A South Philly block stays chill, while North Philly Homes get fit, thanks to the ECA

Cool It, Philly

by Marilyn Anthony

If you want to stir things up, ask any group of Philly residents to name the coolest block in the city. They probably won't know that in 2010, South Philly’s 1200 block of Wolf Street officially took home that title in a contest run by the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA).

At stake in the Coolest Block contest was more than bragging rights. ECA, with partners from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the Dow Chemical Company Foundation, provided rowhomes on the winning block with a host of energy improvements, including energy audits and white roofs.  

In 2010, Terry Jack volunteered as neighborhood coordinator for the Wolf Street competition. Jack, an environmental engineer with two young children, had been thinking about energy improvements for her family’s rowhome, so the contest seemed like a great opportunity.  She spent many weeks meeting with her neighbors, enlisting all but one of more than 40 households. Her investment of time keeps paying off in annual energy savings of 20 to 30 percent. “Winning the contest was a good urban living experience,” says Jack, “with neighbors coming together, city and industry coordinating something that’s beneficial on a small, personal, block level [and also] having bigger impact for the city and potentially for the world.”

 A white roof is not a coat of house paint. Catherine T. “Katie” Hunt, Ph.D., formerly the research and development director for the Dow Chemical Company and a key partner with ECA, describes a genuine cool roof as “energy rated, elastomeric, solar reflective material.” When properly applied and paired with another new technology, open cell insulation, white roofs on a block of rowhomes significantly reduce the internal temperature of the homes in summer, but also lower the ambient temperature of the entire street.  Proper professional maintenance of a white roof may mean never having to replace your roof, ever again.  

ECA’s goal for the contest is also far-reaching, with ambitions far beyond saving dollars: since this first installation five years ago, Executive Director Liz Robinson believes white roofs are saving lives all across our city.

In 1992, a killer heat wave struck Philadelphia, leaving 137 people dead over a single summer weekend. The 1990s was the hottest decade on record, and each subsequent decade has been hotter still.

In 1993 the federal government responded with fans and air conditioners. ECA realized the Philadelphia residents most in need of house cooling could not afford higher electricity bills; they began experimenting with white roofs to passively cool homes without adding to the energy load or household expense.

According to Robinson, when ECA began installing white roofs, there were no cool roofs on any of the more than 400,000 rowhomes in the city. Our roofline was one enormous heat sink of black tar, reaching surface temperatures as high as 198 degrees and releasing a pungent aroma familiar to city dwellers. Five years after the Coolest Block contest, a Google Earth shot of Philly shows shows between 20 to 60 percent white roof coverage, with higher percentages occurring in more affluent neighborhoods. ECA claims credit for 700 of these installations. Robinson attributes the rest to public education and the power of a good idea.  Philly’s widespread adoption of this seemingly simple innovation has earned us global attention, with interest from India, Mexico and others.    

Five years after the Coolest Block contest, ECA launched a new competition, EnergyFIT Philly. Robinson describes it as “‘Extreme Makeover’ without the glamor.” EnergyFIT Philly, targets low-income households in poor to terrible condition and provides renovations that are “healthy, safe, durable and highly energy efficient… emphasizing improvements to all aspects of the quality of life in the home.”

In 2015, North Philadelphia Block Captain Darlene Pope launched a door-to-door campaign just as Terry Jack did years ago.  Pope convinced her largely elderly neighbors to apply for EnergyFIT Philly, and their block won. The resulting renovations and positive neighborhood impacts earned Pope thunderous applause in her church. “I want everybody to have this [program],” she says. “Not just in my North Philly neighborhood, but in West Philly, in New York City, wherever people are striving. The people from ECA took a load off me as a homeowner, and we are truly blessed.” 

ECA’s Robinson hopes City Council will provide funding for another contest in 2016.