Let an energy auditor loose in your house and stand by for quick, thrifty advice

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Our home was thoroughly weatherized, or so we thought. But when we heard about the federally mandated home-energy-audit program -- and especially with the cost less than $15 -- we decided to find out just how tight the house was.

Through our electric utility, we set up an appointment for an auditor to come to the house.

Fine, so far, we reasoned. Told to have our fuel bills on hand, we combed through our records. All the records were in dollars spent, however, not gallons of oil and kilowatt-hours consumed, so we asked for a monthly breakdown of usage.

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That was a benefit, we found out. We could see that although our bills kept on increasing, the wood stove had actually cut oil consumption in half, even though our use of electricity was distressingly high.

The audit took three hours and was split into four parts: (1) interview, (2) examination, (3) calculation, and (4) recommendation.

We looked at the fuel oil and electricity figures together and talked about our family life style.

The house examination began in the basement with a thorough inspection of the heating system, including the smoke reading, percentage of carbon dioxide, net stack temperature, and combustion efficiency. The auditor discovered that the efficiency of the oil burner had dropped 10 percent since its midsummer tuneup.

We learned also that we could install a flame-retention device at very low cost, which would further increase the burner's energy efficiency.

The auditor pointed out that the heating pipes had been insulated with asbestos, which was beginning to deteriorate, and showed us how to wrap the pipes with an elastomeric covering to prevent any health hazard.

Although the hot-water heater was new and had interior insulation, the addition of an outside insulation jacket was an inexpensive way to reduce heat loss even further.For the same reason he strongly advised us to insulate the hot-water pipes as well.

The next step in the house examination was to look at all the places where warm air could escape. The energy auditor looked at crawl spaces, door, windows , walls, and the attic. Throughout the process, he pointed out areas where our home was losing heat unnecessarily and described methods and materials to remedy the problem.

We talked about renewable energy resources. While we took advantage of passive solar heat, we had not seriously considered an active solar-energy system to heat out water.

The energy auditor said that this would reduce the kilowatt-hour usage considerably. We learned that information on wind-energy systems was also available through the audit program.

When the physical survey of the house was completed, the auditor prepared a written report. That was the time when the computer terminal came into use. Through a telephone hookup he ran a series of calculations based on the measurements and characteristics of the house (size, orientation, type of construction, number of residents, and general life style).

The final report was in our hands before the energy auditor left.

We received a packet of materials that was extremely detailed and tailored specifically to our house.

First, we received the summary of the analysis of the house and the calculation of what our energy bills would be with no conservation measures.

There followed a description of those things we could de to better maintain and increase the efficiency of our existing systems. For example, when we had caulked and weatherstripped the house we had considered only the doors and windows.

Second, through the home-energy audit we learned that as much as 80 percent infiltration can occur through other areas, such as where the wooden sill of the house meets the foundation; where clothes-dryer vents and fan covers pass through the wall; holes where plumbing pipes and telephone wires enter the house; electric wall outlets; and any other place where differing outside materials meet.

Third, recommended energy-conserving changes were listed. For each recommendation the approximate costs and estimated first-year saving and the payback period were given.

The cost were shown for do-it-yourself as well as professional installation. We now are seriously considering a solar-hot-water system. The report showed that with tax credits, having it professionally installed would pay for itself in two years at today's cost of electricity.

Both the auditor and the report outlined state and federal income-tax credits. A federal credit of 15 percent, up to a maximum of $300 on the first $ 2,000, is allowed on energy-conserving expenses. An additional credit of 40 percent on the installed cost of certain measures for renewable-energy resources is allowed, up to a maximum of $4,000. Then, many states gives a tax-saving be nefit for such action as well.

Do we think the audit was worthwhile? Are you kidding?

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