For the last couple years, we’ve taken a page from private industry and unleashed a team of mystery shoppers to interact with city service providers and large private companies and report back on their experiences…the good, the bad, and the disfiguring. In this, a rowhouse family does their part to go green.
To see how the City and others did on past tests, go here.
MYSTERY SHOPPER TEST #32: GENERATING SOLAR POWER
The situation: As chronicled in a previous Mystery Shopper, a row house resident signed up for Solarize Philly, the city’s subsidized solar energy program, which made it easy and less expensive to install panels.
- See steps taken to sign up for solar panel installation through Solarize Philly.
- In late 2017, we signed a contract with Solar by Kiss to put panels on our South Philly roof. Solar by Kiss took care of all the appropriate licenses from the city, so all we had to do was sign our name to the application.
- Once the approval came through, after about six weeks, the company spent a day installing about 20 30-watt panels. Before turning them on, the system must be inspected by the city and by PECO. Kiss alerted both.
- About a week later, Kiss parked a van in front of the house to wait for Licenses & Inspections—so we didn’t have to be at home or involved in the inspection. It all went off without a hitch.
- A couple weeks after that, PECO sent a technician to check out the meter on the side of the house. He then switched it on—so power generated from our panels will go to the electrical grid, reducing the amount of electricity we need to buy from PECO.
- A month after installation, we are a go!
- Two weeks later, Kiss came by to walk us through the technology and the online system of tracking our electricity generation and usage, and how that compares to our previous system. They also walked us through the process of getting around $6,000 in tax breaks, as well as a $300 cash certificate from the state. This certificate would be about $1,500 if we lived in New Jersey.
- The news is encouraging: Already, we’ve cut our electric bill by 50 to 75 percent compared to where we were last year. At that rate, we will pay off the $12,000 installation fee within seven years.
Time spent: Two months (but ongoing).
Takeaway: It is as easy as it possibly could be to generate solar panel on our house—if you can handle the hefty upfront price tag. (Solar companies, including Solar by Kiss, do offer financing.) We are limited, though, by the relative small size of our roof and by the state’s coal-friendly tax policies.
Lightning bolt rating:
MYSTERY SHOPPER TEST #33: GETTING AN ENERGY ASSESSMENT
The situation: If we’re going to the trouble of generating our own electricity, it makes sense to be sure we are not also wasting electricity.
- On PECO’s website, clicked on “Ways to Save,” which gives me a pull down menu that includes “Energy Assessment.”
- That sent me to a page with two options: “Energy Assessment” and “Free Energy Checkup,” available for PECO customers whose monthly income is less than $3,075 for a family of four.
- The Energy Assessment page provided ots of information, including ways to save, FAQs about the assessments and related videos. It also let me schedule a visit.
- Scheduling requires knowing your PECO account number, and paying the $25 fee upfront. I got a date about two weeks hence.
- At the scheduled date and time, two young technicians arrived to do the inspection. They went room by room, taking photos, asking questions, and offering suggestions on the spot—like, to make sure top and bottom windows are both locked to prevent a draft.
- Along the way, they swapped out older light bulbs for energy-efficient ones—effectively eliminating the $25 cost of the visit. They might also have given us smart power strips and efficient flow showerheads, if they deemed them necessary.
- A few days later, they emailed their assessment of our house with several relatively easy fixes: Replace cracked paint along several windows, spray insulation on basement ceiling to keep drafts from escaping to first floor, make sure windows are all locked so air is not escaping out the top. They also referred us to a list of contractors, in case we needed help with the work.
Time Spent: Few minutes online, two weeks wait and 60 minute assessment.
Takeaway: Well worth the minimal effort
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MYSTERY SHOPPER TEST #34: USING A WATER DEPARTMENT RAIN BARREL
The situation: We have a small front and back yard with several plans that need watering all summer. The City has an ambitious plan to reduce stormwater runoff, including by helping residents do their part.
- On the Water Department’s Rain Check site, the agency offers several tools to start managing stormwater at home. One of those is to get a free rain barrel, to catch rain before it hits the street.
- First though, we had to sign up for a Rain Check workshop, offered several times a month all over the city.
- At the class, the instructor walked about seven of us through an overview of urban rain water dynamics, issues with waste and run-off, and technologies available to abate them. It was very thorough and informative, and ended with several offers for homeowners: Wooden downspout planters, sustainable paving options for patios, drain filters and rain gardens. Some are free and others heavily discounted.
- We signed up to have a rain barrel installed, a $150 value.
- A couple weeks later, a technician arrived with a bright blue 66 gallon food grade recycled plastic barrel, which he attached to the downspout on the side of our house. It took him about 15 minutes.
- It rained! It’s amazing how quickly a 66 gallon tank fills up—all it took was a one hour long flash shower.
- Our first attempt to get water out, though, is thwarted by physics. THIS IS IMPORTANT. If the barrel sits on the ground you have very little water pressure, far less than we needed to feed the hose in our hand or to not go crazy filling a watering can. It is possible the PWD instructor told us this. But the installer certainly did not. And they did not put that on the checklist they gave us when deciding to get it.
- We drained the barrel into the street. Failure.
- After a call to PWD, we learn that once installed, the agency will not come back to adjust or maintain our (after all, free) rain barrel.
- So we take to the Internet, where we learn that a few feet of elevation is all we need, and that constructing a platform for the barrel is pretty easy, with plenty of DIY instructions online. After making the platform, and drilling a new hole in the spout—about two hours of work—we are set to go.
- Another rain storm, another full barrel. And, success! We had water in the house, and over the next week poured over 270 gallons of recycled rain water on to our plants—something we have kept up all summer.
Time spent: Four active hours and a month waiting (but ongoing).
Takeaways: PWD has given away more than 3,500 rain barrels, and once installed properly, it’s easy to use. But the agency should make it easier to understand what is needed to make it work, and help homeowners install all of it—otherwise people are probably not using them at all.
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MYSTERY SHOPPER TEST #35: COMPOSTING
The issue: Our city yard is too small to set up our own composting station, but the city has not yet implemented compost pick up.
- We knew that unlike other parts of the world and even country, Philly does not offer curbside composting services, and has no plans to do so widely in the near future. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do.
- We looked up three different home composting services in Philly: Bennett Compost; Circle Compost; and Philly Compost. Turns out Philly Compost only operates in Fishtown. The other two cover more of the city, and cost the same: $18 a month for a free bucket and weekly pickup; Circle also offers an every other week pick up for $12/month.
- We set up a free trial with Bennett for a month, and a few days later they dropped off the bucket.
- Every Wednesday evening, Bennett sends a reminder, and we put the bucket outside for pickup. Usually by the time we wake up, it’s been emptied by one of Bennett’s bike couriers.
- Bennett also offers us one 10 pound bag of compost per season—just enough for our herbs and flowers.
Time spent: A few minutes online (but ongoing).
Takeaways: We fill our 5 gallon bucket every week—which means we’ll send 260 fewer gallons of methane gas-producing waste into the landfill. It has also made us more aware of our waste so we are better about using the garbage disposal, and about trying to limit how much we produce. It’s not free, but then neither really is our trash pickup, which comes from our city taxes.
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In summary: It is relatively simple to become energy and water-efficient, and to reduce our waste in Philadelphia. But it is not free, and in some cases, it is not cheap. We are a ways away from any of this being seamless—which is too bad. Still, the City and local entrepreneurs are clearly trying to make it easy for residents to go green.Photo: R. Nial Bradshaw/Flickr