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Too Hot, Too Cold: Home Owners Warm to Energy Audits

Carol Hazard, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
December 5, 2010
Dec. 05—Jamie Cox was prepared to spend at least $2,500 to replace all 14 windows in the 76-year-old brick house where he lives with his wife, Cory, in South Richmond.
And that’s if he did all the work himself.
The upstairs In the two-story house, the upstairs, where their bedroom is, was a sauna during the summer and 10 degrees hotter than the first floor during the rest of the year.
“It’s a charming, cute house, but it’s old,” Cox said. “We accepted the fact that our energy bills would be atrocious.”
They disliked the discomfort even more that than the bills.
They brought in John Jennings, a home inspector and energy auditor, this fall to confirm their suspicions. “I thought replacement windows would do the trick,” Cox said.
The audit showed that the problem wasn’t windows. Rather, dormers under the roof eaves were not sealed or insulated.
Energy audits aren’t new, but they are gaining in popularity as people seek to save money on rising energy costs, use less energy, and take advantage of federal tax credits for making houses more energy efficient. Most credits expire Dec. 31. Changing the windows to double panes would insulate better than the old single-pane windows. But the difference would be negligible, Jennings said.
“I was relieved when John did the assessment,” Cox said.
Cox spent $300 on the audit and about $100 at a home improvement store on insulation, weather stripping, and an expansive spray foam to fill in cracks. He did the job in two evenings after work.
“It has made a profound difference. I never would have thought about the dormers. I’m glad I didn’t spend a lot of money on something that wasn’t a problem.”
Jennings, a partner of Pro Energy Consultants in Richmond, said people are often surprised at the results of an energy audit.
An audit identifies and measures air leaks and failed or missing insulation. The process takes two to three hours and generally costs $300 to $400.
An electronic blower is installed in an exterior door to pull air out of the house. An infrared camera is used to show air leaks.
Customers are given a report of the findings and recommendations for fixing problems.
In general, people would hire an auditor if their rooms were too hot, too cold or drafty; if their energy bills were excessive; or if their houses were too dusty, Jennings said.
Home heating and ventilation systems should be cleaned and serviced yearly, he said.
Jennings warned that people should hire energy auditors who diagnose problems as objective parties, not people who claim to do audits but are really in business to sell windows or furnaces.
B.J. Kocen and his wife, Jennifer Glave, live in a house similar to the Coxes’, in the Bellevue neighborhood in North Richmond. An addition is hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
Kocen learned during an energy audit that the ductwork in the addition isn’t properly sealed or insulated, and recessed lights in the room are leaking air.
“I learned a lot about my house,” Kocen said.
The attic fan that he likes so much in the kitchen was in essence a hole into the attic, sucking out air.
Cold air poured in under the kitchen cabinets—the result of no insulation under the house. Cold air also streamed into the house through receptacles and holes in walls where pictures once hung.
“I want to be comfortable in my house,” Kocen said. “I’m also concerned about being green and using less energy. What I hope to find are easy solutions that won’t break my budget.”
The solutions: Buy insulated covers for the attic fan and pull-down steps up to the attic, and go under the house to seal air and install put up insulation.
“Most houses can be retrofitted to be more energy efficient, but until recently, consumers haven’t been that energy conscious,” said Guy DuBois, an auditor with Commonwealth Building Sciences, an energy consulting business in Richmond.
“People are becoming more conscientious about energy and concerned about wasting energy in the houses where we live and the businesses where we work,” DuBois said.
He warned that putting up insulation without sealing cracks can cause moisture problems. “It’s vital before you do insulation that the area is air-sealed.”
The most common mistake people make is replacing windows, DuBois said.
“Replace them if your windows are deteriorating and falling out, but otherwise your dollars can be spent more wisely on air-sealing.”
Utility companies in some areas parts of the country will pay for all or part of energy audits. Dominion Virginia Power offered audits to customers who donated $50 to the utility’s Energy Share program, which helps pay energy bills for low-income people.
The audit program, which is no longer available, raised $3,185, and Dominion Virginia Power had 49 home energy reviews requested during the six-week campaign.
Consumers in general are thinking about ways to save energy and taking steps.
People in the Richmond area are waking up to the need to conserve energy, DuBois said.
“Charlottesville is more conscientious about energy conservation, but we’re getting there.”
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