COLUMBIA — Dave Mars is a detail man. He notices the little things.
When he talks about his appreciation for the sitcom “The Office,” he avoids discussing characters or plot and points out the intricacies of the camera work. He’s noticed a distinct lack of boxelder bugs this year on the one-acre Ashland plot where he lives. And he can talk at length about how the Druids used gravel to insulate their stonewalled homes.
Mars works for the city’s Water and Light department performing free energy audits for Columbia homeowners. It’s his ability to sweat the small stuff — a drafty window here, a leaky faucet there — that makes him good at his job.
Mars is lanky and moustachioed and wears both his sunglasses and his eyeglasses on strings around his neck. When he walks into a home for an energy audit, his eyes dart around the rooms, troubleshooting, looking for places where heat can escape in the winter or cool air can escape in the summer. His eyes follow the lines of the ducts in the basement and examine places where the side walls lack insulation. When he asks how many computers and TVs are in the house, his booming, deep voice fills the room.
During conversation, Mars often throws out small axioms. “Gravity is the only law we all obey,” for example.
He’s perceptive and funny.
“Hmmm, yeah,” he remarks with a wry smile while talking about a recent project around his house which, of course, took him far longer than expected. “The easy optimism of home repairs.”
And he’s extremely knowledgeable about how home design affects energy and water usage.
“The Chinese build their roofs long enough that the stormwater falls far enough away from the house and doesn’t leak into the foundation. They don’t need stormgutters.”
Water and Light Director Dan Dasho said Mars is good at his job.
“His personality sure fits right in with that job and that profile,” says Dasho. “I think he’s the go-to guy for energy in your home. He’s great with the customers. He’s a great communicator. He’s hands-on.”
But Mars’ job is more than just conducting energy audits. Mars is the star of “Conservation Tips,” a short television segment that teaches viewers easy tips on how to save energy in their homes. The program runs on Columbia Public Television and has made him somewhat of a local celebrity.
“I’m constantly recognized at stores, especially at hardware stores, by people who have seen the show,” he says, adding that in a survey done to measure the reach of his segments, 47 percent of respondents said they had seen his show.
“My mother-in-law said she saw me as far away as Cuba, Missouri,” Mars says.
Mars calls the response to his show “very flattering.”
Mars is not an actor by trade, but anyone who watches the show can see his talent.
“When we started shooting, we found out that he was great on camera,” says Connie Kacprowicz, spokeswoman for the Water and Light Department. “He’s just kind of a natural at it. It’s hard to look at the camera and talk as well as doing tasks.”
Mars grew up in Brentwood, a suburb of St. Louis, and was originally trained as a carpenter. He came to Columbia to go to college and has lived here since.
“I wanted to be part of the building trades and I was interested in conservation,” Mars says of his early career ambitions.
Mars got his start in energy conservation in Columbia during the 1970s OPEC oil embargo. Working under a grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Mars helped train an older people’s volunteer organization called Green Thumb to install several dozen solar air heaters in low-income, older people’s homes in the rural seven-county area around Boone County. While canvassing the homes, Mars realized many would benefit more from simple, low-cost weatherization than from higher-cost solar air heaters. Shortly after the grant ran out, Mars took his current job with the Columbia Water and Light Department doing that weatherization.
Mars’ rise to fame parallels a rise in Columbia’s energy consumption. For the past 15 years, Columbia’s use of power has outpaced its population growth. Average monthly kilowatt hour usage for residential customers has risen from 611 in 1990 to 812 in 2005. That’s because people are packing their homes with more electronic gizmos: computers, televisions, DVD players, cell-phone chargers.
Mars says the day-to-day demand for his expertise has risen with energy prices in recent years. In a typical day, he estimates, he spends 65 percent of his time doing on-site energy audits and 35 percent of his time doing audits over the phone.
Since Mars began working for the city in 1986, he has conducted an average of 250 residential audits and 1,400 phone consultations per year under a residential audit program that began in 1979. On average, households that receive audits save 430 kilowatt hours per year, or about two weeks worth of electricity.
The solutions Mars offers are usually simple: Add caulk to window frames. Replace air filters on furnaces. Plant shade trees. In addition, the simple, low-cost nature of these solutions, says Kacprowicz, is especially important in helping low- and fixed-income residents cut their energy bills.
Many of the traditional problems with energy conservation have been addressed over the years through better building codes and more efficient appliances. And Mars’ “Conservation Tips” gives good general suggestions to a relatively wide audience. Still, Kacprowicz says Mars’ on-site audits provide an essential service on the front lines of energy conservation.
“I think it’s important to have someone to go into (residents’) homes that goes in to suggest something specific for that location,” says Kacprowicz. “Each home has a unique setting. And (Mars) gets residents customized energy efficiency solutions.”
The role of conservation in managing energy demand is hard to quantify. But it’s certainly an important aspect of the city’s total power plan. Columbia’s Water and Light Department has enlisted the Kansas City-based engineering firm Burns and McDonnell to develop an “integrated resource plan” to look at the future of power in Columbia as well as to evaluate the city’s conservation programs. The report is due in the first quarter of 2008.
Until then, Mars will keep an eye on the details.