"I go from top to bottom analyzing where the insulation levels are in a house. I want to make sure the place is well-insulated with no gaps," Lee says. "Ninety percent of the time I find areas where energy is being wasted."

A blower door is used to find out how tight or loose a structure is. This gives him an idea of openings, many of which are not visible, that can create the same amount of energy loss as leaving windows open all year round.

The blower door is essentially a door with a fan in it that depressurizes the house and simulates a 20 mph wind on all sides. "It fits in any door of a house and has a good seal around it with a large fan that sucks the air out of a house," Lee says. "One of the last houses I did had the equivalent of an eight-foot hole that was open all  the time."

Johnson says energy auditors who work with companies are also working with major utilities to provide the companies with different options to reduce their energy consumption.

"Companies associated with heating and cooling are seeing a merging of different construction sectors with energy auditors," Johnson says. She says there is a lot of buzz right now about reducing energy and seeking out ways to green a business."The commercial sector has the ability to make a huge impact in terms of saving money."

Johnson, a sole proprietor, started her company 12 years ago after graduating from Western Michigan University with a bachelor's degree in management and psychology.

"I started doing weatherization with my father when I was still in college," she says.

About 90 percent of Lee's time is spent on residential assessments, with the remaining 10 percent on commercial. However, he says he is starting to see more businesses trending toward energy efficiency.

A passion for being a good steward of the environment began for Lee when he was attending WMU where he earned a bachelor's degree in Industrial Engineering and Environmental Studies in 1995. While there he was a member and also a leader of Students for a Sustainable Earth.

"One of my big pushes there was bringing a bus system back on the campus," Lee says.

After graduating he went to work for Post Cereals in Battle Creek where he was employed as an Industrial Engineer. This job gave him an opportunity to work on energy projects with a focus on cost savings. He left Post to become a financial adviser with Fifth Third Bank.

"I did that for about one year, but it didn't really work out," he says.

The decision to focus on an area he is passionate about was the right call even though it has meant long hours, Lee says. He quickly learned that owning a business is a 24/7 job which comes with a lot of responsibility.

Lee aligns himself with area construction companies and also works with Consumers Energy when the company is contacted by clients looking for ways to reduce their energy bills. He received his Building Analyst certification in 2009 through the Building Performance Institute and says his business grew from that point. He employs two full-ltime employees and relies on a full-time crew of seven to assist with energy assessments and retrofitting homes and businesses to be more energy efficient.

"Consumers Energy offers rebates of up to $5,000 for people who have work done to make their homes more energy efficient," Lee says. "There's also a program called Michigan Saves which is designed for homeowners and businesses to take advantage of funding to make improvements on their house. This program uses credit unions as a loan source."

He recently helped a customer to realize an annual savings of $1,890 on her energy bills.

In addition to identifying areas of energy loss, Lee also assesses a structure’s furnace, air conditioning system and hot water heater.

The holistic approach Lee takes, as time intensive as it can be, pays off for his customers as well as him.

"I've always worked hard at whatever I was doing and I think I realized if I was going to work this hard anyway I may as well work at something I believe in," he says. "With every four houses that have an energy project done one new house can come online and there's no net change to the energy load.

"We're staying busy. I consider that to be a good sign."

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek.

Photos by Erik Holladay.

Mark Lee is a Change Agent for Better World Builders in Kalamazoo, Mich. He helps homeowners with Deep Energy Retrofits. 

Chris Claybaugh sprays a two part high density insulating foam into the walls of their most recent retrofit project home. 

Joe Claybaugh stuffs insulation in between the floor boards as they prepare the attic for efficient energy flow.

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