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Old Baldy, Canada | photo by Cameron Schaus
Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | monterey county
I won an energy audit
August 2009

by Cara Lamb

When you get an email saying you’ve won a prize, it’s hard to take it seriously. My initial reaction was skepticism. But the specific prize, an energy audit of my home, sounded like something I might actually want. Also, the email didn’t demand my social security number, bank account, or $5000 earnest money, only that I set a date.

Even so, I didn’t take it too seriously. I figured someone would come and spend an hour or two scolding us about the hot tub or trying to sell us new appliances and solar panels. It was only when I learned that the audit would take 8 hours that I started to believe it was real.

Eight hours? In this little house? The house is one story, no basement or crawl space, under 1000 square feet, not counting the attached garage, which we actually treat as a garage. It’s a pretty average house. We have tried to make it more energy efficient by using some compact fluorescents and adding double-paned windows, but we were neither thorough nor consistent.

After checking out The Sustainable Home Solutions website, sustainablehomesolutions.com, I found out a little more of what to expect. Ron, the auditor, had specialized equipment, including an Envelope Leakage Fan, a Duct Leakage Fan, and a Gas Analyzer. The day came. At nine a.m., not one, but two men arrived at our door. Ron had brought along an assistant, Tyler.

Right away, we looked at the furnace, water heater, and bathroom ceiling fans. Ron shook his head over the ceiling fans. They’re old and loud. Ron said that they didn’t have the necessary capacity to exchange air and that, since they’re so loud, we probably don’t run them long enough. We wrote down a new type of fan that might be better. This is an improvement we can probably afford.

He pronounced the water heater to be a good one. As for the furnace, he only established that the filter was in place and clean. Further tests would come later.

Ron then went out to look at the perimeter of the house while Tyler began setting up the Envelope Leakage Fan. This turned out to be a bright red panel to seal the front door except for a space for a giant exhaust fan. With all the other doors and windows in the house closed, and the fireplace opening sealed with plastic, the fan would push air out the front door. If our house were airtight, this would create an intense loss of pressure inside the house.

You won’t be surprised to learn that our house leaked. According to the computer running the fan, our house has a leakage rate of 2143 cubic feet per minute. This figure didn’t mean a lot to me, so Ron explained that the house had leakage equal to one 10x40 inch hole in the wall or ceiling.

He used something called a smoke pencil to show us specific leaks. Held to an electric outlet, or one of our many skylights, it showed the intensity of the draft.

Our refrigerator had the best energy star rating we could find when we bought it—but that was back in 1992. Ron said get rid of it. But although refrigerators now are more efficient, they’ve also gotten larger and larger. So in actual wattage used, our old refrigerator still does better. I interrupted to point out that the refrigerator’s power usage could be improved by simply cleaning behind it. Ron agreed, but we still haven’t done it. But after Ron and Tyler left, my husband made a fresh search on the internet and found a new refrigerator, essentially the size of the one we have now, that could save us 20% of the electricity we now use for refrigeration.

Also, the kitchen has ten recessed lights in the ceiling, and only one is fluorescent. Four are on a dimmer. As for the rest, we said we couldn’t get bright enough fluorescents to see what we need to see. The end of this discussion was the decision to put ordinary (but bright) fluorescents into the recessed cans, instead of trying to find spotlights with enough wattage.

The lights had another problem. The ceiling cans aren’t insulated, and therefore leak warm air.

In the afternoon, Ron and Tyler ascended into the attic. After some time up there, they reported, among other problems:

• A fireplace chase completely uninsulated.
• Patchy insulation elsewhere, especially over the light cans.

Then it was time to test the furnace ducts. Ron warned us in advance that in a house as old as ours, 30% leakage was not uncommon, and it could be even worse. However, this test went well. He discovered only 6% leakage, although he said that the register boots —the part where the registers penetrate the ceilings— needed insulation.

But the furnace failed a few other tests. It’s rusty. It burns with a yellow flame. Also, Ron told us that it’s the wrong furnace for the house, overlarge, inefficient, and drawing its combustion air from the wrong places.

The tests took two men six hours. A week later, Ron delivered an 11-page report, listing all the problems found, and suggesting solutions. Some of the “low hanging fruit” is stuff we already do or have done. Some of the changes are things we already hoped to do as soon as we could afford it, like replacing our rotting French doors with something more weather-tight. But we also learned about problems we didn’t know about.

Here is a summary of some of the findings:

• The building envelope proved to be quite leaky.
• The door to the garage from the house has no weather stripping.
• All exterior doors are poorly sealed.
• The furnace sits on a platform that acts as the return air plenum, which is not sealed.
• The furnace air filter was easily accessible and clean at the time of inspection.
• Hot water piping was not insulated.
• Attic insulation is poorly installed and below desired levels.
• Attic ductwork is inadequately insulated. Register boots were not insulated.
• Ceiling light cans are not air tight and not rated for insulation contact, yet are in contact with insulation.
• The fireplace chase is not insulated and is open to the attic space.
• There are four existing exhaust fans, all very noisy and inadequate for their purpose.

We can’t afford to follow every recommendation. The total could come to as much as $50,000. But precisely because we can’t afford to do everything, the audit was worth hundreds of dollars to us. With this list in hand, we are much clearer on what needs to be done, and we can make much more intelligent decisions on how to spend the money we have.




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