On January 20 2009, we entered a new era with Barack Obama’s inauguration. It is the “Energy-Climate Era”, according to Thomas Friedman’s new book in Hot, Flat and Crowded. As the population of the globe grows and aspires to an American lifestyle, the demand for fossil fuels and raw materials grows beyond our ability to supply them. This leads to the “hot” in the title. Climate change is upon us with little controversy any more. The combination means that our housing stock in the US is woefully unprepared to meet the inevitable price increases for energy and the burden on tight budgets that utility costs represent.
There are approximately 112 million single family homes in the US according to the census bureau. Less than 1% are sufficiently insulated to meet the coming challenges. This is a vast opportunity for the remodeling industry. As economic changes have shrunk the conventional market, those same economic forces are creating a demand for contractors who know how to analyze a house’s energy use, understand where the problems lie, how to prioritize the upgrades and accomplish the goals for the homeowner.
There are many elements to this process. The first step is to get an energy audit on the house. Often local utilities will have a referral service to building professionals who perform a blower door test to find out where the cold air is leaking into the house. This is a way to know where to caulk and weather strip around the house. If the test is done on a cold day they may use an infrared camera to look at the insulation behind the walls. With the camera, you can see in bright colors where the house is sufficiently insulated and where there may be voids or where settling has occurred. This tool will help you to know where you need more insulation. Typically no attic in America has sufficient attic insulation to meet future conditions.
A blower door test helps determine how tight the ductwork is. Most ductwork in existing houses is either not sealed at all, or was sealed with duct tape. Tape dries out after a few years and doesn’t do its job any more. Leaky ductwork can have two major impacts: First, heat isn’t getting to where it needs to be and instead, is leaking into the walls and floors before it gets to the bedroom. This means you turn up the thermostat and spend more money in heating bills.
The second is that depending on where the leak is it can cause back drafting. Back drafting means that when negative pressure is created in the house and to make up that lost air, flue gasses are pulled down the furnace or water heater flues. These gasses contain carbon monoxide that can be lethal. Tight ducts will help eliminate these problems.
The furnace should also be tested to make sure that it is operating up to its listed efficiency. In gas forced air furnaces sometimes the furnace operates at too high a temperature and the excess heat is lost up the chimney. Sometimes it is not sufficiently tuned and unburned hydrocarbons can leak into the furnace room or basement.
Blower Door Report
This is a report with lots of numbers and fine print. As a homeowner it might as well be in Greek. I know many smart people who have received such a report and had no idea what it meant. Often a remodeling contractor will be just as lost. The trade contractors look at these reports and say to themselves “this is a great opportunity for a higher priced product”. Take the time to talk to your tester to understand what is included in your report. It is important to understand the results of your test.
The art and science of this process is to know how to prioritize what to do first. As a contractor you need to really understand how building work, what are the thermodynamics at play (convection, conduction and radiation) and how to address each of these. In most homes, air leakage creates the most discomfort. We call that drafts or cold feet. It is a good place to start, tightening up the house.
Insulation comes next. Do as much as you can, starting from the attic down and the first floor up. Both of these areas are typically exposed and accessible. Think of it as putting a hat and warm socks on in the winter. Installing more insulation will often pay for itself in a season or two. If there is little or no insulation there already, it may pay for itself the first winter.
Beyond these initial steps it is useful to find a contractor who can help determine whether your windows need attention or replacement or whether insulation can safely be blown into your walls without creating mold problems down the road. Sometimes your furnace or water heater need upgrades or replacement. By carefully analyzing your homes weak spots, It is possible to reduce your home heating and cooling bills by 20% or more.
- David Johnston