Jan 28, 2013 05:38PM
● By Anonymous
The buzz words abound: “carbon footprint,” “energy efficiency,” and “eco-friendly.” So much so, that today they almost sound cliché. By tomorrow, they’ll sound passé. The term “green” is so broadly used, what does it even mean anymore? When shopping for home products and considering retrofits to your property, you’ll hear these terms used often and interchangeably.
But if anything, the technology behind these terms has influenced the home improvement industry toward “passive environments”—the ultimate in zero-carbon, off-the-grid, self-sustaining properties. The reality is that most homes are not quite there (or even close), nor will they be. However your property can greatly improve its efficiency with retrofits both large scale and small. But what needs to be fixed and what needs to be re-fitted?
To get a grip on green, add clarity to your home’s structural needs, and improve energy efficiency overall, an independent home energy audit is highly recommended by industry professionals, politicians, and the grassroots movement. In our home state of Maryland, there’s never been a better time to have one performed on your home. In 2008, Governor Martin O’Malley signed the EmPOWER Maryland Energy Efficiency Act into law, which “sets targets to reduce both per capita energy consumption and per capita peak demand by 15 percent by the end of 2015 (based on a 2007 baseline),” states the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA). “Between 2009 and 2010, the MEA estimates that 64,000 MWh were saved through MEA programs to help reach that target.”
What this means is that Maryland has set mandatory benchmarks for the utility companies to hit certain levels of energy reduction by 2015. Furthermore, because of this legislation, the utilities have developed energy rebate programs as incentives for homeowners to reduce their energy demands. “Fortunately for homeowners, helping the utilities meet their mandate also provides cost savings and improved comfort in their homes,” says James Otterbacher, project manager for a local energy auditor.
Otterbacher explains: “All major Maryland utilities currently have a rebate program in effect. Homeowners can receive a comprehensive energy audit that includes blower door testing, combustion safety testing, and infrared thermal scanning for just $100. These audits also include installed CFL bulbs, water heater and pipe insulation, and low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators, all at no additional charge.
There is also rebate money for completing many of the recommendations—50 percent back, up to $2,000. Without the utility rebates, comprehensive energy audits run about $400 and do not include any of the direct install measures.” David Braggins, another local building analyst and auditor, says, “Most of our clients get an audit or do weatherization work for a variety of reasons to lower energy costs, improve indoor air-quality and building durability, alleviate comfort concerns, stop mold growth or ice damming, and/or prolong the life of their heating/cooling systems.” It all adds up a win-win-win for homeowners, the utility companies, and the auditors.
HOME ENERGY AUDITS IN DETAIL
The intricacies of a home energy audit are many with regards to the technology used during the testing and the resulting measurements, but can be summed thusly: an audit measures how much energy your home consumes and assesses improvements that could make your home more energy efficient. And auditors agree that just about any home can benefit from an audit.
“Typically homes older than 10 years will find the audit most beneficial. However, even some new homes have issues,” says Thomas Boyer, president and founder of a local auditing firm that specializes in infrared technology. “The oldest home we ever did was about 300 years old, the Carroll House in Annapolis. Auditing and fixing historic homes is a whole different animal. Fixes need to last for hundreds of years, not just decades. [But] homes of all sizes can benefit from an energy audit.”
To evaluate a home, auditors use a variety of tools and interview the homeowner about user behavior, climate, size, and other variables about a home and its rooms. A typical audit takes between two and three hours, depending on the size of the home, the complexity of the home, and the number of heating systems.
The most commonly used tool is a blower door. The blower door quantifies leakage of airflow—in other words, it measures air tightness. Another tool used is an infrared camera. This instrument calculates structural temperature differences, which help detect thermal defects and air leakage in building envelopes. The resulting images help the auditor determine whether insulation is needed and they serve as a quality control tool to ensure that insulation has been installed correctly.
Combustion analyzers measure whether or not mechanical equipment is burning efficiently and that environmental regulations are being met. This gives insight to the overall health of a heating system. To measure duct leakage problems, estimate energy loss from duct leaks, and verify the quality of duct system installation, a duct blaster is used. This is the primary tool used by energy professionals to determine how leaky, or energy-inefficient, a duct system is. So when is the right time to have an audit performed on your home?
“Any season is the right time to have an energy audit,” says Otterbacher enthusiastically. Most people think about energy efficiency when they get a utility bill, when they need to replace an appliance, or when their homes are uncomfortably hot or cold, but these shouldn’t be the only triggers for scheduling an audit.”
Telltale signs of wasting energy include:
•Temperature variations on different floors of your home
•Uncomfortably cold or hot rooms
•Moisture condensing on windows or walls
•Rapid snow melt on your roof
•Higher-than-expected summer and winter utility bills
When these signs add up to your hunch that it’s time to have an energy audit performed, investigate rebate offers through your utility company or contact a local professional, who can help walk you through the process. Take note: it is especially important to contract a BPI accredited/ certified auditor in order to qualify and submit for government rebates. If you’re wary of starting the process, there are additional government programs, such as STEP (Small Town Energy Program) and Groundswell, which utilize an impartial third party energy advisor to help answer homeowner questions, get them enrolled and started, and have vetted energy auditors and home contractors, to reduce the confusion in the industry.
RETROFITS AND BENEFITS
After the initial testing is completed, auditors will review significant findings with the homeowner, including any health and safety issues, the air leakage rate, and the existing insulation levels. Then a detailed, written report with recommendations for improvement and anticipated cost savings is made, usually within three to seven business days. It is then in the hands of the homeowner to decide on what retrofits to complete.
“Our most common retrofit we see is an under-insulated and non air-sealed attic,” says Andrew Cameron, a retrofit manager with a local insulation company. “Most homeowners are very uncomfortable with the temperature range between the first and second floors of their home in summer and winter months. Many feel drafts in winter and hot second floor rooms in summer.”
Otterbacher adds, “One of the biggest misconceptions is that windows and doors are the source of the greatest loss of energy. Although windows and doors do not provide as much insulation as walls, new windows do not perform significantly better than old windows, and their payback period can be 50 years or more. However, adding weather stripping and/or storm windows can make a big difference and actually has a payback period that is within their lifespan.
“Treating air loss and inadequate insulation is the single most significant improvement that most people can make for the least amount of money. Payback time is typically only five to seven years—and possibly half that with current Maryland utility rebates.”
Boyer says, “[Our] most common retrofits are lighting changes, insulation/air sealing, and HVAC changes/repairs. Some lighting changes pay for themselves within a year. Insulation and air sealing homes tend to pay for themselves quickly as well. HVAC can have the biggest impact on utility bills. These three are the most resourceful.”
Boyer extrapolates on this subject, saying, “Part of our job is to educate customers about the idea of capital investment. [But] many customers are not acquainted with such thinking. We teach about the time value of money so they can understand the benefits (or lack thereof). In as much as we approach a home as a system, we approach finances as a system. Rather than looking at simple return on investment only, we encourage customers to consider time horizon in their home, life cycle of improvements, added resale value, and comfort issues.”
Pondering all of this, you might think your home is due for an assessment. Thankfully, there are industry professionals and the State of Maryland doing all that they can to empower homeowners with the knowledge and incentives to make the home energy audit process affordable and rewarding.
We would like to thank the following audit professionals for their assistance: James Otterbacher of Energy Services Group; Thomas Boyer of Infrared Tools Energy Services; David Braggins of Edge Energy; and Andrew Cameron of AC&R Insulation.