Even New Homes Can Have Energy Problems

Before Photo- When we started the retrofit, we found a 1' drop ceiling under this insulation. None of the insulation was in contact with the ceiling here.

Over the winter we received a call from a home owner that was having heating and cooling issues in a 5 year old home in the Beaumont area. He complained that the house did not heat nor cool evenly and it was costing him close to $200 per month in the summer to air condition his home. He had already replaced the compressor on his unit and was at his wits end.

So, I tested his system and discovered that his system had some ducting issues that was causing it to perform well below its capacity of 4 tons of cooling ( on a house that is 2200 square feet). We came to an agreement that we would change out his ducting to fix the problems.

Back to the office I went with a drawing of the house in hand. We put it into our engineering software and found out that the house only required 2.5 tons of cooling. Now my dilemma was that if we fixed the ducting he would be oversized  and the system would short-cycle, leading to higher bills and less comfort.

So I headed back to the homeowner to tell him of this problem without trying to sound like I am switch pitching or upselling him. Thankfully, he trusted me and we embarked on a course of swapping out the entire heating and cooling system and replacing it with a new 2.5 ton system. We also eliminated a number of duct runs in the attic that were completely unnecessary. Many of the rooms had 2-3 registers in them with the registers being placed all the way out along the wall and over the windows. This means the air is spending a longer time in ducts that are in a super hot attic. The Energy Star.gov website has suggestions to shorten duct runs for this very purpose. We were able to properly size the necessary ducts and eliminate the unnecessary ones to provide enough air to cool each room.

Everything seemed to be going great with our new design until I received a call from him that his master bedroom just wasn’t cooling as well as the rest of the house, which was “perfect”.

It was upon this visit to the house that I found this badge attached to a wall in the garage I’ve intentionally blocked out the builder’s name on this, because this post is really an indictment on them for allowing poor building practices to take place in their development.

I jumped into the attic and started poking around at insulation. I had my suspicions when I was up there earlier in the season about how poorly the insulation was installed, but at first glance it looked like many of the attics I am in. The comfort issues the homeowner was having lead me to inspect further. When I did I discover that although the insulation looked level throughout, the house is full of drop ceilings and interstitial spaces (huge cavities in the wall)  that weren’t properly insulated. If they were, I would have noticed differing levels in the attic. Here are some pictures.

The most alarming thing about all of this mess, was that this homeowner thought he bought a home that was energy efficient. We found more than what is shown here but much of it didn’t photograph well enough to document.

Bear in mind, with the HVAC retrofit that we had done in the winter, the homeowner had already seen a reduction in electricity bills. He said his most recent one was $90 verses $190 last year. So he was happy about the current energy savings. We just set out to address his comfort issue in the bedroom.

After I reported to him what I found in the attic, he asked us to come back and air seal, retrofit what he had currently so that it was done right and add more insulation. We did so. We air sealed everywhere in the attic. We made sure that all of the existing rolled batt insulation was cut to size and touched 5 sides of the bays. We retrofitted the knee walls so that they would perform correctly and our final step was to blow in 6 more inches of blown in cellulose insulation over everything (an additional R-19+ to the existing). The attic now is performing at R-38+ and the house is much more comfortable. The homeowners bills will come down even more and, as importantly, he will be comfortable in all rooms of his home.

People often tell me that they have huge electric bills in newer homes. It shouldn’t be that way but because of poor building practices in homes that are much larger than homes in the past with many more architectural features built throughout, it is more often true, than not. So don’t accept high bills as a necessary part of living in a larger, newer home. It doesn’t have to be that way.


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Infrared Photos From Yesterday’s Energy Audit

Air leaking through a switchplate

Yesterday we ran down the road to Mission Viejo to do an energy audit. It was a beautiful spring day in Orange County, which meant that there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the outdoor temperature and the indoor temperature of this couple’s beautiful home. We were a little concerned that the thermal imaging camera that we use would not get the best pictures because of this small temperature differential. Thankfully, that worry was all for naught. We got some very good photos of problems in this house. These are fairly typical in the houses that we see.

You can see where the insulation has been compromised around this switch plate. The house was negatively pressurized for this photo allowing you to see air move from the wall to the room. Read More


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How to Choose a Company to Do a Home Energy Audit

Blower Door Used for Home Energy Audit

I stumbled upon this great post by Allison Bailes about how to choose a company to do a home energy audit. She lists out all of the tasks a home audit must include and also some options. Our energy audits include not only all of the requisite tasks but most of the optional ones as well.

Posted by Allison Bailes on Mon, May 02, 2011

My two sisters-in-law have been in town the past few days, and one of them needs to get an energy audit for the home she and her husband recently bought in Seattle. I gave her a recommendation for a company to do the audit (from a couple of friends who used to live there), and now she’s asking the very reasonable question, “What should I be looking for? What should they do when they come to the house?”

Even though she’s a very technically-minded person (she works on nuclear non-proliferation and carbon sequestration issues), like most people, she doesn’t know what she should expect when it comes to an assessment of her home’s energy efficiency. A good home energy audit these days will cost from a few hundred dollars to over $1000, depending on the size and complexity of the house, so homeowners of course want to know what they’re going to get for that investment.

Well, let’s dive in and take a look.

Who’s Qualified?

Although it may be hard to find someone with one of these certifications in every part of the country, you should look for a home energy auditor who’s certified as either a BPI (the Building Performance Institute) Building Analyst or a RESNET certified HERS Rater. Last year I wrote an article about these being the main certifications to look for, and it’s still the case.

What Should They Do?

  1. Combustion Safety
  2. Building Envelope
  3. HVAC
  4. Moisture Problems
  5. Detailed Report
  6. Extras

The first thing to know is that there are different levels of assessment. For simplicity, I’ll focus mainly on the comprehensive energy audit, but a seasoned home energy auditor can tell a lot just by walking through the house. The key is that it’s got to be someone who’s already done plenty of comprehensive audits and knows what to look for.

1. Combustion Safety

The motto of BPI is, “First, do no harm…to life, limb or property.” If your house has any combustion appliances in it, assessing their safety and suitability should be the first thing the energy auditor does after the initial walkthrough. Often, a home energy auditor is the only person who looks at your house as a system and can tell you if there might be problems such as backdrafting that could put carbon monoxide in your home. A good combustion safety test will include checking for spillage of natural draft combustion appliances, the content of the exhaust gases in furnaces and water heaters, and worst case depressurization of the combustion appliance zone (CAZ).

2. Building Envelope

The building envelope is the boundary between conditioned and unconditioned spaces. It has two key components: the air barrier and the insulation, which need to go completely around the house and be touching each other. The home energy auditor you choose should check all three parts of the building envelope:

  • Integrity of the air barrier
  • Adequacy of insulation levels
  • Alignment of insulation with air barrier

When insulation is installed without an air barrier, it won’t do its job. Most types of insulation do not stop air leakage, so one thing the energy auditor will do is look for proper alignment of insulation and air barrier throughout the house.

The energy auditor will also look for proper levels of insulation (wherever visible) and check for the existence of insulation behind walls. They’ll check the integrity of the air barrier in two ways: a visual inspection and a Blower Door test. The former tells where the big air leaks are, and the latter quantifies the total amount of air leakage in the house. The auditor can use the Blower Door as a diagnostic tool to locate air leaks, too.

3. HVAC

Most homes use more energy for heating and cooling than for anything else, so assessing how well the heating and cooling systems are doing is vital. One thing that a home energy auditor will do that your HVAC contractor may not, though, is look at the quality of the distribution system. It’s one thing to heat or cool the air with high efficiency equipment, but if you put that high SEER air conditioner or high efficiency furnace on a crappy duct system, the money spent on the equipment is wasted.

The energy auditor should look at both the equipment and the distribution system. If it’s a forced air distribution system, they probably will also measure the amount of duct leakage in each system, especially is the ducts are outside the building envelope. Unless the auditor is also an HVAC technician, they probably won’t give you a full assessment of the equipment, but they can tell you, based on the age of the equipment, how soon you might need to replace it.

4. Moisture Problems

There are three things that cause buildings to fail more often than anything else:

  • rain
  • moisture
  • condensation

In other words, it’s water. Energy auditors often look for moisture problems in your home and will help find the source so you can eliminate the problem. Most of the moisture problems originate from drainage issues on the outside of the house and should be solved on the outside (e.g., by fixing gutters that dump water at the foundation). Vented crawl spaces are a category unto themselves, and the good news is that we know how to fix them now.

5. Detailed Report

Once the home energy auditor has finished with the onsite assessment of the house, which generally takes three to six hours, they’ll write up a report for the homeowners. Some companies have their templates set up and portable printers in their trucks and can deliver the report before they ever leave your house. Most, I believe, will do the report back at their office and then schedule an appointment to deliver it.

The report should cover all the items above (if applicable). It should give the results of the inspections and testing and put them in perspective by comparing what the auditor found in your house to what’s required by code (in the case of insulation mainly). In the case of infiltration and duct leakage, the comparison is usually to a scale showing what’s good and what’s bad. With the former, they may also tell you what size hole you have in your house.

Finally, with a good home energy audit report, you should get a scope of work that prioritizes the improvements you could make based on their cost effectiveness. Air sealing and duct sealing are usually at the top of the list of energy improvements, though combustion safety issues trump energy efficiency.

The report may also list any rebates and tax incentives that you can qualify for by improving the energy efficiency of your home. These vary by location, and not every home energy auditor can qualify you for every rebate. For example, Georgia Power has a generous rebate program, but you have to use one of the approved assessment contractors to qualify for them. To find out what’s available in your area, you can check the DSIRE or Tax Incentive Assistance Project websites.

6. Extras

Some other items that your home energy audit may include are a look at your home’s:

  • Thermal imaging with an infrared camera
  • Water efficiency
  • Lights and appliances
  • Dryer vent
  • Energy bills
  • Financing options

Some companies include thermal imaging with all or most of their audits, and some don’t. It gives a good auditor another way to look at a house and find some things that they might otherwise miss. It requires adequate training to get meaningful results and can be abused, but it’s another tool that can really help.

Some energy audit companies will check the flow rates of your faucets, toilets, and shower heads and make recommendations for improvement. Some check your lights and appliances and can even measure energy use of items like refrigerators with devices like the Kill-A-Watt or the WattsUp. I wrote about the dangers of underperforming dryer vents a while back and gave somerecommendations for improvement there. Some energy auditors will check that as well.

When I was doing energy audits (or home performance assessments, as I called them), I included an analysis of the homeowners’ energy bills. If they could give me 12 months of their bills, I could plug it into a spreadsheet I’d put together and calculate their energy intensity, the energy use per square foot of conditioned floor area per year.

If your intention is to use a home energy audit as a guide to improving your home, then hiring an auditor who can help you with financing options could be a big plus, too. Perhaps the best one available, in my opinion, is the Energy Efficient Mortgage, which you can use either for a purchase or a refinance.

Choosing a Home Energy Auditor

So there you have it. You can use the above information as a guide to choosing a home energy auditor and making sure you get the most bang for your buck. As with any other contractors you bring into your home, you should also ask for references and check them. I’m sure the comments below will have even more good advice.

Two things to be wary of are the ‘free energy audit’ (usually offered by companies who just want to get into your house to sell you their product or service) and the yahoo who bought an infrared camera and thinks it can find everything. Use the guidelines above to choose a home energy auditor, and you’ll get a much better audit.

 

Thanks Allison for he great post.

Contact us if you would like more information on an audit for your home or to schedule an audit.

 


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Exactly What Is An Energy Audit

home-energy-audit

I found this HGTV video this morning that shows many of the tasks we do when we do an energy audit on a house. Our audits are a bit more extensive than the one shown in the video, but this gives you a great idea of what we’ll be doing.

The audits we perform also delve into water usage. In many parts of the country water is not very expensive and is abundant, however, here in the Inland Empire, water is going up in cost every year ( I got my bill with notice of my rate increase yesterday).

Watch this and shoot us a message or a call to schedule your audit today.– Chris

 


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What Is Air Sealing? And Where Should I Do It First?

Air Sealing Photo

Here is what the U.S. Department of Energy says on their website-

Air sealing is one of the most significant energy efficiency improvements you can make to your home. Air sealing will not just reduce energy costs; it will also improve your home’s comfort and durability.”

Simply put, air sealing disconnects your living space from the outside world. When air sealing is properly done, the house must have .35 air changes per hour to ensure that there is an appropriate amount of fresh air in the house. Stated in another manner, the entire volume of air in the house needs to be changed every three hours.

This can occur from natural leaks, such as those around doors and windows, or mechanically through exhaust fans and ventilation devices, but it is very important that it is minimized and comes from a place that we would like it to come from. Would you like the air leak to come from the attic into your house? Most attics aren’t the nicest places to hang out in ( I know, I spend a lot of time in them on a weekly basis and there isn’t one that I’ve found that I’d take my family to for a picnic). But many times, the fact is, air is sucked into the house through insulation and into your living space. So sealing that off not only makes sense from an energy savings standpoint, but also from a health standpoint.

Experts agree that air sealing should take place at the highest level of the house first. After all, hot air rises and creates pressure to escape the house. When it does, it must be replaced by new air, so it will typically suck in air from the low spots of your house. So, if you could seal the high areas so that the air has no path of escape, it will not need to suck in new air to replace its volume.

Think about your refrigerator. It would be easy to keep it at 75 degrees, simply because it is made for that purpose. It is air tight and well insulated. Our houses, here in California are built less like refrigerators and more like cardboard boxes. They leak like crazy. Air sealing is an effort to make your house more resemble the refrigerator in your kitchen. When we air seal your house, the hot air will still rise, however, it will have no where to go. But it gets better, more hot air is being created and rising in your house. As it rises, it pushes the air at the top back down. This is called a convective loop. It is a natural draft loop in your house of hot air rising and falling ( with a leaky house it just keeps rising).

So, with a properly sealed and insulated house you can say good bye to that 5-10 degree temperature difference commonly found in 2 story California homes. How many people have to keep their lower levels unreasonably cold in order to have the upstairs be tolerable? And how much more energy does that use? This can be solved with air sealing and insulation ( for reasons described above, adding insulation alone will not solve the problem, as insulation IS NOT an air barrier).

So, air sealing is important. Air seal the high levels first. Next air seal the lowest levels of the house, this is especially important if your house is built on a crawl space. Finally, insulate at the door and window levels of the house. But, if I could only choose one place to air seal, I’d seal high.

This is one of the most effective ways to create an energy efficient home.


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