Home energy audits add up to savings

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To Art McCarty it had to be "one of the best investments a homeowner can make." For just $10 he had received the sort of detailed information that would save him hundreds of dollars in the months ahead and who knows how many thousands over the years.

To Joe Mitchell, who had just completed a two-hour, cellar-to-attic energy audit on the 170-year McCarty home, pointing up the energy leaks and other energy-waste spots, the savings accruing to individual homeowners add up to most impressive energy savings for the state and almost incredible savings for the nation as a whole.

As someone once put it, the US could be the Saudi Arabia of energy savings in this world. But to get there, says Mr. Mitchell, every home, office building, and factory needs an energy audit if it was erected before tight construction and thick insulation became the very recent norm.

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According to researchers at Princeton University, a nationwide auditing program on America's 70 million homes, if followed up, could cut home-heating demands in half and save the equivalent of two-thirds of our current Arab oil imports. Think what that would do to extend world oil supplies and curb rising prices? The federal government is aware of all this, which is why it now is promoting home-energy audits, subsidized by the utility companies of each state.

In Massachusetts, where the largest and most comprehensive of the nation's utility- sponsored programs got under way recently, the savings in this first year are projected to total $14.5 million -- and that will come with only a modest response from homeowners.

In the relatively expensive Northeast, insulating the walls of a home will cut fuel costs, at current rates, by between $350 and $500 a year. Ceiling insulation savings can amount to between $55 in small homes to almost $500 in larger houses. Caulking and weatherstripping all doors and windows saves between $102 and $146. Insulating the hot-water heater saves between $5 and $30 ; water pipes, $15 and $50; hot-air ducts, $50 and $80.

Installing a clock thermostat that automatically turns down the central-heating system during the day and puts it back up shortly before you return home from work, can cut between $160 and 270 from the annual bill. Replacing the old oil burner with one of the newer efficient units can save between $390 and $485; new gas-furnace savings amount to between $200 and $380 at current prices.

So much for the general estimates. An audit, on the other hand, will tell you exactly what steps to take to upgrade your home, how much each of these steps will cost if (a) you do it yourself or (b) you get a contractor to do it, and how much each of these improvements will provide in annual savings at current energy costs.

Moreover, this is done right in your own home. A portable computer, tied in by telephone to the central data bank, makes this remarkably efficient service possible.

At the McCarty's home, for example, the auditor dialed a phone number, placed the receiver on the portable computer, and tapped in information on the home from its moderately efficient oil burner in the cellar to its three inches of insulation in the ceiling.

What returned moments later in printout form were nine suggestions to upgrade the energy efficiency in the home, the cost of implementing those suggestions, and the savings each year at that day's fuel rates.

In the McCarty home the potential savings are not as dramatic as they might be because the McCartys keep the central- heating thermostat set at a constant 55 degrees, upgrading the comfort in the living room with the aid of a wood stove. Under these "hardy New Englander" circumstances, then, the McCartys heated their four-bedroom home for $1,300 this past season, cordwood costs included. Under more conventional circumstances, the annual bill for oil heat would have been approximately twice that figure.

Even so, the potential savings amount to $575 a year if all the suggestions are acted on. If Mr. McCarty effects most of these improvements himself they will cost $4,537; but if a professional does the job, the figure is $9,279. Of course, federal and state tax credits for energy-saving installations effectively reduce the payback period.

Few homeowners, says Mr. Mitchell, ever act on all the suggestions at once. Many view them as a long-term project, improving the home year by year as they can afford. But all of them realize that they cannot afford notm to upgrade their house, says the energy auditor, "because fuel costs are so high and going higher every year."

Indeed, what might be a 10-year payback period now, could soon become a five-or even four-year period if energy costs continue to skyrocket.

Just how many suggestions the McCartys will tackle, or how many Mr. McCarty will do himself or hire out to a contractor, has not yet been decided. But, he does plan to have insulation blown into the currently hollow walls of his house at a cost of about $1,900. The annual saving is estimated at $111. With tax credits, however, the payback period will be 11 years, assuming oil costs remain the same. As fuel costs go up, the payback period is cut again and again.

Simply caulking and weatherstripping his windows and doors, a job Mr. McCarty can readily do himself for about $100 in materials, will save him $30 a year. He also can readily insulate the floors over the crawl space for $150 to effect another $30-a-year saving.

All these measures will improve the comfort of living in the home, Mr. Mitchell points out.

"We don't attach a dollar figure to this benefit, but it is a valid one just the same," he adds. By tightening a home in this manner, cool drafts also are eliminated, which makes cooler air temperatures much easier to tolerate.

The McCartys heat their water with oil. By installing a solar hot-water heater (the audit found that their home was suited to this installation), they would save $207 a year at current prices. The cost: $3,530 installed; $1,850 if Mr. McCarty does it himself. After tax credits the payback would be 17 years and 10 years, respectively.

The McCartys had previously installed reduced-flow shower heads, something auditors routinely suggest because of the impressive hot-water savings they effect each year.

Mr. Mitchell is careful to point out that the McCarty home was unusual . In the average home, where considerably higher temperatures are maintained, "the savings would be far more impressive and the payback periods much shorter," he stresses.

Commercial energy audits currently cost between $75 and $100. But states now are beginning to require public utilities to subsidize audits so the cost may be no more than $10 or less.

Contact the state's energ y office for information about the program in your area.

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