The traditional Charleston home was built to efficiently cool itself. The side porches and narrow, tall structures were designed to allow breezes to flow directly through the house. Unfortunately, a home designed to be drafty isn’t a model of energy conservation in the days of central A/C.

Still, there are plenty of simple and cheap solutions that can help a home reduce its energy use. The Sustainable Cities Institute is spreading that gospel with their energy assessment program. Funded by a $500,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation, the program will conduct 200 free home-energy audits by next May. Of those, a quarter are for homes built before 1945, and another quarter for low-income households. (Another program exists in Fayetteville, N.C.)

Locally, Sustainable Cities is being overseen by the S.C. Sustainability Institute and its CharlestonWISE (Worthwhile Investments Save Energy) program. “We’re not trying to sell anything,” says Renee Patey, program manager for CharlestonWISE. “We’re helping people understand how energy is used in the house and offering simple ways to reduce that usage.”

To that end, the institute offers bimonthly workshops open to the public that show homeowners and renters how they can save money on their utility bills. (See sidebar for upcoming dates.)

The initiative’s second task is to build a local workforce skilled at making energy-efficient improvements. “We’re not trying to artificially prop up any part of the market, but we are trying to promote the service of having energy assessments done on your home,” says Patey.

Deborah Mihal, a West Ashley renter, heard about the program from a friend at church and filled out an online questionnaire. The first requirement before her assessment was that she attend one of the public workshops. “It was so educational and packed with little tips and tricks,” recalls Mihal. “There were low-income people and folks from Daniel Island, but the information was something that everybody could use.”

When it came time for her house to undergo an energy audit, an energy assessor discovered that Mihal had the equivalent of a four-foot-by-four-foot hole in her home, thanks to leaky door frames, windows, and an attic hatch. After an assessment, CharlestonWISE will work with homeowners on a budget to prioritize the improvements that will save them the most money. The group will also let participants know about rebates and tax credits. “Up until now, to make a good investment, you put out large sums of money, cross your fingers, and hope your bills go down,” Patey says. “With this report, homeowners get all of the information they need to decide on improvements.”

While much of the attention on green building has focused on new structures, the Sustainability Institute prefers rehabbing already existing structures. After all, the greenest building is one that has already been built. “It just makes more sense to use the buildings we already have as efficiently as we can, rather than tear them down just to put up a LEED-certified replacement,” says Project Coordinator Betsy Kleinfelder.

Homeowners living in both historic and new buildings can save money by changing their behavior. Even the most efficient house will rack up huge bills if there’s a big-screen TV in every room and the temperature is set to 70 degrees all summer. Once a person understands that, it’s then time to look out for energy-sucking culprits like that sliver of light shining through the bottom of the front door. Add up those square inches and it might easily be the equivalent of a sizeable hole in the front door, letting outside air in and treated air out. That’s extra money you’ll pay at the end of the month, and all the more reason to be green minded.

CharlestonWISE Home Energy Conservation Workshops

Free. Call (843) 529-3421 to RSVP.

Sept. 29, 6 p.m.
James Island County Park
Edisto Hall, 871 Riverland Drive.

Oct. 6, 6 p.m.
Sea Island Habitat for Humanity
2545 Bohicket Road.

Oct. 18, 5:30 p.m.
Berkeley County Library
2301 Daniel Island Drive.