The Bright Man’s Burden: policing house insulation

By Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

If you live in Vermont and use electricity (there’s a sector of the modern population which pretends  to prefer not to) you pay, via an add-on to on your power bill, to support EfficiencyVermont, a quasi-public bureaucracy advocating for energy efficiency in, for example,  residential construction, where it has now convinced the Golden Dome folks to make its insulation recommendations mandatory. Without getting too deeply into heat loss from occupied buildings and just how much high-R-value insulation prevents it, (not much global warming, yet, in Vermont, to push the cooling-power demand to new highs) suffice it to say that the new standards –up to R-49 for the attic (or equivalent) cap insulation, for example—are higher than the old recommendations and not quite as high as those of the National Insulation Manufacturers Association, which exists to stimulate insulation sales for its members.  Nor are there column-inches here for the added amount on the typical ratepayer bill (you’ll not find even a hint on EfficiencyVermont’s website) or for EV’s executive pay levels, a subject of recent but brief and limited press inquiry, or even for the declining payback as more inches of insulation are added. The subject here is the Progressive mindset and the compulsion amongst the self-proclaimed “brighter”  to command  the behavior of the lesser-intelligent 90%. If you’ll forgive the rampant sexism, you might accept the label of  “the bright man’s burden”,  Humble Scribe’s rhyming attempt to avoid the racism charges aimed at English Progressive (and Vermont summer visitor) Rudyard Kipling for his poetry labeled “the white man’s burden”  of going global in order to improve the lot of less brainy folks elsewhere, whether they want improvement or not. Here, it’s the burden of the brightest people in and close to government to order  those it deems  too dumb to do so on their own, to save their own money by putting  more insulation in their own attic.

The Progressive presumption here is that the median-IQ American, who in the last few years has demonstrated consummate skill in price-vs-value food shopping, to the point that retailers now whine about their inability to pass along to consumers wholesale commodity price increases, is mentally incapable of understanding the payback equation for raising the R-values of his structural envelope, whereby a few dollars spent now can harvest fuel dollars saved for as long as full global warming doesn’t arrive. Those States which mandate residential insulation levels –VT, MI, and a few others—presumably wouldn’t do so if their own Golden Dome folks didn’t think themselves smarter than the folks they govern. I can recall, of all the residential new-construction and old-house-rehab owners I designed for, not one who was unaware of the insulation-payback equation, and. only one who rejected it. That was a lady of Progressive persuasion who saw no social approbation coming from necessarily-hidden insulation, and wanted visible Trombe walls and solar panels which offered highly doubtful  conventional payback but could be seen and admired by envious locals. She viewed pay-back in non-monetary terms. That was her privilege-of-decision, then. It wouldn’t be, now that the new  VT-RBES –the Vermont Residential Building Energy Standards—are in effect. They’re intended to control the householders, deemed less-intelligent-than-the-supposed-experts, who don’t know any better, but occasionally, as for the above example, they can now snare one of their own.

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If  those  EV experts bearing “the bright man’s burden”  had borne it a bit better  (a little Humble Scribe opinion, here) they’d  not have missed the opportunity to take official note of the heat-loss window created by, yes, windows. It’s widely known, by construction professionals and homeowners alike, that most heat loss by far escapes upwards through the top floor ceiling level, and much less through walls and floors; but it’s not so widely appreciated  that even the most energy-efficient windows have dismally low R-values – maybe R-4 or 5, compared to the R-18 or 20 in the adjacent wall.  And yet the RBES rules call for only an R-3 or so for the windows. The experts at EV weren’t averse to getting into mandating non-insulation matters like ventilation and lighting, but there’s a curious gap at the (almost literally speaking) holes in the wall: windows. Since the ‘70’s there have been private sector efforts to sell insulated window coverings –drapes, shutters, and the like– to bring the total window R-value up to, say R-10 or12 from the typical R-2 or 3; and since the ‘80’s there’s been an eponymously named WindowQuilt company in Brattleboro; but the Residential Building Energy Standards recognize none of that sector of the industry. One of the “brighter folks” should be asked, why not? And there are other curious gaps as well. There are a few column-inches here for one: waste-heat scavengers. In the initialized world of RBES, these are called MHRS, or Mechanical Heat Recovery Systems. Some of the commercially available heat-exchanger designs (from the out-going waste air-stream to the incoming fresh-air stream) boast operational-efficiency ratios as high as 90%.  

EV “experts” have mandated mechanical ventilation  (the fan-driven ejection of “used” heated air) but they’re as silent about recovering some of the heat energy  in that air in a technology which been available to the residential sector since the ‘70’s, as they are about interior drapes or shutters to raise the R-values of conventional windows. They should be asked, why?

And there’s the less technical  ( in terms of heat-loss remediation, that is) but more fundamental (in terms of governance philosophy, that is) question which should be addressed to the Golden Dome folks who made the EV guidelines into law. It won’t be asked, of course, because it challenges the foundation of Progressive doctrine, that the smarter and most expert among us rule over the dumber and less expert with the force of law because, in the Progressive world-view, we’re too dumb to do the right thing or look out for our own interests on our own. They should be asked whether that’s what they believe (and will proudly declare to voters, even the supposedly dumber ones, who vote for them) or not.