Saving Money With a Home Energy Audit

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Although my personal home is only eight years old, I’ve known for a while that it’s not as energy-efficient as it could be. My heating bills aren’t outrageous, but they could be lower. Also, as you walk around my house, you can feel the cold spots. My son’s room is the coldest bedroom in the house – why? One spot of floor in the breakfast nook is much colder than the others – what can I do about it?

I decided to get an energy audit done of my house, and my two rental properties. Some utilities provide energy audits for free, but my local utility has a very long waiting list for such services, so I hired a contractor from Massachusetts instead. The contractor is giving me a deal since he is doing all three properties.

 Testing for drafts
Energy auditors use a variety of high-tech tools to examine a building for cold spots, and have a contracting background so they know where to look, what products will work, and how to install those products, to make the property more efficient. However, I’m going to handle the installation myself, with advice from the contractors, Gene Williams and Greg Bogosian of eSave.

The first step in the audit is finding gaps between the “conditioned area” (where you are heating) and the “unconditioned area” (everywhere else) of the home. My unconditioned areas are the garage, the attic, the bulkhead from the basement, and of course the outside. The primary tools used here are a smoke pen, a blower door, and an infrared scanner.

What are these things?

A blower door is an attachment that fits into one of your doors to the outside. It has a hole in the middle, into which the auditors attach a fan, blowing outside. By sucking air out of your home, the blower door enhances drafts coming in through other areas.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your windows are not properly sealed, allowing drafts. Cold air comes in through the gaps because there is a pressure differential between the inside and the outside. Put another way, air comes in through one gap to replace air that was lost through some other gap. The blower door, by pushing a lot of air out the front door, lowers air pressure inside the home. More air will now come in through the drafts.

The smoke pen looks like a little bicycle pump. When the pump handle is pushed, the smoke pen emits “smoke” that is non-toxic and does not leave a residue. The smoke moves with the airflow, thus showing where air is coming from. A strong stream away from a spot shows a source of air coming in.

Gene and Greg did not have their infrared scanner with them, but they’ll be bringing that next week. The infrared scanner shows cold spots in walls, ceilings and floors. These cold spots indicate either hidden gaps (you can’t see them, but they’re letting cold air in) or places where insulation has not been added.

My Very Own ATM

Gene and Greg went through the house, finding gaps everywhere. Most of my windows have gaps around the installation, letting drafts in. There are also drafts around holes cut for wires, pipes, and hot air ducts.

As I walked around with the auditors, I started thinking of my house as an ATM machine. Unfortunately, this ATM is not dispensing money to me, but to Mother Nature. Every one of those little gaps is like a slot into which Mother Nature (or, if you prefer, Northern Utilities) inserts a card every couple of days and retrieves another $20.

Besides a bazillion gaps, I also found out my attic is insulated to R-30 only, where it really should be R-40. I’m going to add insulation there. I will also make sure the attic joists are covered with insulation. Since wood conducts heat pretty well, every uncovered joist is another ATM slot.

The 80% Rule

The 80% rule is also known as the law of diminishing returns. Obviously all this insulating and sealing is going to cost me money. Fortunately, these are one-time expenses, whereas I have to heat my home every year. However, for each new energy-saving measure, I have to compare the one-time cost to the lifetime energy savings. If something costs $500 and will only reduce my energy cost by $20 per year, maybe I shouldn’t do it.

They call it the 80% rule because the first 80% of energy-efficiency measures will cost about the same as the last 20%. Therefore, I’ll probably only do that first 80%.

There’s still some more auditing work to be done, with the infrared scanner I mentioned before. After that, I’ll unleash Gene and Greg on my rental properties. Those buildings are much older and I know they are much less efficient than my home. I can’t wait to see the results, and I’ll let you know how things turn out.

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5 Comments

  1. How To Stop Drafts and Save On Energy Bills

    Imagine leaving a window open all winter long — the heat loss, cold drafts and wasted energy! If your home has a folding pull-down attic stair, a whole house
    fan, a fireplace or clothes dryer, that may be just what is occurring in your home every day.

    Drafts from these often overlooked holes waste energy and cost you big in the form of higher energy bills. Drafts are the largest source of heating and cooling loss in the home.

    Drafts occur through the small cracks around doors, windows, pipes, etc. Most homeowners are well aware of the benefits that caulk and weatherstripping provide to minimize energy loss and drafts.

    But what can you do about drafts from the four largest “holes” in your home — the folding attic stair, the whole house fan, the fireplace and the clothes dryer? Here are some tips and techniques that can easily, quickly and inexpensively seal and insulate these holes.

    Attic Stairs

    When attic stairs are installed, a large hole (approximately 10 square feet) is created in your ceiling. The ceiling and insulation that were there have to be
    removed, leaving only a thin, unsealed, sheet of plywood.

    Your attic space is ventilated directly to the outdoors. In the winter, the attic space can be very cold, and in the summer it can be very hot. And what is separating your conditioned house from your unconditioned attic? That thin sheet of plywood.

    Often a gap can be observed around the perimeter of the attic door. Try this yourself: at night, turn on the attic light and shut the attic stairway door — do you see any light coming through?

    If you do, heated and air-conditioned air is leaking out of these large gaps in your home 24-hours a day. This is like leaving a window or skylight open all year ‘round.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add an insulated attic stair cover. An attic stair cover seals the stairs, stopping drafts and energy loss. Add the desired amount of insulation over the cover to restore the insulation removed from the ceiling.

    Whole House Fans and Air Conditioning Vents

    Much like attic stairs above, when whole house fans are installed, a large hole (up to 16 square feet or larger) is created in your ceiling. The ceiling and insulation that were there have to be removed, leaving only the drafty ceiling shutter between you and the outdoors.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a whole house fan shutter seal. Made from white textured flexible insulation, the shutter seal is installed over the ceiling shutter, secured with Velcro, and trimmed to fit. The shutter seal can also be used to seal and insulate air conditioning vents, and is easily removed when desired.

    Fireplaces

    Over 100 million homes, in North America are constructed with wood or gas burning fireplaces. Unfortunately there are negative side effects that the fireplace brings to a home, especially during the winter heating season. Fireplaces are energy losers.

    Researchers have studied this to determine the amount of heat loss through a fireplace, and the results are amazing. One research study showed that an open damper on an unused fireplace in a well-insulated house can raise overall heating-energy consumption by 30 percent.

    A recent study showed that for many consumers, their heating bills may be more than $500 higher per winter due to the drafts and wasted energy caused by fireplaces.

    Why does a home with a fireplace have higher energy bills? Your chimney is an opening that leads directly outdoors — just like an open window. Even if the damper is shut, it is not airtight.

    Glass doors don’t stop the drafts either. The fireplace is like a giant straw sucking your expensive heated or air-conditioned air right out of your house!

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a Fireplace Plug to your fireplace. Available from Battic Door, a company known for their energy conservation products, the Fireplace Plug is an inflatable pillow that seals the fireplace damper, eliminating drafts, odors, and noise. The pillow is removed whenever the fireplace is used, then reinserted after.

    Clothes Dryer Exhaust Ducts

    In many homes, the room with the clothes dryer is the coldest room in the house. Your clothes dryer is connected to an exhaust duct that is open to the outdoors. In the winter, cold drafts in through the duct, through your dryer and into your house.

    Dryer vents use a sheet-metal flapper to try to reduce these drafts. This is very primitive technology that does not provide a positive seal to stop the drafts. Compounding the problem is that over time, lint clogs the flapper valve causing it to stay open.

    An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a dryer vent seal. This will reduce unwanted drafts, and also keeps out pests, bees and rodents. The vent will remain closed unless the dryer is in use. When the dryer is in use, a floating shuttle rises to allow warm air, lint and moisture to escape.

    For more information on Battic Door’s energy conservation solutions and products for your home, visit http://www.batticdoor.com or, to request a free catalog, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to P.O. Box 15, Mansfield, MA 02048.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Mark D. Tyrol is a Professional Engineer specializing in cause and origin of construction defects. He developed several residential energy conservation products including an attic stair cover and an attic access door. Battic Door is the US distributor of the fireplace plug. To learn more visit http://www.batticdoor.com

  2. My house was built in 1946 and its drafty as hell. I’ve done some do-it-yourself work to shore things up a bit…caulk, weatherstripping, door drafts, a new back door, etc. But it would really cost a lot for me to do everything. I’m talking new windows throughout the house, attic insulation, etc. One step at a time.

  3. Thanks for the article! Here in Denver my real estate team and I are trying to promote the importance of energy efficient homes for the environment as well as a way to save money. Its great to see people talking about this subject!

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