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How to get the most bang for your state mandated energy efficiency home improvement?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/15/11 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Home efficiency

"If you do all of the air sealing you can before insulating your house, maybe you can stop living in an igloo," Sean, the helpful home energy rater from GoodCents said during our whole home audit last week.

Sean was walking through our house with an infrared camera as a giant fan in a canvas frame fitted around our front door sucked air out of our colonial built in 1920, an era when energy efficiency, insulation and high fuel prices were unheard of. This is a 'blower door' test which produces 50 Pascals of negative pressure. In tandem with a handheld infrared camera where orange and red show the warm spots and blue, the cold, the blower door test basically accelerates where cold air is seeping in and warm air is leaking out.

It was a real eye opener. Sean swept the infrared camera along our baseboards and explained the trail of blue was from a lack of air sealing – basically we need caulk, and lots of it to seal up gaps everywhere. It is amazing how many holes need to be plugged – from outlets to where the fireplace mantle meets the wall to the 'rim joist' (where the house sits on the foundation), even the laundry shoot was like a giant chimney (in fact, it was worse than our actual chimney which at least has a new damper to slow the jetty of air).

Thankfully, we learned that GoodCents, through the state's energy efficiency mandate, is working with Dominion East Ohio to offer these home energy evaluations for $50 – normally, Sean would charge $400. And you can get the $50 back if you follow at least some of the recommendations to reduce air leakage. Frankly, why wouldn't you? After seeing the blower door and infrared camera, I'm convinced that if we don't act, if we don't get serious about plugging the leaks with caulk and slowing the transfer of air with insulation, we're throwing our son's college education money out the window.

Speaking of windows, boy did we get a lesson on where the real money should go – and it is not new windows. Before we started the test, we were anxious to get a direct comparison between two new double-paned low-e windows that we replaced in the nursery with our old windows. Sean showed us on the camera how both old and new are equally leaky. It nearly knocked us over, because we had spent $1,200 per window (we did have other reasons like removing Lead paint from the equation, but still...)

"I've had customers who spent $20,000 replacing all of the windows in their home, and didn't see their heating bill do down," Sean said. "They were livid."

Here are Sean's top recommendations for our house.

  1. Seal it tight (or tighter). The green building retrofit mantra goes "Seal it tight and ventilate it right." We could caulk until the cows come home and still not run into that issue. In fact, Sean let us know exactly how much air we're losing: 5,735 cubic feet per minute. The ideal is 1,904 cfm, he said. In other words, we have a complete, 100% exchange of air every hour. The ASHRAE standard is 35% air exchange per hour, and the Passive House standard is 0.6, which staggers the mind). He recommended that we start by plugging up as many of those blue leaks as possible. I could feel my shoulders sinking: With a 17-month-old at home, when do I start a big caulking project? More likely, we decide to take Dominion up on its offer: they will reimburse for 100% of the labor (at $40/hr) for air sealing work with no maximum. The big question we must consider is whether to dip into our savings to pay for the work up front – we're leaning toward it. Although, I can understand why this is a stopping point for most people. All told, we could have to budget up to three thousand for air sealing the house plus insulating the attic and at least five thousand dollars if we include whole house insulation. I understand why a panel at Levin College for the 2019 Year of Energy Efficiency revealed that a paltry 4% of households follow through on the needed weatherization work after an audit. It's hard for most of us middle incomers to shell out thousands of dollars, even with partial reimbursement, and a payback on energy bills that could be under 10 years. We're faced with a real world situation: We could wait for government policy like PACE to get worked out. We could wait for the Northeast Ohio Energy Alliance to cement an agreement with a utility where we could pay for the improvements with on-bill financing. Or we can take the plunge with our savings account and hope to get most of it back through this state mandated energy efficiency program.
  2. How much will it save us? After plugging leaks, the next big area of concern is our attic. We have a partially finished unheated space that is the main culprit for air loss. Sean recommends we seal the gaps and blow in dense pack insulation under the floor, to slow the warm air rising from the second floor living space. He says with 16 inches of insulation, we could raise the "R" value of the space from its current 3 to 15-20. Ideally, we should shoot for an R-49, he said, but it's unlikely we'll ever achieve that, even if we spend thousands of dollars and sacrifice the crawl space, filling it all in with insulation, build out another layer of insulation and drywall on the ceiling, insulate the doors to the crawl space and replace the DIY type of windows. We might get to an R-39, he said. An extreme attic makeover would cost thousands to get to an R-49, which by his calculation would save us around $400 a year and reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by a few thousand pounds. We're leaning toward the low hanging fruit: air sealing all of the gaps and insulating about 900 square feet of floor (at a rough $1-2 a sq. ft.).
  3. Second in importance after the attic is wall insulation. Since we have no insulation in the walls, we can expect blow-in to raise our R value from 3 to 11 which would give us the largest reduction in natural gas use, shaving off 78 MCFs a year or around $800. Dominion offers 30 cents per square foot rebates on dense pack blow in (so if we spend $1 sq. ft, we could expect 30% back). A word on the rebates: if you decide to go the DIY route, Dominion only offers $100 for air sealing (to pay for the caulk and expanding foam sealers) and $30 to insulate your attic. The cost for a replacement window is the same for DIY or professional install: $5 per window (at least the incentives follow the logic of the data provided by the energy audit).
  4. The third area we were told to prioritize in our home energy audit was sealing and insulating our basement. Sean told us that shoving fiberglass bats in between the floor boards and the basement ceiling "do nothing" to stop air flow. He recommends cutting boards of rigid insulation to cover the gap at the top of the basement wall and sealing it in place with expanding foam. He also recommended that we wrap all of the pipes from the hot water boiler since we're losing a lot of energy as they run through a cool basement. We decide that we'll hire the insulation company to do the former, but that we can handle that latter with a trip to the hardware store.

Stay tuned as we dive into getting quotes for sealing and insulation work and parse through decisions with a limited budget. A final word before calling GoodCents, you must get the energy audit, follow at least some of their recommended retrofits, and then have the auditors return after the work is done to do a second test to confirm that energy efficiency has been achieved before you can get your rebate check.

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