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This blog contains some simple tips and advice from two regular guys. We're not accountants, financial advisors, or brokers, so follow, ignore, or discuss our ideas as you see fit.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Energy audit and weatherization followup

Posted by Matt

Does anyone remember my post about energy audits? I can't believe that it has been three months already, but I finally have enough information to report out on the results of our audit and what we did about them. I anticipate this will be a long post, but I'm going to spell out the details of:

  • how we went about getting the audit done

  • what energy-saving measures we decided to implement

  • how we got INCENTIVE CHECKS from the government

  • and how much energy we are saving so far

...so I hope that the long read will be worthwhile.

Step 1: Set up the energy audit

The best place to start is probably your local gas and/or electric company. We contacted a local non-profit called Energy Trust and scheduled with them.

Step 2: The audit itself

On the morning of our scheduled audit day, I was surprised to see several huge electric utility trucks (with bucket cranes) pull up outside our house. It turned out that they were NOT part of the audit, but were just coincidentally there to work on some power lines. Whew. Our auditor showed up on time in her own car. She worked independently and it only took a few hours for her to go through the whole house. In addition to energy auditing, she also did some tests on our water system because Energy Trust has a partnership with our local water company. Before I tell you the results, I just want to point out again that there was NO charge for any of this.

The water audit:

  • We received several new (free) sink faucet aerators to save water.
  • The auditor found a leaky toilet tank flapper (using dye pellets) in our hall bathroom and replaced it.

The energy audit:

  • The rooms that we reported the coldest were (surprise) the ones that had the least insulation above them in the attic.
  • The crawlspace was completely uninsulated except for under the addition.
  • At least one exterior wall at the front of the house lacked insulation.
  • Some of the older heating ducts were not sealed at the joints and were not insulated. I learned that as much as 25 percent of the heat from a forced-air heating system may be lost through leaks in the ducts.
  • Our laundry room is especially cold and we discovered that it is completely uninsulated, open to the crawlspace (via the washer pipe runs), and open to the outside via an open dryer vent.
  • Our hall bathroom was being vented to the attic instead of the roof (which can lead to rotting wood from the moisture).
  • We could save money by installing CFL bulbs and received 6 for free. They start off very dim unfortunately, but then get brighter the hotter they get. The bulbs in enclosed cans in the ceiling got especially bright, but we learned they would probably burn out more quickly as a result. The bad news is that we will have to take them to a local recycling center for recycling because of the enclosed mercury. I also asked about LED lights, and was told they are still a bit too expensive to be worthwhile. (Read my "In Search of the Frugal Bulb" post for my report on that.)

Step 3: Determine which recommendations to implement

Insulate crawlspace - This was the biggest no-brainer. It has one of the highest payback rates and we could expect a good gain considering that we didn't have any insulation under the floor. Also, most of our uninsulated plumbing was installed close enough to the flooring that it would be covered by the insulation, too.

The only bad part of this was that one of previous owners had left almost three hundred glass bottles of water in the crawlspace (don't ask me why) and we had to spend several hours hauling them out before the contractors would work down there.

Insulate attic - The areas of the attic above the additions were already fully insulated, but we had some other areas with only a little bit of insulation and some areas with none at all. We decided to bring it all up to an even level. Two separate contractors both told us that that they would have to route the bathroom vent to the roof to meet code requirements, so we threw that in also.

Air and Duct sealing - there are expensive tests that can be done that involve hooking a blower fan up to the house and the duct system to determine how much of your heated or cooled air they are allowing to escape, but we elected against having these done. The maximum rebates would not pay for the test itself and the insulation contractors were going to do all the patching work anyway (seal the penetrations in the floor and ceiling and seal the duct joints with mastic and tape).

The process of insulating the walls involves cutting a hole in the interior drywall between every pair of studs and blowing insulation in, so we elected NOT to have that done until we are ready to repaint.

I also thought we should invest in some heavy drapes, which the auditor said would reduce heat loss from our large windows, but my wife felt that the house would be too dark and depressing.

I did a few other easy jobs myself. I put some weatherstripping ($3) on the bottom of the door between the laundry and family rooms, which blocked the cold draft coming through. I also replaced the external dryer vent with one that has a valve to keep cold air from coming in that way ($8).

Step 4: Locate a contractor and have the work done

This was pretty easy. Energy Trust provided a "trusted ally" list, so we had a few come out to the house. Their estimates were close, so we picked the one that could get the work done the most quickly: All Weatherization. They had two teams come in (one in the attic, one under the house) and got the whole job done in a day. The total cost was just over $2500.

My only complaints were that their compressor kept tripping a breaker on the circuit that our router was plugged into and that their was a terrible smell after they left. I think it was from the mastic they used to seal the ducts. I'd recommend having this work done in the spring or fall, if possible, so that you can leave the doors and windows open.

Step 5: Submit incentive requests

Energy Trust offers several rebates and all we had to do was fill out and fax in a single form (Form 300A) along with a copy of our contractor's invoice within 120 days of installation. I spoke with an Energy Trust rep yesterday who gave me the breakdown of what we will actually receive.

  • Duct insulation: $100 (50% of installation cost up to $100)
  • Attic insulation: $375 ($.25 per square foot)
  • Crawlspace insulation: $675 ($.45 per square foot)

Grand total: $1150 or about 45% of the total cost!

The check should arrive in mid-February, which works out to about 6 weeks from submission time and included a brief delay in getting our contractor to confirm that he had been (promptly) paid.

Note: We didn't apply for the duct sealing rebate because it required the expensive testing I mentioned above, but if you're interested, the incentive is $1 per CubicFeetMinute reduction (max $400).

Step 6: File for tax credits

Not surprisingly, figuring out the tax rules was one of the more complicated parts of the process. After several phones calls and visits to the IRS website, I determined that we could receive a federal tax credit for 10% of cost of materials ($140 for us) by submitting IRS Form 5695. I've added that in to the pile for our accountant to deal with.

There is an Oregon state tax credit (25 percent of the eligible cost, up to $250) available for duct sealing, also. The process is to submit an Oregon Department of Energy application form (provided by the contractor) and we then get a certificate that shows our credit amount. We claim that and just retain the certificate for audit documentation. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that the contractor had to be certified by the Oregon Department of Energy, so we won't claim this on our return.

Step 7: Monitor ongoing savings

Of course we are hoping that this project will pay off in the long run, so we're keeping an eye on the bills. I called the gas company and was able to convince them to at least tell me that the previous owners' highest bill in 2007 was $247.18 (184 gas units) in January. We just received the January 2008 bill and it was $184.27 for 129 gas units. We used almost 30% less gas than previous owners, so I hope that at least some of that was because of the insulation and not just because they ran the gas fireplace constantly or kept the thermostat at 72.

I'll have to check the electric bill in the summer also, to see how much we save on AC.

Step 8: Enjoy a cozier home
We were really hoping to make a big difference in this area, but unfortunately we still have a few cold rooms. We've since discovered that our relatively new furnace is undersized for size of the house. My only guess is that it was installed just prior to the remodel that added several hundred square feet, but I haven't confirmed that yet. We're still working on this one, so if you want to read a REALLY happy ending, let me refer you to Clark Howard's write-up of his weatherization project.

The final test is for me to ask myself "Am I glad I went through this process?" I would say yes, with the caveat that anyone else considering it should be willing to put in a fair bit of effort and really run the numbers to determine which weatherization measures make the most sense for their individual situation.

Hopefully this post will help you through the process.

1 comment:

batticdoor said...

How To Reduce Your Heating Bills This Winter / Energy Conservation Begins at Home

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

These often overlooked sources of heat loss and air leakage can cause heat to pour out and the cold outside air to rush in -- costing you higher heating bills.

Air leaks are the largest source of heating and cooling loss in the home. Air leaks occur through the small cracks around doors, windows, pipes, etc. Most homeowners are well aware of the benefits caulk and weatherstripping provide to minimize heat loss and cold drafts.

But what can you do about the four largest “holes” in your home -- the folding attic stair, the whole house fan or AC return, 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 door. Try this yourself: at night, turn on the attic light and shut the attic stairway door -- do you see any light coming through? These are gaps add up to a large opening where your heated/cooled air leaks out 24 hours a day. This is like leaving a window open all year round.

An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add an attic stair cover. An attic stair cover provides an air seal, reducing the air leaks. Add the desired amount of insulation over the cover to restore the insulation removed from the ceiling.

Whole House Fans and AC Returns

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 leaky ceiling shutter between the house and the outdoors.

An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a whole house fan cover. Installed from the attic side, the whole house fan cover is invisible. Cover the fan to reduce heating and air-conditioning loss, remove it when use of the fan is desired.

If attic access is inconvenient, or for AC returns, a ceiling shutter cover is another option for reducing heat loss through the ceiling shutter and AC return. Made from R-8, textured, thin, white flexible insulation, and installed from the house side over the ceiling shutter with Velcro, a whole house fan shutter cover is easily installed and removed.

Fireplaces

Sixty-five percent, or approximately 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 home-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 air leakage and wasted energy caused by fireplaces.

Why does a home with a fireplace have higher heating bills? Hot air rises. Your heated air leaks out any exit it can find, and when warm heated air is drawn out of your home, cold outside air is drawn in to make up for it. The fireplace is like a giant straw sucking the heated air from your house.

An easy, low-cost solution to this problem is to add a fireplace draftstopper. Available from Battic Door, a company known for their energy conservation products, a fireplace draftstopper is an inflatable pillow that seals the damper, eliminating any air leaks. 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 air leaks in through the duct, through your dryer and into your house.

Dryer vents use a sheet-metal flapper to try to reduce this air leakage. This is very primitive technology that does not provide a positive seal to stop the air leakage. 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 air infiltration, and keep out pests, bees and rodents as well. 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.

If your home has a folding attic stair, a whole house fan, an AC return, a fireplace, and/or a clothes dryer, you can easily, quickly and inexpensively seal and insulate these holes.

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, an attic access door, and is the U.S. distributor of the fireplace draftstopper. To learn more visit www.batticdoor.com