I Need an Energy Audit, Stat!

To Lower Bills, a Home Efficiency Exam Is Just What the Doctor Ordered

A picture taken during the author's audit shows a hole under the powder room sink.
A picture taken during the author's audit shows a hole under the powder room sink. (By Scott Atkinson)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009; Page H01

The day of my energy audit dawned cold and windy, the perfect weather to expose the flaws in my drafty 1937 brick Colonial and its lovely but leaky original windows.

The doorbell rang, and there stood certified energy audit field technician Scott Atkinson, dressed in white with surgical booties over his shoes. He gave me a tote bag of brochures on saving energy as well as a guide to fishing regulations in the District. I had never received a goodie bag from the city. This was going to be exciting.

As D.C. homeowners, my husband and I are eligible for a free energy audit administered by the District Department of the Environment's Home Energy Rating System program (value: about $300). Boy, did we need it. We were tired of layering fleece clothing and pulling on extra blankets. My husband claims I'm always willing to spend on stylish home improvements, but boring maintenance falls to the bottom of the list. Because our house is just 1,600 square feet, we could justify our lack of action by the fact that our utility bills are never enormous.

We were well aware that our three-bedroom house in the Chevy Chase neighborhood needs solutions for reducing energy use, improving comfort and lowering costs. Just as before a physical, I was nervous about the long list of flaws that would emerge in this probing house exam. After the audit (most take two or three hours), I was shocked at how little I knew about my own home, where most problems centered on the basement and the attic.

These audits help homeowners identify energy losses and offer ideas to correct them. The District has offered free audits for about five years through independent auditors, and 1,400 were done last year. Inspectors occasionally turn up potentially hazardous conditions, such as carbon monoxide leaks and asbestos insulation. The program is financed by a surcharge on D.C. Pepco bills. The city's Department of the Environment even has a Facebook fan page, of which I am now a member.

My case was assigned to PEG, an environmental services company in Dunkirk and one of several firms the District retains for audits. The morning of mine, I did a little preparation, locking up my cat, turning down the heat and screwing in a few more CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs).

Atkinson explained that he would inspect and take photos of the entire house from the basement to the attic. I signed forms allowing my utility bills to be available to the District for analysis. It was sort of like being prepped by a nurse before surgery.

We went down to my unfinished basement for the first bit of bad news: The five-year-old furnace was not very efficient. It had a rating of 80 AFUE (annual fuel utilization efficiency); the best furnaces are rated 92 or higher. Atkinson deduced by the furnace's cleanliness that we schedule twice-annual visits from our heating and cooling contractor. He also complimented my clean pleated furnace filter. (Okay, so I had replaced it a few days before.)

Next stop: my 2003 water heater, also inefficient. Said Atkinson: "This runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Keep it at the lowest temperature you can." It was set at 140 degrees; we turned it to 130. He recommended we buy an oh-so-stylish puffy water heater insulation blanket.

Then it got ugly. Atkinson pulled out his flashlight and exposed chunks missing from the foundation: holes from the main electric line, sewer line and condensation drain. He recommended silicone-based caulk and "foam in a can," something like Great Stuff by Dow Chemical. He suggested a door sweep for the basement door and ceiling insulation. I felt proud that I had a programmable thermostat and that my front-loading washer and dryer sported Energy Star labels, indicating they use 10 to 50 percent less energy and water than standard models.

At this point, I was relieved that there had been no finger-pointing at my ancient wood windows. I could take less-expensive steps than the dreaded window replacement option to save energy and money. Upstairs, I got the next piece of lousy news: The kitchen appliances were not Energy Star models. After measuring all the windows, it was on to the attic. My attic fan's thermostat was set at 70 degrees; we reset it to 80 so it would be ready for next summer. Then he dropped the bomb: "You only have seven inches of insulation in here," he said, adding that houses today are built with 12 to 15 inches. There was space to add only three inches, but it would be well worth it.

Now it was time for the blower door test, which sucks air out of the house to expose leaks. Atkinson attached a red canvas frame with a round hole to my open front doorway. It looked as though we were under quarantine. A fan attached to the hole and various devices to measure airflow were hooked up. My cat was howling.

When the machine got going, it felt weird, and it was very noisy. Atkinson carried a small bottle of smoke around to see where the smoke blew. He found leakage from the back door, the Comcast cable hole, around under-sink plumbing, above baseboard trim, even from light switches. Not good.

The audit was over, and I was depressed. It was only then that I found out Atkinson has a degree in criminal justice, though he has been a home energy consultant for six years. Did he think I was a criminal? Atkinson reassured me before he left: "Your house isn't as leaky as I've seen."

Atkinson's 14-page report soon arrived. We were graded "Requires Improvement" on three areas and "Acceptable" on three. He estimated air sealing would cost $150 in caulk and save us $300 on our annual energy bills; spending $12,000 on new windows would save $600 a year. It was time to change our energy-frittering ways. Filling holes would have to become a weekend activity.

I asked my husband whether he had ever done any caulking. "On a boat," he said. When I called my mother that night, she was skeptical about the work ahead of us. "Your husband is more for cooking than for caulking." The same is true of her. And me. I'm thinking of calling Atkinson and asking how much he would charge per hour.

Common Home Energy Problems and Solutions

An energy audit is a positive step toward making your home run more efficiently. If you follow the auditor's advice, you can waste less energy and save money on utility bills.

We asked Matthew Cooper, president of PEG, one of the energy audit firms contracted by the District, to list five of the most common problems encountered by his auditors and how to fix them.

1. Air leaks occurring around the house through electrical outlets; plumbing, heating and cooling pipes; and wall cavities. Solution: sealing or caulking.

2. Leaky windows or doors. Solution: sealing or weatherstripping.

3. Improper maintenance of furnaces, boilers and water heaters. Solution: Maintain according to manufacturer's instructions and have them routinely serviced by a professional.

4. Lack of adequate attic insulation. Solution: Install batt or precut insulation or have insulation blown in by a professional.

5. Air leakage from the attic access door. Solution: Have the door properly fitted and insulated.

Jura Koncius

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