An energy audit is one of the best ways to green your home, because it gives you ideas you never would have dreamed of to improve your home’s carbon footprint.
By Carol Brock
Photos By WEINRAUCHPHOTOGRAPHY.COM
When I contacted EnergySmart to do an energy audit of our 40-year-old home, I felt good. Who doesn’t want to save money on utility bills? But I was equally interested in having an audit because I think it’s the right thing to do. I mean, why waste energy if you don’t have to?
But on the day of the audit, I started to freak out. The auditor is going to spot all my home’s energy imperfections, I worried. Like a dryer that takes two 70-minute cycles to dry anything, the few remaining single-pane windows, an old fridge in the garage, the plugged-in coffeemaker, toaster oven and microwave, a front door with a minor hole in it, and oh JEEZ…the 40-year-old Frigidaire oven (that’s also resplendent in its original orange color)!So in the days approaching the audit, I felt smug in the knowledge that we were about to reduce our home’s carbon footprint. We were looking pretty good, I shrewdly surmised, because we’d already replaced nearly every light bulb with CFLs, installed an energy-efficient air conditioner and low-flow showerheads and toilets, and replaced most of the old aluminum -single-pane windows with double panes.
But it turns out Dan and Keith weren’t there to chastise me for my energy losses. They didn’t even care about my plugged-in appliances and old oven. Their main interest was the water heater, furnaces and AC. According to the Department of Energy, “Sixty percent of our energy consumption is from heating and cooling devices,” Dan explained. “Only 10 percent comes from appliances. So we focus on heating, cooling, insulation and air barriers.”By the time the doorbell rang and the EnergySmart auditor/Building Performance Institute-certified building analyst Dan Werner arrived, along with EnergySmart advisor/Populus Sustainable Design consultant Keith Bickford, I was nervous.
Following Dan and Keith around the house for two hours was an -eye—opening experience. All the things I thought they’d point out were mostly irrelevant, I discovered. And all the little things I’d never even considered made potentially big differences in terms of saving energy.Dan also shared my ecological philosophy: “Whether a homeowner’s reason for saving energy is out of environmental concerns or for saving money on his utility bill, turning off a light [that’s not in use] is the right thing to do.”
Another tenet of Dan’s philosophy is not to strike fear into a homeowner by announcing that he or she will need all new windows, a new furnace, new appliances, new AC, new big-budget, big-ticket items. (Though he did suggest I trade in my 40-year-old furnace for an energy-efficient unit, or at least get it yearly tune-ups.)
Dan’s a man of details. So after making a preliminary pass to spot the obvious energy-loss perpetrators in my house, including non-insulated rim joists, duct seams sealed with duct tape (“Duct tape is good for everything, except for sealing ducts,” Dan pointed out), sheet-metal gaps on heater vents and a 1993 hot water heater, Dan set up his blower door to spot concealed leaks.
The blower door “measures airflow going out through the fan and airflow drawn into the home,” Dan explained. This helps him confirm the airflow amount passing through the home, and if it conforms to the standard based on a home’s size and airflow for that size. “A house needs to breathe,” Dan noted, “so some leaks are OK.” (In preparation for the test, you need to remove any ashes from your fireplace so they don’t blow throughout the home.)
He also suggested I vacuum the refrigerator coils, and if I must run the outdoor refrigerator, either keep it full or fill it with water jugs. (Keith also determined our dog Fritz is “an EnergyStar–rated dishwasher” after he watched him completely lick my lunch plate clean.) Then Keith gave me bags of weather stripping for the leaks he knew Dan’s thermal-imaging camera was going to find.In the meantime, Keith was making his own pass through, replacing bulbs I’d missed with CFLs, replacing a showerhead I’d missed with a low-flow head, staunching a faucet’s too-fast flow with a faucet aerator, and insulating pipes on the hot water heater with Styrofoam.
And Dan found the most curious leaks, like all the electrical outlets mounted on exterior-facing walls. He was a fount of easy, cheap fixes, too, like unscrewing the faceplates, inserting foam sleeves over the outlets, screwing in the faceplates and stuffing unused outlets with baby-guard seals. (Ducts, BTW, are easily sealed with water-based Mastic sealant that you can smear on with a rubber glove, Dan told me, or a paintbrush for a cleaner look.) Dan’s camera spotted leaks around light fixture bases, door trims, fireplace seams, ceiling beams and track-light boxes. The easiest fix? Caulk.
And the old hot water heater? “There’s no benefit to replacing it,” Dan said, so he suggested we wrap it with a blanket instead. Keith also insisted we check the dryer vent for lint clogs, which are a source of energy inefficiency and a potential fire hazard.
Do What You Can When You Can
The most egregious leak—and this is true of a lot of homes, Dan told me—was around the attic hatch doors. “Attics are nasty places,” he informed me. “They’re super-hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.” Proper insulation, therefore, is critical. Although my attic originally had 8 inches of rock-wool insulation rated R-13, “which was fairly high for 1972,” Dan noted, the owners added another foot of blown-in fiberglass in the early ’90s. It’s rated R-32, but the attic could use another foot to achieve the recommended standard of R-49.
Dan has another philosophy that I appreciate as a homeowner in rough economic times: “You do what you can when you can.” That means, although I may need a new furnace and more insulation, I could just spend $40 for outlet insulators, weather stripping and a boatload of caulk, and get to the big-ticket items when I can afford them.Until I find an extra thousand dollars to plump up the insulation, I could go a long way toward energy efficiency just by lining the hatch doors with the weather stripping Keith knew I was going to need.
EnergySmart is a great program, in that they inform you of all the options, big and small, and don’t push anything on you or try to sell you something. Dan’s an independent auditor whose only job is to perform energy audits. He’ll prioritize five energy fixes for my home and it’s for me to decide which ones to implement. “We don’t want to overwhelm homeowners with a thick manual and giant reports that will get thrown in a drawer and then nothing gets done,” Dan told me. “Let’s attack those few things that are going to make the biggest impact.”
The audit costs just $120, and you even get stuff like CFL bulbs, weather stripping, showerheads, a radon test kit and pipe insulation. But you must be a Boulder County resident to participate.
As an EnergySmart advisor, Keith will take Dan’s data and give me recommendations. If I decide to do anything that requires a contractor, Keith will provide a list of certified contractors who are enrolled to work in the EnergySmart program, and whose work must conform to the Building Performance Institute standards. He’ll also inform me of any rebates I’m eligible for, and even fill out the paperwork for me.
Keith and Dan didn’t mind us tagging along with a lot of questions, whereas other homeowners may prefer to work at their computers while the auditor and advisor do their work. Either way is fine with them.
So all my worry was for naught. Dan said our remaining single-pane windows, which we’d already gotten a $3,000 estimate to replace, weren’t so bad after all. They were well installed and don’t leak, so he suggested energy-efficient blinds instead. “High-efficiency blinds aren’t cheap,” Dan said, “but they’re cheaper than new windows.”
Energy efficiency is also a quality-of-life issue that needs to be weighed accordingly. The dog door is a perfect example. Although a dog door is largely energy inefficient, it performs a valuable service. “We won’t tell you to replace the dog door,” Dan said, “because then you’ll have to get up and let the dog out. Our goal is energy efficiency, not to make your life miserable.”
For information on the EnergySmart -program, visit www.energySmartYES.com or call 303-544-1000.And they succeeded in our case. We went to McGuckin that weekend and purchased foam outlet covers, caulk and a blanket for the hot water heater. Then we headed to Boulder Lights to buy a new fixture to replace the horribly leaky one with a nonfunctioning base fan that vents to the attic. And we have a wish list with insulation and furnace scrawled in large letters, which I swear we’ll get to when we can—and Xcel offers rebates for both.